What 4 of history’s most unique will stipulations can teach you about estate planning


Multiple generations of a family hugging

While you may initially think of a will as a dry legal document, they can sometimes contain surprising stories about the lives of the dearly departed.

In fact, throughout history, there have been several instances of unique – and often bizarre – stipulations left in wills.

These weird and wonderful wishes, ranging from entertaining to perplexing, offer some invaluable lessons if you’re forming your own estate plan.

Continue reading to discover four of the most unusual bequests left in wills and what they can teach you about estate planning.

1. Shakespeare’s “second-best bed”

Perhaps one of the more famous – or infamous – examples of ambiguous stipulations left in a will comes from the esteemed playwright, William Shakespeare.

In his will, the Bard of Avon left his wife of 34 years, Anne Hathaway, his “second-best bed”, while he left the bulk of his estate to his daughter, Susanna.

Although the reasoning behind this strange and unclear bequest remains a mystery, many speculate that it was a deliberate snub toward his wife.

Conversely, there is a theory that Shakespeare did this because they slept in the second-best bed, as the best bed would typically be reserved for guests, so it may have been an act of love!

Regardless, this unusual scenario underscores the importance of clearly defining how you want your assets distributed to avoid any ambiguity.

If you make vague wishes in your will, this could lead to confusion about your intentions, and your wishes may not be carried out how you’d like as a result.

It’s worth ensuring that your will explicitly specifies the assets you’re distributing and sets out your wishes in a way that’s easy to understand. Otherwise, ambiguous language could trigger costly legal battles, and your wishes may ultimately be disregarded.

You may also want to write a “letter of wishes”, which allows you to offer insight into your estate planning decisions and explain the rationale behind why you’ve divided your assets in a certain way.

2. Clearing the national debt

In 1928, an anonymous donor made a £500,000 bequest to the UK government, which, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, would now be worth more than £26 million.

The generous benefactor had one specific caveat for this considerable sum of wealth: the government could only use it to pay off the country’s entire national debt.

While this was certainly a noble gesture, it wasn’t enough – and the UK’s national debt has climbed significantly since then. Indeed, the Office for National Statistics revealed that it stood at £2,720.8 billion at the end of Q4 in 2023, so the donor’s bequest, unfortunately, remains unused.

This story emphasises the importance of ensuring that the wishes detailed in your will are realistic and achievable within the value of your estate. Otherwise, some of your wealth could go to waste.

For example, imagine you leave £10,000 to your grandchild to start a business. In this day and age, that amount of money likely wouldn’t be enough to cover startup costs.

So, your grandchild may feel they can’t use the money for any other purpose, leading to further stress and wasted potential.

While it is admirable to support your loved ones through an inheritance, it’s still essential to be realistic and open-minded about what your funds could be used for.

3. A marriage clause

When the last will and testament of the Manhattan businessman, Frank Mandelbaum, was read out in 2007, it was revealed that he left a $180,000 trust for his three grandchildren.

However, the only additional clause concerned his son, Robert, stating that he wasn’t to inherit anything unless he married the mother of his son within six months of the child’s birth.

The issue with this was that Robert was gay, and his son – who was born to a surrogate mother – was being raised by Robert and his long-time partner.

The discovery of this clause ignited a court battle, with Robert arguing that the conditions for his inheritance were discriminatory and against New York law.

While you can leave conditions in your will regarding inheritances, it’s vital to ensure they’re in your beneficiaries’ best interests, or else they could result in family conflicts. Legal battles are perhaps far more common than you may think – the Guardian reveals that as many as 10,000 people in England and Wales are disputing wills every year.

After you pass away, your grieving loved ones will likely already be dealing with emotional turmoil. This, paired with an inheritance dispute, could result in the “perfect storm” of issues and exacerbate negative emotions.

Since your family wouldn’t be able to access your assets until the courts resolve the dispute, they wouldn’t be allowed to make the most of your wealth, which could affect their standard of living.

To prevent disputes and unhelpful delays, you may want to ensure that any conditions left in your will are realistic and attainable.

4. Flowers for Sidmouth, Devon

Not all unique will stipulations are negative, as shown by the story of the self-made millionaire, Keith Owens.

After doctors diagnosed him with cancer in 2007, and only gave him a few weeks to live, Keith decided to donate his entire $3.73 million fortune – equal to around £2.3 million – to his favourite holiday destination: Sidmouth in Devon.

A portion of his wealth was explicitly earmarked for planting 1 million flowering bulbs, ensuring the coastal town remained awash with vibrant colours.

The remaining funds were invested, granting Sidmouth’s Conservation and Heritage Society an average annual interest payment of around £120,000, Yahoo News reveals.

The single stipulation? The money was only to be used to maintain the town’s beauty.

This lovely story shows that you can use your will to leave a lasting impact on the world after you’re gone.

While you may not like the idea of doing so through flowers, you could always leave a charitable donation in your will. This is actually far more common than you may initially think, as Today’s Wills and Probate states that more than 38,000 charitable estates were found in wills in 2023.

Doing so allows you to support a cause close to your heart and, better yet, could help you reduce Inheritance Tax (IHT) on your estate.

As well as reducing the overall value of your estate liable for IHT, if you leave at least 10% to charity, your loved ones can typically pay a reduced rate of IHT at 36% compared to 40%.

As you can see, just because you’re gone, doesn’t mean you can’t make positive changes to the world.

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Please note

This article is for general information only and does not constitute advice. The information is aimed at retail clients only.

Please do not act based on anything you might read in this article.

The Financial Conduct Authority does not regulate estate planning, tax planning, or will writing.

Thresholds, percentage rates and tax legislation may change in subsequent Finance Acts.