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Where there’s a will, I want to be in it” (Anon)
Your will (“Last Will and Testament”) is quite possibly the most important document you will ever sign. Without a properly-executed will you put your loved ones at risk of financial and emotional hardship, you forfeit your right to nominate who administers your deceased estate, and most importantly you forfeit your right to choose who inherits what from you.
But just how wide is your right to choose? Can you leave anything to anyone? Is your freedom to decide limited in any way? Must your executor blindly carry out your last wishes?
Your fundamental right to “freedom of testation”…
For centuries our common (i.e. unwritten) law has recognised “freedom of testation” as a basic principle, subject only to being balanced against a restricted list of specific limitations.
Moreover our courts have confirmed that this freedom is supported by our Constitution. To quote the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA): “The right to dignity allows the living, and the dying, the peace of mind of knowing that their last wishes would be respected after they have passed away.”
…and the limits
Even as far back as Roman times there were limits to freedom of testation, and these have grown over time to incorporate the following general principles against which your will’s validity can be tested –
On the other hand, the SCA in a 2018 judgment upheld a private trust’s provisions benefitting only the deceased’s biological descendants to the exclusion of two adopted grandchildren. “There is much to be said for public trusts being judged more strictly than private trusts”, said the Court, noting that the public nature of the bequests in the earlier judgments was “a determining factor in the weighing up process in those specific cases.” Note that the particular facts of that case also played a part in the Court’s decision, so adopted children and grandchildren might well succeed in different circumstances.
Clearly, there will always be a balancing act in play here because, as we saw above, freedom of testation is itself regarded as a constitutional right.
Critical: A well-drawn and valid will
The last thing your grieving loved ones will need is a long and bitter court battle over whether your will is valid – or over any areas of uncertainty or dispute.
Bear in mind that of necessity the list above is only a brief summary of the legal principles involved – there are many “ifs and buts”, grey areas (such as the balancing act referred to above in regard to the question of constitutionality), and considerations beyond the scope of this article.
That’s why there can be no substitute here for legal advice specific to your circumstances. Have your attorney draw your will for you (or check it if you already have a will). It must be properly drawn, it must correctly and clearly reflect your wishes, it must be validly executed – and it must pass muster when tested as above!