Having the last word | Sunday Observer

Having the last word

28 March, 2021

Leaving instructions for what should happen to your movable and immovable property after your death is a serious matter, but for some people, the temptation to cause mischief or raise a smile from beyond the grave is too much to resist. If you treat the matter seriously, a last will is not just a list of bequests. It gives an opportunity to leave some money or property to a loved one as a thoughtful gesture.

A carefully worded last will is a sign of maturity. However, except rich people, others do not take the trouble to write a last will which can be drawn up by a lawyer. I understand that it can also be written by anybody and attested by two witnesses.

There is no limit to man’s ingenuity. Last wills have been written on napkins, wallpapers and even on hospital charts. In an extreme case, a man wrote his last will on a nurse’s petticoat. One last will was even painted on a corncrib. However, the will written on a nurse’s petticoat was rejected by court not because it was indelicate, but because it was improperly attested.

More than the way a will is written, what goes into it seems to be important. In the past, people had left unusual wills before their deaths. Legendary US comedian Jack Benny is reported to have left an unusual will before he died in 1974. “Every day since Jack has gone the florist has delivered one long-stemmed red rose to my home,” his widow Mary Livingstone wrote in a magazine shortly after his death. Roger Brown died of prostate cancer in 2013 leaving a secret bequest of 3,500 Sterling pounds to seven of his closest friends to use the money for a “boozy weekend.”

Second-best bed

William Shakespeare, the world’s greatest dramatist, was married to Anne Hathaway who was eight years older than him. In his last will, the Bard left his “second-best bed” to his wife while the bulk of his estate went to his daughter Susanna. Nobody knows why he ignored his wife when he wrote the will. A similar event has been reported from Germany. The German poet Heinrich Heine left his estate to his wife Matilda in 1856 on condition that she should marry so that “there will be at least one man to regret my death.” We really do not know whether William Shakespeare and Heinrich Heine were unhappy in their marriages.

Many people have left their estate to their favourite dogs. Billionaire hotelier Leona Helmurley left instructions for her $4 billion fortune to be spent for caring for her dogs. However, when animals become beneficiaries under a will, it leads to problems for the executor. For instance, when a North Carolina widow left $250,000 estate to two canaries and a cat, one bird was found dead.

The attorney for the estate ordered an autopsy to determine whether the cat had tried to increase its share of the booty. However, the cat was cleared of the charge. Another will showed the bitterness of a husband when he left his wife “every damn thing I own that she wants (provided) my dog Lobo, who is essentially of the same temperament as I, be allowed more freedom than I have been allowed.”

When a last will is drawn up by a lawyer, it is bound to be full of legal jargon. William B. Benton, a former US Senator and publisher of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, wrote in his will: “Under protest by me, but at the insistence of lawyers, this will is overwritten in legal gobbledygook of the kind I deplore.

Benton sent out a warning: Any casual approach to will-making is risky. When a man left his estate “All to mother” a legal dispute arose. A litigant contested that “mother” can be his wife or his parent.

Genuine document

Laws governing wills vary from country to country. It appears that a will has to be proved as a genuine document. The genuineness of a will has to be decided by a court. Even when a will is genuine, its contents can be bizarre or problematic. When a woman left her estate to God, the county sheriff reported: “After due and diligent search, God cannot be found in this county.” In another strange will, a French woman left her estate to her niece with a proviso that she should keep her goldfish clothed in tights.

Some people make use of last wills for practical jokes. Charles Millar, a Canadian lawyer, in his will left shares in the Ontario Jockey Club to two crusaders against gambling. He left equal shares of the same house to three men who hated one another. Meanwhile, a part of his estate was given to any Toronto mother who gave birth to the largest number of children in the decade after his death. The will was instantly condemned as promoting immorality. However, the bulk of the legacy was divided among four women; each had given birth to nine children within the stipulated period.

Those who make out wills have different mentalities. Some have philosophic ideas and others have mundane views. We hear of an unmarried woman who died in the 17th century. She belonged to the first category. She hated religious rituals during a funeral. Therefore, she left a large sum of money to be given to those attending her funeral provided they maintained strict solemnity.

When the funeral procession began people forgot about the taboo. Everyone including the clergyman was in a happy mood laughing at the graveside. However, her brother remained solemn. At the legal proceedings it was held that her prohibition was absurd.

Burial instructions

Even in Sri Lanka, people leave burial instructions to be followed. Some people want their bodies handed over to medical colleges. Others want their bodies buried or cremated. On rare occasions, some people want their bodies buried or cremated within 24 hours. They are, of course, sensible requests.

When a celebrated author was in his deathbed, his wife and children requested him to write a last will. They were surprised when he said, “I haven’t left a fortune. My private library is the only asset I have. Any of my children can use it. If they do not wish to read books, they can hand over all the books to a university. I have saved a few thousand rupees in a joint account with my wife. She can withdraw the money for my funeral.”

Some married couples have their differences even after death. In 1610, a Frenchman left a fortune to a woman who had spurned him 20 years ago. He loved her so much that he remained a bachelor until his death. Another man left his estate to his wife with a proviso that she should not marry anyone else. However, the woman got married after taking over the fortune.


Most of the wills are about money. Even before their deaths, people lay down conditions on how their fortune should be spent. Some fathers leave their legacies to sons with unusual requests. In one reported case, a father wanted his sons to remain clean-shaven. A father who left his estate to his daughter wanted her not to wear mini-skirts. A heavy smoker left a million dollars to his wife on condition that she smoked five cigars a day.

Some wills have hidden clauses. A wealthy man who died in New York in 1880 had left his estate to his nieces and nephews. However, he wanted the executor to hold a public auction and to sell his 71 pairs of trousers to the highest bidder. He laid down a condition that no purchaser should buy more than one pair of trousers. At the sale all the trousers were sold out. Unknown to the buyers, each trouser pocket had $1000 sewn into it!

If you have a large fortune, it is good to write a last will. It will facilitate the distribution of the estate among the beneficiaries. However, most of us have no such fortune to leave.

If you can claim that you have lived honestly with an unblemished character, let your children and grandchildren follow in your footsteps. That is the biggest fortune a man or woman can leave.

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