Celebrity Will Dispute - Case Study #5 - Princess Diana: Relying on a Letter of Wishes

Updated: Oct 12


Diana, Princess of Wales (born Diana Frances Spencer; 1 July 1961 – 31 August 1997) was a member of the British royal family. She was the first wife of Charles, Prince of Wales — the heir apparent to the British throne—and was the mother of Prince William and Prince Harry. Diana's activism and glamour made her an international icon and earned her enduring popularity as well as unprecedented public scrutiny, exacerbated by her tumultuous private life.


Princess Diana


Princess Diana died in a tragic automobile accident in France at the age of 37.


After Princess Diana passed on, on August 31, 1997, there did not appear to be any problem with her will. Her mother, Frances Ruth Shand Kydd, and her sister, Lady Elizabeth Sarah Lavinia McCorquodale, became executors of her Estate, based on Diana's last will and testament dated June 1, 1993 (amended through a codicil in 1996). The probate filings revealed that Diana left behind assets valued at around £21 million, netting £17 million after estate taxes. Originally, the will called for these assets to be held in trust for Diana's sons, Princes William and Harry, until they turned 25.


As to her collection of personal property (called "chattels" in the will), Diana's will directed the 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." Diana penned a Letter of Wishes, dated the day after she signed the will, and asked that all of her jewelry and 75% of her chattels pass to her sons, with one-quarter of the rest earmarked for her 17 godchildren.


Seems clear, right? Apparently, Diana's executors at the time did not think so.

Without notifying the parents of any of the godchildren (who were minors for the most part), the executors petitioned the probate court for a "variance" of the will. They obtained the variance, which included a delay of the distributions to William and Harry until they each turned 30, instead of 25 (although they were able to start receiving interest from the trust fund at age 25). The variance also gave the 17 godchildren one item each from Diana's estate, rather than the one-quarter of the value of all of her personal property (aside from the jewelry), along with other changes. Instead of getting $440,451, each godchild inherited personal items like furniture and clothing.


The change to Princess Diana's Letter of Wishes was kept secret for several years, until it was revealed through unrelated court proceedings. When the parents of the godchildren were told about the Letter of Wishes, they were, by and large, shocked and outraged. Instead of receiving one-quarter of the personal property (each share of which would have been worth, conservatively, between £100,000 to $160,000), each godchild received what was called by some a "tacky memento."


Conclusion

The court allowed the executors to ignore the Letter of Wishes because it did not contain certain language required by English law, and instead used words like "discretion" and "wishes," which meant that ultimately Diana's sister and mother had discretion whether or not to honor her wishes. But Lady Diana presumably would not have written the Letter of Wishes -- and directed her executors to follow such writings in her will -- without good reason.


Learning Points

No one should ever rely on a letter, note, or other informal writing to pass along significant assets (whether monetary or sentimental in value). If the wishes expressed in the Letter of Wishes had been included directly into Diana's last will and testament, then the lawyer who prepared the will could have made certain that the wishes were followed.

While it is rare that items this valuable are affected, many times people try to convey final wishes through a letter, note, or conversation, rather than update their will. It's a shortcut that often leads to conflict and fighting - and not just in royal families.

Writing your Will is the very first step. Equally important is to store your Will online, to ensure that it will be found in a timely manner. liteWill is the only global platform which offers the solution to store your Will online. ‘A Will that is not online is like a Will that does not exist’.


This case study is a summary of underlying facts and related law suits. It is for information only. The statements and opinions are the expression of their author, not of liteWill, and have not been evaluated for accuracy, completeness or changes in the law.

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