We all remember Lady Diana Spencer, who later became Diana, Princess of Wales, the first wife of Prince Charles. Diana died tragically 22 years ago in 1997 from injuries sustained in a car crash. Four years before she died, she signed a last will and testament and modified that will the year before she died. In those documents, she left her estate worth approximately $25 million to her two sons, and one-quarter of her "chattels," which consisted of personal property, to her 17 godchildren.
You might think that Diana's wishes would be carried out to the letter, and that would be the end of the matter. But it turned out that the executors of Diana's estate asked, and received from, a probate court in England a "variance" to her will. That meant that instead of giving one-quarter of the value of her personal property to her godchildren, as specifically stated, each child received one, and only one, item from Diana's estate.
The changes made by the executors and the probate court were done in secret, and it wasn't until several years later that the parents of Diana's godchildren found out about it. Predictably, their reactions were mostly of outrage.
The godchildren got what some referred to as "tacky mementos," while Diana's important and priceless personal property, including her collection of dresses, letters, family paintings, home movies, scores and lyrics from Elton John's tribute song, and lots more, were held by Diana's brother, who loaned the collection to museums around the world. Exhibitions of the Princess Diana Collection raised millions of dollars for charities, but the heirs who were to receive a quarter of that property got none of it. In the end, the godchildren received essentially nothing of value.
So, what went wrong and why weren't the specific instructions in Diana's will followed? It turned out that executors of her estate were allowed to ignore Diana's intentions because her will did not specify which property was to go to which godchildren, and because the document used to gift her chattels used words such as "discretion" and "wishes." With no written list included in the will, executors were free to do what they wanted, which in this case was to give Diana's godchildren the absolute minimum.
The lessons from this case are clear. If you want to gift specific items to specific people by will, make sure an estate planning lawyer drafts your documents in a way that leaves no margin for error. If it matters enough to make a bequest, it matters enough to make sure the bequest is carried out.
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