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Revealing Wills

(Article published in the Nov 19,2004 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

The primary function of a will is to dispose of one’s estate, to the extent permitted by law, effective upon the death of the testator.  It is of great interest to the heirs of the testator because under its terms and conditions will they receive, if at all, any property from the testator’s bounty.  But wills are of interest also to those who stand to inherit nothing under them since, very often, wills reflect certain aspects of the testator’s personality otherwise hidden from the public, or focus on vignettes of life when the document was written.

For instance, not one of Miss Ralston’s neighbors suspected her of being affluent, at least not in the way she really was. Isobel Ralston, a spinster teacher, lived all her life in the same tenement flat until she died at age 97.  Though she was a very popular figure within her community, her neighbors never saw her live extravagantly.  Her friend of more than 30 years who cared for her during her final years “would not have considered her a very wealthy person.” 

Yet, Miss Ralston’s will showed that she secretly invested in the stock market (her estate included top caliber shares, such as Gloxosmithkline, HSBS and Boots) and in the end had £2.7 million to give away.   £35,000 she gave to the repair fund of the Hillhead Baptist Church which she had been attending since 10 years old.  But the bulk of what she had, which comprised of what she had earned and herself inherited from her family, she gave to her niece. 


In contrast, a will written in 1903, reflects the mores of the times.  The testatrix was a wealthy woman who made no so secret of her desire to use the allure of wealth modify her beneficiaries’ behavior.  She gave modest amounts to her siblings’ children.  But, she enjoined them as follows:

“The said children must at all times be strictly honest and truthful in all their actions and doings; they must lead industrious, frugal, upright and moral lives, and conscientiously comply with all their religious duties as Roman Catholics, until the end of their lives; they must practice sobriety, by this I mean that while they may take one or two (ordinary) glasses of beer on very rare occasions, they must altogether abstain from stronger drinks of every description, and even if this limited use of beer should prove to be a temptation, or cause of craving, the beer must be avoided.  Moreover, they must never directly or indirectly engage in the liquor traffic, and those who are so engaged now, must abandon it and get out of it within a reasonable time, not to exceed from two to four years after my death.”

The instrument further provides:

“The said children, now living, must never frequent questionable day or night parties, balls, dances, shows or excursions and must make it an unfailing rule to stay at home at night.  I would not object, however, if they should attend a respectable party or entertainment, in good and proper company, not to exceed from two to four times a year.  If once old enough to marry, and they should desire to do so, they must unite themselves with those of their own faith, because daily observation and long experience have convinced me that mixed marriages as a rule never turn out well for either party.  I say this without the slightest reflection or disrespect to those who may differ with me in religion, but the party whom they marry should not be a Roman Catholic in name only, but one that practices his religion, and therefore he or she must be sober, industrious, honest and moral.”

I have yet to execute my own will but I already have an idea of some clauses I want to write in.  A sure clause is a bequest to my children as follows:  “I have always impressed upon you  since you were born that, nothing is better than being healthy since health is wealth.  To you, therefore, I bequeath all my vitamins. Nothings follows.”