Wills often publicly reflect the highs and lows of private lives — and they can be fascinating
A will — as in somebody’s last will and testament — “is a very private and personal thing”, a prominent RTÉ radio presenter pronounced recently. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
A person’s will is one of the few personal documents that is open to public scrutiny. Anybody can pay a fee and find out how much a person’s estate was worth and who benefited from it. You can be a relative, a nosy neighbour or a journalist — it doesn’t matter. These are public documents, open to scrutiny by anyone.
Sifting through the week’s Grants of Probate on Friday afternoons is a mundane assignment for the most part, but sometimes within these dry official documents the drama and tragedy of life are laid bare.
Who could fathom former attorney general Paddy Connolly leaving his stamp collection to the son of the murderer Malcolm Macarthur, the man who ruined his life?
But therein lies the mystery of inheritances.
Businessman Philip Smyth was an extremely successful person. As leaseholder of the Hampton Hotel and founder of Westwood gyms, he was a multi-millionaire and an extremely private person who never talked to the media.
Yet when it came to making his will, he ensured at least one extraordinary provision would bring him public attention. He directed that his executors, Brenda Flood and Karla Fox, give away 35pc of his company, Leisure Management Corp, to an unnamed consortium of “employees, service providers, contractors and sub-contractors” as an acknowledgement of their loyalty to him during his business career.
His estate was valued at €23,711,900 gross and €19,282,604 net. His will originally went to probate on January 28, 2021, but was revoked five months later. Now “by order of the court” it has been reinstated, with his executors tasked with carrying out those wishes.
For the majority, a will is a simple document in which they leave everything to their spouse or, if he or she is dead, to be divided equally among their children. But for others, especially those with complicated family situations or substantial wealth, a will can be used as a weapon or a well-intentioned attempt at financial engineering.
Certain people, including the very rich, sometimes have a cavalier attitude to where their money goes. Patricia Martin, one of Ireland’s richest women when she died at the age of 91, left an estate valued at €77m.
Living modestly enough, she was the wife of one of the early investors in Élan Corporation. She and her husband, George, had no children, so she simply didn’t bother making a will, leaving it up to her relatives to sort out her estate.
Garech Browne, a Guinness heir as the son of Lady Oonagh Guinness, made his will in 1989, but almost 30 years later, when it went to probate, many of the beneficiaries were dead. Sorting out who gets his massive collections of horse-drawn carriages and books is still being resolved.
The mystic writer, poet and millionaire philosopher John O’Donohue, author of Anam Cara (Soul Friend), whose followers included the painter and actress Kate Capshaw — the wife of film director Steven Spielberg — would have been expected to sign off on an intelligent and lucid will, dividing up his considerable assets.
Instead, Judge Paul Gilligan pronounced O’Donohue’s will “unfortunately provided an illustration of exactly how a person should not make a will”.
When O’Donohoe made the will in February 2001 before going on a speaking tour of America, he did so without legal advice. It stipulated that he left “all my worldly possessions to my mother Josie to be divided equally and fairly among my family with special care and extra help to be given to my sister Mary”.
Nobody could figure out exactly what he meant by that. O’Donohoe then went on to appoint as executors two of the beneficiaries of the will — “a classic error”, as the judge described it.
In 2011, as his family tried to sort out their inheritance, they had to go to the High Court, where the judge ruled that the “uncertainty” of his wishes made the €2m will “void”. It was as if he had died intestate, or without making a will at all.
Cathal Ryan, heir to a Ryanair fortune, signed his will two days before his death at the age of 47. For him, one clause wasn’t so much financial engineering as making recompense to a former girlfriend. Sarah Linton had been dragged into the Michelle Rocca versus Cathal Ryan court case, one of the great causes celebres of the 1990s.
When socialite June Moloney, who knew them both, threw her 30th birthday party at Blackhall Stud in Co Kildare, she invited Rocca, who had a child with Ryan. He came to the party with his new girlfriend, Linton, a nanny. The ensuing row in a bedroom of the stud farm ended up with Rocca taking a High Court civil action for assault against Ryan.
In evidence, Rocca told the court: “I was not entitled to track her [Linton] down, but as his fiancee I was entitled to be angry if I found him in bed with another woman.”
Linton, who was fully dressed when dragged from the bed, told the court that Rocca “got me by the hair and hauled me around the bedroom” in what she described as “a frenzied attack”.
Rocca was awarded £7,500 for assault in a case that left the public agog at how the other half lived. But when he made his €250m will, Ryan made amends to Linton for unwittingly bringing her private life into the public domain. Clause 3.8 stated: “To my Trustees the sum of €2,000,000 free of all taxes whatsoever arising to be held in trust for Sarah Linton for her own absolute use and benefit.”
The writer and journalist Nuala O’Faolain made her will into her last written work. The month before she died of cancer at the age of 68, she had given a moving interview to her friend, Marian Finucane, revealing she had only weeks to live.
When she left €2,149,028, she specified a whole list of bequests to friends, writers and journalists, some in thanks “for their sandwiches”, others “for tireless daily help” or “imagination and wit” or to buy “a bottle of something good” in one case, “probably for shoes” in another, while also telling friends to buy something for their cats and dogs.
According to the Inland Revenue affidavit lodged with the will of Sir Alfred Beit, the art collector who bequeathed Russborough House in Co Wicklow to the nation, he left assets worth more than £9m (€10.9m), mostly in South Africa and the UK. By the time he died, he had also left paintings, including works by Vermeer and Metsu, to the National Gallery of Ireland. Subsequently, the most intriguing clause in the will of his wife, Lady Clementine Beit, after she died in August 2005, related to her husband’s diaries. Sir Alfred had been an intimate in the royal social circles of ‘Fred’, who became King George VI and whose life was immortalised in the film The King’s Speech.
Clause 8 specified that her trustees, a firm of Dublin solicitors, “retain the same [her husband’s diaries] in their sole possession and custody under lock and key for a period which shall end 21 years from the date of the death of the last survivor living at the date of my death of the issue of his late Britannic Majesty King George VI or for 70 years from my death, whichever shall be the shorter”.
Which means the diaries won’t be lodged in the National Library in Dublin, as specified, until 21 years after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The question of what they contain to necessitate such a provision remains a mystery.
Another common provision in wills is for someone to mention a son or daughter, but add “I declare that I have made proper provision for them in my lifetime” — meaning they are effectively being disinherited.
Many wills, especially where there is a lot of money at stake, also contain a clause that if a person is dissatisfied with the provisions made in the will and opt to challenge it, they are automatically entitled to nothing. Unless, of course, their court challenge is successful.
Money might make the world go round, but a will, as one lawyer put it, “is a document that reaches from beyond the grave to touch those who are left behind … and not always for the best”.
Which may be one of the reasons why wills are public documents.