For most of us, our Wills become publicly available documents on our death. This principle is enshrined in law, in order to help prevent fraud and track down beneficiaries.
However, members of the British royal family have enjoyed protection from this rule. Most recently, the High court ruled that the late Prince Phillip’s Will be hidden from the public for 90 years. The hearing of this application was heard in private, and unusually, the press was not given the opportunity to attend or make submissions.
A national newspaper has been granted permission to challenge the decision to bar the press from attending the hearing of the application. There has been some media speculation about the desire for secrecy over Prince Philip’s Will. This includes suspicions about who is named in the Will and the possible disclosure of the extent of his private wealth.
Some republicans think the Will could be useful evidence of the considerable private wealth members of the royal family have been able to amass, despite also receiving public funding via the Sovereign Grant.
However, if Prince Philip’s Will has been well drafted, it may not reveal very much at all. Anyone who wants to keep private the extent of their wealth on death, and exactly who they wish to inherit their assets, can do so by using bespoke estate planning.
It is unusual (and generally not recommended) for a Will to refer to specific assets or values. By instead referring to shares of an individual’s estate, the Will remains effective, regardless of any changes to the assets the testator retains or disposes of after executing the Will.
Furthermore, individuals with more significant estates often have a discretionary trust in their Will, rather than leaving specific amounts to named individuals. In this case the group of beneficiaries that can benefit under the Will would be disclosed (such as children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews), but not the amount of the estate or the extent which the testator wants one beneficiary to benefit. These details can be kept in a separate letter of wishes addressed to the executors, that does not need to be made public with the Will.
Furthermore, many individuals establish trusts during their lifetime. This means the Will could simply provide that all or some of the testator’s assets are left to a trust that has already been established, without having to disclose information about who the beneficiaries of the trust are.
Whilst UK trusts are not made public, some disclosure may be required under HMRC’s trust register. Despite this, trusts can still provide significant protection for those who are concerned about members of the public finding out about their assets and who they wish to leave them to.
If Prince Philip’s Will ever is made public and does contain a lot of detail he wanted to be kept private, one can only assume his lawyers drafted it on the basis it would be kept hidden for a long time.