Unusual Gifts in Wills

Unusual Gifts in Wills

Wills tend to follow a standard pattern, including gifts of items, cash, or other personal effects. However, there are some testators who are determined to ‘mix things up’ and leave behind gifts and legacies that will be remembered for years, some for the right reasons and some for other reasons completely. Some testators seek to cause mischief, while some are just trying to make sure their family and friends remember them as they were in life.

From authors, historical figures, escape artists and poets some of our more characterful testators from history have included unusual gifts in their Wills. Shakespeare left most of his estate to his daughters, but his “second best bed” was left to his wife, Anne. Napoleon left a gift of the hair from his head which was to be made into bracelets for his mother, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews and one larger sheaf of hair to his son. Houdini left instructions in his Will that his wife should hold a séance each year on the anniversary of his death so they could communicate with each other. The poet Heine left his entire estate to his wife with the express condition that she remarried. Heine is said to have told friends the condition was included so that “there will be at least one man to regret my death.”
However, it is not only the famous who leave more unusual gifts in their Wills.

Telephone Book Potluck
In 2001, a Portuguese aristocrat named Luis Carlos de Noronha Cabral de Camara died. He had very few friends and no children. Thirteen years before he died, he selected seventy strangers from the Lisbon telephone directory. None of the beneficiaries were aware they had been included in his Will until they were contacted after his death and told of their inheritance.

Facial Features
In 1862 Henry Budd died and left a substantial fortune to his two sons. However, they only inherited on condition that neither ever “sullied his lip with a moustache”. This was easy enough for them to comply with and they shared a fortune of £200,000.

In the Wind
In 1888 Albert Orton, a bootmaker from Coventry left a single farthing to his wife because he was upset his wife had called him a ‘rotten old pig’ because he frequently broke wind.

Roses to Remember
Comedian Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone were married for nearly 50 years. Together they hosted a comedy radio show on a Sunday night which was listened to by millions of Americans. When he died in 1974 Jack Benny made provision that one red rose would be delivered to his wife every day for the rest of her life. In a magazine article about Jack she wrote “every day since Jack has gone the florist has delivered one long stemmed red rose to my home”.

Treasury missing treasure
In 1928 an anonymous testator made a legacy of half a million pounds to Britain. This would be worth in the region of £350m in today’s money. Unfortunately, the gift came with an extremely specific condition about how the money should be spent: it could only be passed on once it was enough to clear the entire national debt. Even in today’s value terms the huge sum is not enough to clear the national debt, so the gift remains unpaid. Despite the National Fund growing at a rate of £5-10m per year, Britain is no closer to using the money to clear the nations debt.

Friends on the loose
In 2013 Roger Brown died of prostate cancer leaving behind a secret bequest of £3,500 to seven of his closest friends, with the proviso that they must use it for a weekend away in a European City. One of the beneficiaries told the local newspaper the friends spent a weekend in Berlin, and they spent most of the gift “on beer, and the rest we wasted”.

It’s a Dog’s Life
In 2004, Leona Helmsley left a huge fortune of £2.5bn and made provision in her Will that it should be used to care for dogs. Her nine-year-old Maltese dog named Trouble received a whopping £8m gift in the will. Leona’s grandchildren were either cut out completely or had conditions about what they needed to do, including visiting their father’s grave annually to inherit their share. Trouble did cause trouble, and eventually her inheritance was reduced by a judge, but Leona’s Will left behind real difficulty for her family.

Beautiful Sidmouth
Self-made millionaire Keith Owen left his entire £2.3m fortune to his favourite holiday spot, Sidmouth in Devon. One stipulation was that some of the money was to be spent on one million flowering bulbs, to maintain the beautiful floral displays. The Will dictated that the money should not be spent, but that the interest accrued should be spent maintaining the town and local villages.

Out of Reach
When millionaire Wellington Burt died in 1919, he made sure his fortune was out of reach of his immediate family for over a century. His Will specified his extensive fortune could not be passed on until 21 years after the death of his last surviving grandchild. She passed away in 1989 and the 21-year countdown began, ending in November 2010. Twelve people discovered they were beneficiaries, and they shared a fortune estimated to be worth £110million.

There are numerous other examples of unusual gifts in Wills. When thinking about making a gift or legacy in a Will, you need to consider what you are leaving behind in terms of possible challenges to your Will, problems your beneficiaries may encounter and other issues which may come to light. However, some testators do take their Will as the last chance to ‘have their say’ and this can leave some amusing, if challenging, results to say the least.

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