A royal lesson in keeping your Will under your hat

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Most Wills become available to the public when they are granted Probate (apart from the Sovereign, whose Will does not require Probate). However, in the case of senior members of the Royal Family, the convention is that their Wills are sealed up and remain private in order to prevent ‘undesirable or inappropriate’ inspection.

This procedure has been applied to the Will of His late Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh following an application made by the Executor that the Will is sealed up, that no copy of it is made and that the value of the estate is excluded from the Grant of Probate. Unusually, in this instance, Sir Andrew McFarlane’s judgment on the application has been published.

Hearings about sealing up a Will have all been heard in private and until now there is no known record of any judgment or statement of reasons for the sealing up of a Will.

Wills of the royal family were first sealed in the early 20th century. In considering the application for Prince Philip’s Will, Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the High Court’s Family Division, has published his decision so as to provide legal and historical context as a framework for future applications.

Before this judgment, sealed Wills were sealed up indefinitely. In a change to that previous practice, the Duke’s Will now remains sealed for a period of 90 years. On expiry of that period, it will be inspected privately by the Court and officials to whether the sealing of the Will should be extended.

His decision also sets out that previously granted orders sealing the Wills of 30 other senior royals should be in place for 90 years rather than indefinitely.

For most of us, the option to have our Will sealed is not available and so alternative avenues must be sought if we want its content to remain private, such as the preparation of a Letter of Wishes. While an application can be made to keep the contents private, it needs the Court to agree that publication would be undesirable, and that’s not likely to happen in almost all instances.

This also demonstrates the importance of discussing your intentions with your family when making a Will to avoid later challenges, as the document may be read by anyone with an interest in the estate, and the need to exclude confidential information from the Will. For example, setting out bank account details could lead to fraud and this sort of information should instead be put into a side letter and placed with the Will, or by using one of the other digitally-secure options that have become available and which allows assets to be accessed by those administering the estate without releasing the information further.