A recent ruling in the Family Division of the High Court means that the Duke of Edinburgh’s will is to be sealed. This means its contents will remain secret for the next 90 years, joining some 30 other Royal wills. The value of the estate was also ordered to be excluded from the grant of probate.
The sealing of wills belonging to members of the Royal Family is not new and the late Duke of Edinburgh is not the first Royal to have the contents of his will hidden from public view. Since 1910 it has been commonplace for an application to be made to seal a senior Royal’s will to protect it from public scrutiny. The practice dates back to the death of Prince Francis of Teck who died suddenly at the age of 40 and whose will was quickly sealed to avoid a potential scandal bringing the Royal Family into disrepute due to a large legacy he had left to his mistress. This set the precedent for applications for wills to be sealed in circumstances where public inspection of the document would be ‘undesirable or inappropriate’.
Sir Andrew McFarlare, President of the Family Division, heard the application in private but made the decision to publish his judgement so for the first time the legal framework and factors considered when considering these types of application is publicly available.
In his judgement Sir Andrew said that there is ‘no true public interest in the public knowing this wholly private information [the private arrangements in a Royal Family member’s will]’. Additionally, he set out a process that may lead to sealed wills becoming un-sealed in future. Whereas previously sealed wills were sealed indefinitely Sir Andrew has now held that orders sealing wills of the senior Royals will last for 90 years. At this point the wills will be unsealed and reviewed by the monarch’s private solicitor, the keeper of the Royal Archives, the attorney general and any living personal representatives of the late Royal whose will is being un-sealed. Once reviewed a will may either be left un-sealed meaning it becomes a public document, or it may be sealed again and remain secret.
For the general public this should serve as a reminder that wills are published and do become public documents once probate is granted. While it is fine to include messages to family, or non-binding wishes, or explanations as to why a certain person has been left out in a will we often recommend keeping these kinds of sentiments confined to a separate letter for this very reason – Especially if the message or explanation is particularly personal.