During my career, I’ve either read or drafted thousands of wills for clients. There is one will, however, that I’m dying to read, simply because I can’t.
This past spring, Prince Philip died at the age of 99, just two months shy of his 100th birthday. While I’m not particularly a follower of the Royals, I felt bad when the Duke of Edinburgh passed. I always thought he carried himself with quiet grace while he sat in Queen Elizabeth’s shadow. Other than that, though, I didn’t think much about his death – until last week.
On September 16, Sir Andrew McFarlane, the most senior judge in England’s family courts ruled that Prince Philip’s will is to remain sealed for 90 years to protect the “dignity and standing” of the Queen. He has not seen Prince Philip’s will, nor has he been told of its contents other than the date it was executed and the identity of its appointed executor.
McFarlane held a private hearing in July with lawyers representing Prince Philip’s estate and the attorney general, who represents the public interest. They met in private because it would have generated “very significant publicity and conjecture” that would “defeat the purpose of the application.”
According to the BBC, McFarlane said, “I accepted the submission that, whilst there may be public curiosity as to the private arrangements that a member of the Royal Family may choose to make in their will, there is no true public interest in the public knowing this wholly private information.”
The ruling is nothing new – it has been convention for over a century that, after the death of a senior member of the Royal Family, the courts are asked to seal their wills. So, McFarlane also established a process for how Prince Philip’s and all sealed wills of the Royal Family can be made public. As president of the Family Division of the High Court, McFarlane is the custodian of a safe filled with more than 30 envelopes, each containing the sealed will of a deceased member of the Royal Family.
“I have held that, because of the constitutional position of the Sovereign, it is appropriate to have a special practice in relation to royal wills,” McFarlane said about the new process. “There is a need to enhance the protection afforded to truly private aspects of the lives of this limited group of individuals in order to maintain the dignity of the Sovereign and close members of her family.”
While previous royal wills were sealed indefinitely, McFarlane held that 90 years after being submitted to probate, they can be unsealed by a professional archivist to ensure the documents and seals are properly preserved. Each royal will shall be examined by the monarch’s private solicitor, the keeper of the Royal Archives, the attorney general and by any personal representatives of the dead person who may still be available. This team will then decide whether the will may be made public, however, McFarlane believes some royal wills may never be published, even in part.
The first member of the Royal Family whose will was sealed by the court was Prince Francis of Teck, the younger brother of Queen Mary, who died in 1910. His will was sealed because he left valuable emeralds prized by Queen Mary to his mistress, the Countess of Kilmorey.
When the Queen and Prince Francis’ wife, Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, found out, he was probably lucky that he was already dead.