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Famous wills (can you do better?)

Updated 03 December 2020

2min read

Nick Green
Financial Journalist

Celebrities behaving oddly is nothing new, as you’re about to find out. And there’s no better excuse for being wildly eccentric than when making their final wishes. Here are some of the strangest wills in history – we dare you to try and top them.

Wills champagne

Virgil (Roman epic poet)

Probably the greatest of the Roman poets, Virgil was a perfectionist – he instructed his friends to burn The Aeneid on his death, as he didn’t think it was finished. Thankfully, they convinced him otherwise. It’s amusing to note that a later Roman poet, Ovid, tried to copy Virgil by throwing his epic Metamorphoses on the fire. However he knew perfectly well it had already been published, so in Ovid’s case it was more of a hissy fit.

Anonymous (rich optimist)

Some wealthy Brit in 1928 left an anonymous legacy of half a million pounds to clear the national debt. However, the will stated that it could only be touched once it had grown enough to clear the whole debt. The legacy now stands at an impressive £350 million. But the national debt is now around four thousand times bigger, at £1.5 trillion, so the UK can’t use the money. (It just goes to show how important it is to word your will carefully.)

Keith Owen (fond of flowers and Sidmouth)

Banker Keith Owen donated his whole £2.3 million fortune to Sidmouth, specifying that it be used to plant a million flowering bulbs to keep the seaside town beautiful. Now anyone who visits Sidmouth during the summer months can walk around and see the legacy he left.

Wellington Burt (fond of putting the boot in)

Perhaps the polar opposite of Keith Owen, Burt was a Michigan millionaire who apparently hated his entire family. His will stated that none of his fortune would be passed on until 21 years after the death of his last surviving grandchild. When she died, in 1989, twelve of Burt’s descendants found themselves the surprise recipients of his $110 million fortune. So, a sort of happy ending.

Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island)

Stevenson proved he was far more Dr Jekyll than Mr Hyde by leaving a truly touching legacy to his friend Annie Ide. Annie was one of those unfortunate people whose birthday fell on Christmas Day, so she never felt it was special. When Stevenson died, he left a very imaginative gift in his will: she could have his birthday of 13 November. Aww! (Or is that, ‘Arrrr, me hearties!’?).

Jeremy Bentham (philosopher)

We know philosophers’ minds are deep pools of mysteries, but heaven only knows what Jeremy Bentham was thinking when he made this stipulation in his will: that his body be preserved, stuffed with hay, dressed and put to sit in a glass cabinet, now in University College London. Only the head is wax – the original head proved to be a too-tempting target for student pranks.

A word of warning: if you’re tempted to make an outlandish will like any of the above, take extra care. Any odd requests or humorous wording could result in ambiguous interpretations, which in turn could invalidate the whole will. If you really want to go out with a laugh, a non-legally binding letter of wishes may be more appropriate for those odder requests.

Use the unbiased.co.uk search to find a solicitor to help you write your will.

About the author
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.