4 Famous Wills in History (and What They Can Teach Canadians About Estate Planning)

4 Famous Wills in History (and What They Can Teach Canadians About Estate Planning)

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be prepared for the unexpected. Emergency planning has never been more top of mind for Canadians, and yet Willful research shows 57% of Canadians don’t have a will.

End-of-life planning typically isn’t at the top of our to-do lists because it can be complex, expensive, and – let’s face it – uncomfortable to think about. But there are lots of fascinating stories about famous wills in history that make it a bit more engaging, and hopefully educational.

So read on as we tour you through dogs who inherited millions, a will that inspired women in Toronto to have as many babies as they could, and why one Canadian wrote their will while eating a Big Mac.

Case #1: The tractor

Back in 1948, before online wills were a thing, a Saskatchewan farmer named Cecil George Harris became trapped under his tractor. Fearing he wouldn’t make it, he etched a will into the fender of his tractor with a pocket knife, writing:

“In case I die in this mess I leave all to the wife. Cecil Geo Harris.”

After being trapped for 10 hours, he was taken to hospital but sadly passed the next day. The will scratched into the fender was upheld as his valid will, since holograph wills (handwritten wills) are legal in all provinces except BC and PEI.

The fender from the tractor now sits on display at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law, and it has become the most famous case of a handwritten will in Canadian history.

What it teaches us: As long as a will is written entirely in your handwriting and signed by you, it’s legally valid – whether it’s written on the side of a tractor or not. Remember if you are writing your own will that it likely won’t be as comprehensive as a will created on a platform like Willful or with a lawyer – a will isn’t just about who gets your assets, it’s also about appointing an executor and guardians for any minor children or pets. And remember to tell your executor or family where you’ve stored it! Aretha Franklin’s family found a handwritten will in her couch cushions a year after her death.

Case #2: Stork derby

In 1926, prominent Toronto lawyer and financier Charles Vance Millar died. He had an estate worth $1M ($14M in today’s dollars), and he didn’t have a spouse or any heirs.

Typically in this situation people may pass things on to a charity, but not Charles. He had a sense of humour, so he built practical jokes into his will – for example he gifted his shares in a beer company to Protestant ministers; and he gifted a property in Jamaica to three lawyers who hated each other (and if any of them sold, the proceeds would go to a local city).

But his most controversial clause was that the rest of his fortune was to be given to the woman in Toronto who gave birth to the most children in a 10-year period. Despite challenges from relatives and Ontario’s Attorney General, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the will, and it became known as The Great Stork Derby. It made headlines around the world, and four women received the equivalent of $2 million each for having nine children in 10 years.

What it teaches us: This is a wild story, and it shows how people without heirs will get creative in how they pass on their assets. It’s much more common to leave a gift to charity, friends, or other family members if you don’t have children. In fact leaving a gift to charity in your will is one of the ways you can have a positive impact when you’re gone – you can either leave a bequest (a specific item/amount of money), or a portion of your estate to an organization you care about.

Case #3: The McDonald’s napkin

These days we’re all hitting the fast food drive-thru or ordering on UberEats, but sometime between 2006 and 2015 a Saskatoon man was dining in at a local McDonald’s. While he was chowing down, he started feeling the symptoms of a heart attack – afraid he was going to pass away under the golden arches, he took pen to napkin and jotted down his will right there in the booth.

The napkin will was brief – it said, “Split my property evenly, Dad Philip Langan.” Well, it turned out that Philip wasn’t actually having a heart attack, but he decided to pass the napkin on to his daughter anyway for safekeeping.

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After he passed away in 2015, the daughter produced the will. Philip had a total of seven children, and one of them wasn’t feeling the napkin will – she disputed the validity of the will in court, but in February 2020 a judge upheld the napkin will as valid. The judge said that since the napkin was passed on to the daughter, and she said to keep it in case anything happened to him, it demonstrated “testamentary intention.”

What it teaches us: If a will is challenged, the judge will always look for testamentary intention – what did the testator (the will-maker) actually intend? It’s important to be clear with your wishes, and it’s equally as important to say what you DON’T want as what you do – for example if you want to ensure someone is disinherited or cut out of your will, stating that in the will and providing any additional details can ensure your wishes hold up after you’re gone.

Case #4: The world’s richest dog

This has to be my favourite story about a will, mostly because it centres around a dog. It starts with German Countess Karlotta Liebenstein, who died in 1992 and left her $65 million fortune to her German Shepherd Gunther III (like Millar and the Stork Derby, she didn’t have any heirs). When Gunther III passed away, the fortune was passed on to Gunther’s son, Gunther IV.

You may be wondering who actually managed that money – that would be the human trustees, who were in charge of investing it. They did such a good job that it turned into $375 million – still for the sole purpose of caring for a dog.

Gunther, unsurprisingly, is now the richest dog in the world. Madonna even sold a mansion to Gunther worth $7.5 million – in an article about the purchase, it said “Gunther will be taking over Madonna’s master bedroom, while the rest of the mansion is used for filming and fashion shows.”

In case you’re a cat lover, I’m sorry to say that the richest cat only inherited $12.5 million.

What it teaches us: It’s very common for people to want to ensure their pets are cared for when they’re gone – in fact one of the top reasons pets end up in shelters is their owners haven’t accounted for who would care for them when they pass away. On Willful you can appoint a pet guardian to care for them, and leave money for their care – but if you’re leaving millions, maybe ask yourself what Fluffy is going to do with all that cash.

That’s it, four of the most famous wills in history. Hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two that you can you apply to creating or updating your own will – and if you’re looking for an easy way to do that, check out online will platform Willful  – you can use code BOOMER for 10% off any plan.

Erin Bury is the co-founder and CEO at Willful. She does not have any pets, but if she did she would likely leave them millions.

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5 Comments

  1. J. Money on March 10, 2021 at 5:14 am

    Fascinating!!

    Makes me like Canada even more 😉

  2. Gary on March 10, 2021 at 9:24 am

    Great read and good lessons! Thanks Robb.

  3. Cheryl on March 10, 2021 at 4:02 pm

    Interesting stuff. Love hearing when pets are beneficiaries! And yes, pet care is my main concern after I pass, and I own a horse so not as easy to care for and cheap as a cat! If you’re in the states and want to make a will or take care of your pets, Hope for Paws Animal Rescue has a link to a will service. Too many pets end up on the streets after their owners pass away.

  4. Peter Keays on March 11, 2021 at 7:17 am

    The stories above are amusing, but I think most of us have an unrealistic impression of the finality of Wills, when in fact, there are a plethora of stories of Wills gone wrong (meaning against the wishes of the deceased) due to wrangling, interpretation, or downright avarice. Here is one example from personal experience: My sister died some years ago after prolonged illness, and took the necessary pains prior to have a proper Will drawn up, and to discuss her wishes with her executor (me) at length. However, her intent was thwarted because in her final days she received and deposited her commuted pension (what was intended to comprise the assets of her estate) to a joint account. Her common-law partner emptied that account before the executor could even arrange a meeting with the bank. Even though the primary creditor of the estate was the bank’s own mortgage wing, they had no choice but to release the funds. In essence, one beneficiary out of three received the assets, the estate was left only with debt, the mortgagor was forced to foreclose, tenants of the property were displaced, and the executor was advised to resign in order to distance themselves from any potential liabilities (and forego the only option of investing significant personal amounts to challenge in court). And the “best” part: the only one who ever asked to see a copy of the Will was the lawyer for beneficiary who raided the pension assets in the first place. In the end, I, as the executor incurred some personal expense and significant time and stress to negotiate a settlement on behalf of the remaining heir / victim, who could not possibly have otherwise defended themselves.

    Don’t get me wrong – Everyone should have a Will. But don’t think that it is airtight. Maybe if you have millions and there will be a well-paid legal team defending your intentions, there’s a good chance. For the average person, it’s a bit of a crap shoot, it is a huge imposition upon an executor without formal legal training, and worst of all it can tear families apart. Instead of leaving gifts for people (or pets!), do your best to help your family and friends while you are alive and still have control over your assets. Seek advice. Reduce your debts if you can. Organize your files. Use joint accounts/assets, and make sure you have named beneficiaries (registered accounts). Don’t depend solely on the Will.

  5. Dividend Power on April 1, 2021 at 9:06 am

    I like these stories. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.

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