For many years the windmills of my mind turned very slowly when it came to preparing a will. Partially deluded about my own mortality, it would have seemed rather distasteful pondering over who I should divvy up the cappuccino machine and my 15 year old Camry to. Thank heavens common sense caught up with me… before any random bus ran me over.
Yet I’m no great oddity when it comes to delaying the scribing of one’s will. Latest statistics show that 45% of the adult population in Australia still haven’t bothered to testate.
For most of us that do see the light, we worry about fairly similar things. Naturally, our attention turns to our spouse or partner; children; close relatives and friends and how to best to take care of them. Our wills become that final stated endeavour of our benevolence and love for those we cherish.
Of course there are those outrageous exceptions that defy belief with their eccentricity, meanness or just plain craziness.
Here are my all time favourites:
A reading of the Bard’s will suggests a rather generous fellow. His daughters Judith and Susanna, granddaughter Elizabeth, sister Joan and nephews are all left generous gifts of cash. Numerous friends are left smaller amounts of money so they may buy rings. He even left his godson William Walker 20 shillings in gold. All the rest of his goods and household stuff he left to my son-in-law, John Hall and his daughter Susanna.
However, snubbing his wife Anne Hathaway from beyond the grave, he leaves her the second best bed and the furniture.
What a cad indeed! It’s a shame Anne couldn’t claim under the Family Provision Act that Will’s will failed to make ‘reasonable financial provision’ for her, and ask a court to award her more.
Billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley was renowned throughout her life for her penny pinching and mean spiritedness to family, staff and friends. Despite an earlier draft of her will leaving her fortune to the poor, the final will, amounting to $8 billion dollars, was left in trust for the care and welfare of dogs.
Her own dog, a 9 year old Maltese named ‘Trouble’ was left $12 million. The poor pooch’s inheritance was later cut to $2 million on appeal. Apparently Trouble’s lap of luxury was often interrupted as the executors had to hide him to avoid kidnap threats!
In keeping with her meanness, Ms Helmsley’s grandchildren were either cut out of the will or ordered to visit their father’s grave annually in order to inherit their share.
Provision was made in the will for them to be docked of their allowance if they missed a visit.
Iron ore magnate Lang Hancock’s passing heralded one of the most acrimonious fights over an estate that Australia has ever seen. In one corner was Mr Hancock’s second wife of 6 years Rose Porteous, and in the other his daughter Gina Rinehart.
An 11 year battle ensued over the estate with Rose claiming she had been denied the valuable iron ore royalty rights Lang had owned, after a last-minute change to his will. Gina in reply claimed the $50 million worth of assets given to Rose by her father had been handed over under duress. There was an inquest, sought by Gina, to investigate Lang’s death because she believed her father’s end was a result of foul play by Rose. However it quickly degenerated into a circus with WA Attorney-General Jim McGinty complaining it was an abuse of public resources and had come about only because Ms Rinehart and Ms Porteous had so much money.
The inquest was dominated by claims and accusations that Rose had literally nagged Hancock to death and that Gina was paying big money for her witnesses.
Despite this, the coroner forged ahead and found that Hancock had died of natural causes which was consistent with the findings of the original autopsy.
The pair finally agreed to a truce, reaching a secret settlement that saw all legal actions dropped. Rose kept her assets and Gina retained the enormous iron ore royalties.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson, author of classics Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, throughout his life cherished his close friend, Annie Ide. Ide’s was born on Christmas day and had often complained to Stevenson about the misfortune of having a December 25th birthday. I imagine no double prezies was the jist of her sulk.
Stevenson was so sympathetic to this, that he gave her his own birthday when he died.
In his will Stevenson bequest that the “rights and privileges in the thirteenth day of November, formerly [his] birthday are now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said Annie H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise, and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats, and receipt of gifts, compliments, and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors.”
It’s not known whether Annie took him up on this odd ‘gift’.
Heinrich “Henry” Heine
German poet Heinrich “Henry” Heine left his estate to his wife Matilda on the condition that she remarry, so that “there will be at least one man to regret my death”. His last will and testament providing a last chance to insult his wife one final time.
But in essence this would backfire today. Because Henry left no children, Matilda would under law inherit Henry’s whole estate, absolutely and without the condition of an ‘insult clause’.
An unconditional touche you could say!
The short and the long of it
Frederica Cook obviously had a lot of time on her hands. Her will was 1066 pages long and occupied four leather bound folios. Aside from the pages containing the introductory clauses, the will also listed a priced inventory of laces, jewellery, furs, embroideries, dressing bags and objets d’art. A large number of these articles are further explained in the endless footnotes.
The will was in Mrs Cook’s own handwriting and among the many, many things mentioned in the document, the one that caught my eye was that her age not be inscribed on her tombstone!
Mrs Cook would have been shocked to find that the shortest will ever recorded amounted to a measly 3 words, “All to mother”. However, this was challenged when the deceased’s wife and mother both claimed to be ‘mother’.
Dear oh dear!
Baur was a chemist who invented among other things Pringles potato chips and it’s iconic can. He was clearly a touch anally retentive and orderly in needing his chippies stacked neatly in a column.But aside from this, he also demanded in his will that he be cremated and buried in a Pringles can. And in 2008, when he passed away, his children happily obliged.
Baur’s eldest son Larry told Time Magazine that “When my dad first raised the burial idea in the 1980s, I chuckled about it,”. However his son quickly worked out that dad was serious. On the day of his cremation, the sons stopped at a 7/11 for the ‘burial can’ of Pringles.
They debated what flavour to use but the answer to Larry was obvious, “we must use the original”.
Our collective jaws may drop at crazy, mean or eccentric wills, but a person’s will is after all their final wishes, whether heartfelt or mean of spirit. There are naturally stop gaps under family provision when things become ridiculously unfair.
Nevertheless, Sir Owen Dixon did note that it was never intended, by legislation, that the freedom of testamentary disposition should be so encroached upon that a testator’s decision expressed in his will have only a prima facie effect.*
So with that in mind, best I now get to that codicil about being buried in the old Camry with the cappuccino machine by my side.
[* Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith v Scales (1961-2) 107 CLR 9]