Monday, 28 July 2008

WRONG: Wills must be drafted by solicitors

In order to make sure your worldly goods go to the right people you do not need to write, “I, Fred Bloggs, being of sound mind and body, do hereby declare…” on a fancy piece of parchment. Technically, a scribbled note on the back of an envelope carries the same legal force as a solicitor’s document.

It is wise, however, to get a solicitor’s help anyway to prevent the will being ambiguous should someone contest it. Also, there are points of law that may change your mind about what you leave to whom. Unmarried partners, for example, are entitled to nothing at all unless it is specifically allocated in a will.

The following are the strict legal requirements for your will to be valid:

1. It must be written down, and written voluntarily.
2. You must be over 18.
3. You must be of sound mind (though there’s little point in asserting, “I am of sound mind”, because how would you know if you weren’t?)
4. It must be signed in the presence of two credible witnesses who are not themselves beneficiaries in the will. (The will will still be valid if they are, but the witnesses won't get anything.)
5. You have to sign it in the witnesses’ presence, then they have to sign it.
6. It’s worth adding the date, too, for the sake of clarity.

Even if you fulfil all the requirements, your dependents can still successfully contest the will if they feel they have been unjustly ignored. Spouses, ex-spouses (if you/they have not remarried), children, step-children or partners who depend on you financially may all claim “reasonable financial provision” under the Inheritance Act of 1975. A court will decide whether Junior has a right to your money.

Outside of those provisos, you can do what you like. In 1926, a Toronto lawyer called Charles Vance Millar decided to leave his fortune to the Toronto woman who gave birth to the greatest number of children in the ten years after his death. Four women eventually scooped $125,000 each from “The Great Stork Derby” for having nine children each. Several women had more, but, rather coldly, were disqualified because some of the children were stillborn.

In 1930, Time magazine reported the case of a Mr TM Zink of Iowa, who made an even more eccentric bequest. He left $100,000 in 1930 with the instruction that in 2005, when he expected the capital to be worth substantially more, there should be built a library in his name where women would be banned not only from using the library, but also prohibited from working as staff and even being represented as authors. He left his daughter $5 and his wife nothing at all. According to The People’s Almanac, the will was successfully contested.

Next to Mr Zink, William Shakespeare seems a positive charmer, having left to his wife “my second-best bed”.

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