Lessons from Lady Di

Prince Harry turned 30 this year. Besides continuing as Britain’s most eligible bachelor, this milestone entitles him to receive his share of Princess Diana’s estate.

But was that what Diana wanted?

When Diana passed away in 1997, she left a Last Will and Testament dated June 1, 1993, which she amended by way of a legal document called a codicil in 1996. She left behind £21-million in assets and named her sister and mother executors of her estate.

Originally, the will required that Diana’s assets be held in trust for William and Harry until they turned 25, not 30. She also directed her executors “to give effect as soon as possible but not later than two years following my death to any written memorandum or notes of wishes of mine”.

In a Letter of Wishes (LW) prepared the next day, Diana directed that all her jewellery and three-fourths of her personal property go to her sons, with the remaining one-quarter divided among her 17 godchildren.  

Despite these clear directions, on the request of Diana’s mother and sister, the court delaying the gifts to her sons until they turned 30, and by giving each of the 17 godchildren one item from her estate rather than one quarter value of her personal property. As a result, each of the godchildren received what some have called a “tacky memento”, rather than a significant payment from Diana’s estate.

The court allowed the variation because the LW was not binding on Diana’s executors. It did not contain specific language required by British law, and instead used words like ‘discretion’ and ‘wishes’.

This gave Diana’s sister and mother wiggle-room in honouring the letter. As a result, Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, was able to put her belongings on public display until Harry turned 30.

In the Yukon, there are also formalities for a will or other testamentary document to be considered binding. These are largely contained in the Wills Act.

The lesson for us commoners is that you should not rely on a letter, note, or other informal act of communication to pass along assets of significant monetary or sentimental value.

While most of us do not have assets as valuable as Diana, many people do try to change their will or set out their final wishes through a letter, note, or conversation.

It’s better to get professional advice and prepare formal documents or amendments to ensure your last wishes are honoured.

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