The heirs and their disgraces laid bare for all to see
A will – as in someone’s last will and testament – “is a very private and personal thing”, a prominent RTÉ radio presenter said recently. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
A person’s will is one of the few personal documents that is open to public scrutiny. Anyone can pay fees and find out how much someone’s estate was worth and who benefited. You can be a relative, a curious neighbor or a journalist, it doesn’t matter. They are public documents, open to anyone’s inspection.
Sifting through probate grants of the week on Friday afternoons is a mundane task for most, but sometimes in these dry official documents the drama and tragedy of life is laid bare.
Who could imagine that former Attorney General Paddy Connolly left his stamp collection to the son of murderer Malcolm Macarthur, the man who ruined his life?
But therein lies the mystery of legacies.
Businessman Philip Smyth was an extremely successful person. As a tenant of the Hampton Hotel and founder of Westwood Gymnasiums, he was a multi-millionaire and an extremely private person who never spoke to the media.
Yet when it came time to write his will, he made sure that at least one extraordinary provision would catch the public eye. He ordered his executors, Brenda Flood and Karla Fox, to cede 35% of his company, Leisure Management Corp, to an anonymous consortium of “employees, service providers, contractors and sub-contractors” in recognition of their loyalty to him during his business career.
His estate was valued at €23,711,900 gross and €19,282,604 net. His will was originally probated on January 28, 2021, but was revoked five months later. Now, “by court order”, he has been reinstated, with his executors charged with carrying out those wishes.
For the majority, a will is a simple document in which they leave everything to their spouse or, if he is deceased, to be divided equally between their children. But for others, especially those with complicated family situations or large estates, a will can be used as a weapon or a well-meaning attempt at financial engineering.
Some people, including the very wealthy, sometimes have a cavalier attitude about where their money goes. Patricia Martin, one of Ireland’s wealthiest women when she died aged 91, left an estate valued at 77 million euros.
Living quite modestly, she was the wife of one of Elan Corporation’s first investors. She and her husband, George, had no children, so she simply didn’t bother to make a will, leaving her relatives to settle her estate.
Garech Browne, a Guinness heir as the son of Lady Oonagh Guinness, made his will in 1989, but nearly 30 years later when probated many of the beneficiaries were dead. Sorting out who gets his huge collections of horse-drawn carriages and books is still being worked out.
Millionaire mystical writer, poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, author of Anam Cara (Soul Friend), whose supporters included painter and actress Kate Capshaw – the wife of director Steven Spielberg – should have signed an intelligent and lucid will, dividing his considerable assets.
Instead, Judge Paul Gilligan said O’Donohue’s will “unfortunately provided an illustration of how a person should not make a will”.
When O’Donohoe drafted the will in February 2001 before going on a speaking tour of America, he did so without legal advice. It stipulated that he left “all my material possessions to my mother Josie to be fairly and equitably divided among my family with special care and further assistance to be given to my sister Mary”.
No one could figure out exactly what he meant by that. O’Donohoe then named two of the will’s beneficiaries as executors — “a classic mistake,” as the judge described it.
In 2011, as his family tried to settle their inheritance, they had to go to the High Court, where the judge ruled that the “uncertainty” of his wishes made the €2million “cancelled”. It was as if he had died intestate, or without having made a will at all.
Cathal Ryan, heir to a Ryanair fortune, signed his will two days before his death at the age of 47. For him, a clause was not so much financial engineering as rewarding a former girlfriend. Sarah Linton had been embroiled in the Michelle Rocca v. Cathal Ryan case, one of the great famous cases of the 1990s.
When socialite June Moloney, who knew them both, hosted her 30th birthday party at Blackhall Stud in Co Kildare, she invited Rocca, who had a child with Ryan. He came to the party with his new girlfriend, Linton, a nanny. The ensuing row in a stud room ended in a civil action by Rocca in the High Court for assault on Ryan.
In evidence, Rocca told the court: “I had no right to follow her [Linton] but as a fiancée, I had every right to be angry if I found him in bed with another woman.
Linton, who was fully dressed when she was dragged out of bed, told the court that Rocca ‘grabbed me by the hair and dragged me into the bedroom’ in what she described as ‘a frenzied attack “.
Rocca was awarded £7,500 for assault in a case that left the public upset over the way the other half lived. But when he wrote his £250m will, Ryan made amends to Linton for unwittingly putting his private life in the public domain. Clause 3.8 stated: “To my trustees, the sum of €2,000,000 free of all taxes whatsoever, shall be held in trust for Sarah Linton for her absolute use and benefit.”
Writer and journalist Nuala O’Faolain made her will her last written work. The month before dying of cancer at the age of 68, she gave a moving interview to her friend, Marian Finucane, revealing that she had only a few weeks left to live.
When she left €2,149,028, she specified a whole list of bequests to friends, writers and journalists, some in thanks “for their sandwiches”, others “for tireless daily help” or “imagination and wit or to buy “a bottle of something good” in one case, “probably for shoes” in another, while telling friends to buy something for their cats and dogs.
According to the Inland Revenue affidavit filed with the will of Sir Alfred Beit, the art collector who bequeathed Russborough House in Co Wicklow to the nation, he left assets worth over £9 million pounds sterling (10.9 million euros), mainly in South Africa and the United Kingdom. . At the time of his death he had also left paintings, including works by Vermeer and Metsu, to the National Gallery of Ireland. Subsequently, the most intriguing clause in the will of his wife, Lady Clementine Beit, after her death in August 2005, concerned her husband’s diaries. Sir Alfred had been an intimate in the royal social circles of ‘Fred’, who became King George VI and whose life was immortalized in film The King’s Speech.
Clause 8 specified that its administrators, a Dublin law firm, “retain the same [her husband’s diaries] in their sole possession and safekeeping for a period ending 21 years from the date of death of the last living survivor on the date of my death from the deliverance of His late Britannic Majesty King George VI or for 70 years from my death, the one that will be the shortest”.
Which means that the diaries will not be deposited in the National Library in Dublin, as specified, until 21 years after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The question of what they contain to require such a provision remains a mystery.
Another common provision in wills is for someone to mention a son or daughter, but add “I declare that I have made proper provision for them during my lifetime” – meaning they are effectively disinherited.
Many wills, especially when there is a lot of money involved, also contain a clause that if a person is unhappy with the terms of the will and chooses to dispute it, they are automatically entitled to nothing. . Unless, of course, their legal challenge is successful.
Money can make the world go round, but a will, as one lawyer put it, “is a document that comes from beyond the grave to touch those left behind…and not always for the better” .
Which may be one of the reasons that wills are public documents.