In England and Wales, you can leave your estate to whomever you like. You can also include unusual provisions in your will, for example, leave legacies to pets, make eccentric last requests or give unconventional funeral instructions.

However, the above freedom can come at a price. You should also be aware that the way in which you leave your assets and use unusual will clauses can sometimes prompt family disputes or claims being made against an estate. When making a will, it is, therefore, vital to consider the potential impact of your wishes.

For example, when the late fashion designer, Alexander McQueen, left a £50,000 trust fund for the benefit of his dogs, this might have caused a dispute. However, the majority of his estimated £16 million estate was left to good causes and family members and therefore the gift to his pets was proportionate.

And think about the practicalities of fulfilling Sir Francis Drake’s and Napoleon Bonaparte’s last requests.  The former asked that his two favourite ships be sunk near to where he was buried at sea and the latter asked that his head was shaved after his death, and made into bracelets and shared amongst his family and friends.

Quirky funeral wishes may not always be well received by grieving family members and not all families may not be either willing or able to accommodate unconventional requests at what is an already difficult time.

In the US, when Fredric Baur (the founder of the famous Pringles crisps brand) died in 2008, he left instructions with his family to bury his ashes in a Pringles can. They duly obliged, but not every family might be as understanding.

It is also important to remember that not all unusual will clauses carry harmless messages. Indeed, some may be designed to deliberately cause distress. Consider the potential impact of the will of Anthony Scott which stated: ‘To my first wife Sue, whom I always promised to mention in my will. Hello, Sue!”. The poet, Henrich Heine’s will left his entire estate to his wife, on the condition that she remarried, because “then there will be at least one man to regret my death.”

In the 1960s, Samuel Bratt left £330,000 to his wife in his will, but the legacy had a catch. His wife had apparently never let him smoke so, in order to obtain the money, he requested that she smoke five cigars a day.

Some of these clauses may appear amusing, but it is vital to bear in mind that, firstly, those involved will be dealing with bereavement and also that wills may later become public documents, which can then be accessed by anyone for a small fee.

Whilst leaving a derisory comment in your will or seeking revenge may appear tempting, would you want it to cause a legal dispute, damage family relationships, make personal disputes public, or incur unnecessary costs to your estate?

Another potential problem is when wills fail to make sufficient provision for family members. Sarah Clarke stated in her will that she had left £1 to her daughter “for the kindness and love she has never shown me.”  That may have reflected her feelings, but such clauses can result in family members bringing financial claims against estates.

Under the Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependants) Act 1975 certain family members and financial dependants can bring a claim for a ‘reasonable financial provision’ to be made to them from an estate.

If you leave someone who falls within these categories of claimants either little or nothing in your will, they may later be awarded a far greater share of your estate than you had intended.

If you are considering excluding a close relative or financial dependant from your will or including an unusual or contentious will clause, you should also consider obtaining specialist legal advice.

Similarly, if you have been left out of a will and fall into one of the categories listed below, you would be entitled to bring a claim under the above 1975 Act. Qualifying to bring a claim is not a guarantee that a sum will be awarded by the court (as each case is dealt with on an individual basis). However, deadlines for making a claim apply and you should also consider obtaining specialist legal advice as
soon as possible.

So, in addition to passing on your assets or family heirlooms, it is vital to consider what other unexpected ‘legacies’ your will may leave behind.