Monday, May 22, 2017

Great Moments in: Will Drafting


The following are some examples of strange, bizarre, unusual or just plain sloppy will drafting.

For the most part this post does not look at whether the beneficiaries or persons disentitled had rights to challenge the wills, or whether they did in fact challenge, it simply looks at the wills and effects.

What does your will provide?

In 1928, an anonymous testator left an amount of £500,000 to the British Government to assist the government in clearing its national debt. The donor attached a condition that the money could not be touched until the government could clear the debt as a whole. That £500,000 is now worth £350m, but it remains untouched. That is because the whole national debt now stands at £1.2 trillion.

Students studying the law of Succession will be familiar with a case which dealt with what the presiding judge referred to as “probably the shortest will ever known”. It also resulted in a reported decision, Thorn v Dickens [1906] WN 54.

The will made by the testator simply said “All for mother”, giving rise to a dispute between the testator’s wife and the testator’s mother as to entitlement to his estate.

Evidence was allowed to establish that the testator was in the habit of referring to his wife as “Mother”.  Mum missed out.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) made a Will in which he left his “second-best bed” to his wife Anne Hathaway, while the vast bulk of his estate went to his daughter Susanna. It has been suggested by scholars that the late addition to his will about the bed proved that he truly loved his wife and was anxious to see she would be provided for after his death. His ‘best’ bed would have stayed with the house, which was inherited by his daughter Susanna. Don’t see it myself, I would have thought that the best bed deserved to go to the woman who shared it.

German poet Heinrich “Henry” Heine, who was also a qualified lawyer but deserted law for literature, left his estate to his wife, Matilda, in 1856, on the condition that she remarry, so that “there will be at least one man to regret my death”. 

Michigan millionaire Wellington Burt died in 1919, leaving a will with what is known as a “spite clause”. Estranged from his family by reason of a feud, the will provided that his estate would not be distributed until 21 years after the death of his last surviving grandchild. She died in 1989 and the 21-year period ended in 2010. The beneficiaries were 12 descendants who suddenly discovered they were sharing an estate worth $110m.

T M Zink, an Iowa lawyer who died in 1930, left his daughter $5 in his will and nothing to his wife. The rest of his $100,000 estate was to be put in a trust for 75 years, then used to create the Zink Womanless Library. The Will provided that:
  • “No woman shall at any time, under any pretence or for any purpose, be allowed inside the library, or upon the premises or have any say about anything concerned therewith, nor appoint any person or persons to perform any act connected therewith.”
  • “No book, work of art, chart, magazine, picture, unless some production by a man, shall be allowed inside or outside the building, or upon the premises, and this shall include all decorations for inside and outside the building.”
  • “There shall be over each entrance to the premises and building a sign in these words: ‘No Woman Admitted.'”
  • “It is my intention to forever exclude all women from the premises and having anything to say or do with the trust estate and library. …”
Zink explained his reasons in his will, thus: 
“My intense hatred of women is not of recent origin or development nor based upon any personal differences I ever had with them but is the result of my experiences with women, observations of them, and study of all literatures and philosophical works within my limited knowledge relating thereto.”
The library didn’t eventuate. His daughter had him declared of unsound mind when the will was made and she received the lot. In the ultimate irony, his estate went to: a woman.

Among hundreds of volumes of wills filed at the Surrogate Court in the District of Kerrobert, Canada, sits an unlikely “document” – a fender cut from a farm tractor.

In Canada in 1948, George Harris was pinned by a tractor as a result of an accident. Although Harris’s hands were free, the lower part of his leg was caught and bleeding profusely. He was found nine hours later and rushed to the hospital but died shortly after. A few days later it was discovered that the fender of Harris’s tractor had scratched into it “In case I die in this mess, I leave all to the wife. – Cecil George Harris.” The fender was removed from the tractor, admitted to probate and filed with the registrar of wills as the Last Will and Testament of George Harris. The etched fender remained in the registry with all the other wills until 1996 when it was given to the University of Saskatchewan for public display.

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