In 2021, it was announced that the last will and testament of Prince Philip is to be sealed and kept secret for 90 years.
The president of the Family Division of the High Court in England is the custodian of a safe containing more than 30 wills from deceased members of the Royal Family.
But why are royal wills private when ordinary wills are available for inspection? Check out the answer below, along with some of the strangest provisions that people have put in their wills over the years.
The Cambridge emeralds
Prince Francis of Teck was the brother of Queen Mary, the wife of King George V of England, and he is the reason why all royal wills are sealed.
Born in January 1870, Francis’s father was the Duke of Teck (also known as Prince Francis), while his mother was a granddaughter of King George III. He went to Wellington College in Berkshire, where he was expelled for throwing his housemaster over a hedge to win a bet.
He never married but he did have an affair with Ellen Constance. Not only was she a society beauty, she was also the wife of the 3rd Earl of Kilmorey.
Francis put in his will that the Cambridge emeralds – an heirloom of his family – were to go to Lady Kilmorey. After his death in 1910, Queen Mary had his will sealed and quietly negotiated with Lady Kilmorey to buy back the emeralds. Since then, all important royal wills have been sealed.
Flowers for remembrance
While many people buy flowers for a funeral, some people bequeath flowers to others in their will. Here are a few notable examples.
A daily rose
Jack Benny was a comedian and TV personality who managed to tempt Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart to make their television debuts on his show.
Some of his characters were known for their miserly attitude, but that was a far cry from the real Benny, as evidenced in his will. He not only donated a Stradivarius violin to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, he also instructed that every day for the rest of her life, his wife Mary Livingstone should receive a daily red rose.
Bulbs for a beauty spot
Keith Owen was a Canadian investment banker who regularly visited Sidmouth, a town in Devon, South West England, because his mother lived there. His plans to retire to the area were tragically altered in 2007 when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Keith contacted Sid Vale Association, a local conservation society, and told them he’d leave them £2.3 million, the amount he’d saved for his retirement, to help them continue promoting the beauty of Sidmouth. A spokesperson for the SVA told the BBC that Owen “felt Sidmouth reflected England as it used to be.”
The will specified that some of the money should be used to ensure a million bulbs were planted. Although the process began with the purchase of around 153,000 bulbs, the SVA has said it will likely take a few years to complete this request.
For the benefit of others
Some people choose to leave money to charities or good causes in their wills, while others take a more unusual approach to generosity.
Hand me that phone book…
Luis Carlos de Noronha Cabral de Camara was a wealthy Portuguese aristocrat who had a passion for motorbikes, shooting, and drinking. However, what he didn’t have was any heirs. So, when he came to write his will, he picked 70 names at random from the Lisbon phone book.
When he passed away, lawyers contacted those he’d selected or their heirs and told them of their good fortune. One 70-year-old beneficiary named Helena told Portugal’s Sol newspaper: “I thought it was some kind of cruel joke. I’d never heard of the man.”
According to the Guardian, his assets included a 12-room apartment and a house, “a couple of healthy bank accounts,” a car, and two motorbikes. After liquidation, this would have meant that each heir was given several thousand euros.
Half a million to clear Britain’s debt
One anonymous donation, sadly, has not filled its requirements to help others. The National Fund was created in 1928 after an anonymous donation of £500,000 was made with the stipulation that it be used to clear England’s debt.
However, the will requires that the sum only be released when it is enough to clear the whole of the debt. While the fund has grown to £350 million, national debt stands at around £1.2 trillion.
Back in August 2013, the BBC reported that Barclays Bank (who manages the fund) had been working to make the funds available for other charitable purposes.
A bequest by a former nurse named Joan Edwards was more successful than the fund because she stipulated that the government could use it “as they may think fit,” and it was decided to put the money toward lowering the national debt.
Keeping it out of the family
If you don’t have a good relationship with your family, you might not like the idea of them inheriting anything on your death. In fact, some people went to great effort to ensure their families got very little or nothing at all.
Leona Helmsley was known as “the Queen of Mean” due to her terrible behavior to all around her. She was already a millionaire when she married real estate mogul Harry Helmsley, and after their marriage, she helped him build and run his hotel empire.
Despising dirt, Leona’s will left $3 million so that the family mausoleum would be washed or steam cleaned at least once a year. However, the bulk of her estate (around $4 billion) was left to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to care for dogs.
To her own Maltese dog, Trouble, she left a $12 million trust fund for his care. When it came to her human family, Leona left two grandchildren $10 million each and the other two received nothing.
In 2008, the will was adjusted after it was found Leona was not of sound mind when she made it. Trouble’s inheritance was reduced to $2 million, as $12 million was deemed an excessive amount to care for a dog. From the leftover $10 million, $6 million was given to the two disinherited grandchildren, on the condition that they said nothing about their dispute with their grandmother and delivered to the court all documents they had on her.
Legacy of bitterness
Wellington Burt was an American millionaire who died in 1919, leaving behind a will that contained a “spite clause.” The will stipulated that the majority of Burt’s estate be held in trust until 21 years after the death of the last surviving grandchild who was alive at the time of his death.
His children must have been particularly irate because, while they only received small annuities of between $1,000-5,000 each, Burt left a $4,000 annuity to his secretary. A cook, housekeeper, coachman, and chauffeur all received $1,000 each.
Naturally, Burt’s descendants challenged his will, but most of the spite clause was upheld. There was only a small loophole: iron leases cannot be put into longstanding trusts, so that portion of the estate (worth about $5 million) was distributed among his children and grandchildren.
Marion Lansill was the last of the grandchildren to die in November 1989, meaning that the clause term was met in 2010. By that time, the estate was valued at about $100-110 million, which was to be split between 12 living descendants. The largest bequest was between $14.5-16 million, while the smallest amount given away was $2.6-2.9 million.
A deliberate insult
Having the last word is so important to some people that they make specific bequests that deliver one last insult to those still living.
Shakespeare’s second-best bed
Perhaps the most well-known testamentary insult was paid to Anne Hathaway. While the majority of the Bard’s estate went to his daughter Susanna, he specifically left his wife “my second best bed.”
Historians have debated over the years as to whether Shakespeare had meant this as an insult or whether it was simply the case that he’d made this specific bequest because Anne was already provided for in another manner. Until further documentation comes to light, we can only wonder.
A womanless library
When Townsend Murphy Zink died following surgery in 1930, his will created a trust that would be untouched for 75 years. After that time, the resulting funds (estimated to be about $3 million) would be used to create the Zink Womanless Library in his hometown of Le Mars.
The details relating to this library were very specific. No women could be employed during its construction or maintenance. There should be a sign on the door saying “No Woman Admitted.” All the books within would be written by male authors only.
At the conclusion of the will, Zink explained his strange instructions as follows: “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, related thereto.”
When it came to the women in his life, he was no less forgiving. His widow had, luckily, signed a prenuptial agreement, but still had to pay the trust $40 a month to stay in the family home. His daughter received a bequest of only $5. The will was challenged, and the library was never built.
Food and drink
Certain wills make provision for loved ones to have a good time in remembrance of the deceased.
Drink, and think of me
A retired engineer named Roger Brown left a surprise in his will for some of his friends. A few days after the funeral, one of his sons contacted seven of Roger’s friends to say that a sum of £3,500 had been left to the group. However, the gift came with a condition: the money had to be used for a weekend break to a European city.
The friends chose to go to Berlin. Upon returning, one of the group, Roger Rees, told Wales Online: “We would like to formally apologise to Roger’s two sons, Sam and Jack, for taking away some of their inheritance. We spent most of it on beer, the rest we wasted.”
Family dinners for the afterlife
John Bowman was a Vermont tanner with a strong belief in the afterlife. He was so convinced that he and his family would be together after death that he made a special provision in his will for such an eventuality.
John’s will provided a $50,000 trust fund that would be used to maintain his 21-room mansion and ensure that every night, dinner was laid out for him, his dead wife, and his two deceased daughters.
This request was dutifully carried out from his death in 1891 until 1950, when the trust fund ran out.
My body I bequeath
Gene Roddenberry got his wish for his ashes to be taken into space in 1992. However, other famous people have had different requests for how their remains should be taken care of after the funeral.
Charles Dickens wanted peace and quiet
In his will, Charles Dickens gave precise instructions on his funeral. “I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner,” he wrote, according to the 1991 book Dickens by Peter Ackroyd.
He only wanted three plain coaches, and those attending should “wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hatband, or other such revolting absurdity.”
While most of his instructions were followed, his desire to be buried in Kent was overruled, and he was instead laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.
I’d like to be dissected, stuffed, and displayed, please
Jeremy Bentham started out as a lawyer. He soon became disillusioned by the legal system and instead spent his life trying to improve it.
After he passed away in June 1832, his executors had to carry out some very unusual instructions. In his will, Bentham had indicated that his body was to be dissected by his friend, the surgeon Thomas Southwood Smith.
Once that was complete, his skeleton was stuffed with straw and dressed in his own clothes. A wax head mimicking his features was placed on top, and the whole thing was put on display at University College London.
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Given the name “the Auto-Icon,” this stuffed figure has given rise to much comment and certain legends, as recorded on the UCL website: “One of the most commonly recounted [myths] is that the Auto-Icon regularly attends meetings of the College Council, and that it is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room to take its place among the present-day members. Its presence, it is claimed, is always recorded in the minutes with the words Jeremy Bentham – present but not voting. Another version of the story asserts that the Auto-Icon does vote, but only on occasions when the votes of the other Council members are equally split. In these cases the Auto-Icon invariably votes for the motion. Of course, none of this is true.”