Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Moral of story: Tell family where your will is

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Henry Thomas Coghlan died in London, England, on Nov. 24, 1892. No will was found.

When a person dies without a will to give away the estate, it is called an "intestacy." There is legislation that operates to give the wealth to the deceased person's nearest kin when there is no will. That is what happened to the Coghlan fortune. The fortune was huge -- he enjoyed immense wealth. The fortune was passed to his nearest kin, who decided to put it into a trust where it percolated along for a generation of wealthy Coghlan descendants. Among them was Lady Broughton, the matriarch of the family during the 1940s.

'Here is the problem -- memories are short. You can tell people where to find the will, but they will forget'

An impudent whelp named Briscoe from the poor side of the family came forward in 1948 with a will in his hand. It was allegedly signed by the deceased Mr. Coghlan shortly before his death. It left everything to his brother, where it would devolve down a completely different line of the family. Briscoe served Lady Broughton with court papers, asking the will be put to probate, even though two world wars had intervened. Lady Broughton objected. The lawyers fought it out, and the first skirmish went to Briscoe. He was allowed to put the will to probate.

Briscoe still had to prove the will was valid. It was reminiscent of period television series Downton Abbey. The downstairs folk were fighting the upstairs folk for a massive family fortune. The court case suddenly dropped from sight. There was no published record of the final outcome. What happened to the money?

A potential clue was to be found at Highgate Cemetery in London. The deceased had been the owner of an ornate and very valuable family tomb. The winner of the court case would inherit the tomb. It is still there. Daily tours walk past it. You can go to London and look at the inscription beside the door. The tomb, it turns out, is still sitting un-administered in the estate. It has room for six more caskets but, since Coghlan, no one else has been interred there. He left a testamentary mess that was never fully cleaned up.

Coghlan could have avoided this unfortunate tale for all concerned if he had taken steps to ensure his will would be found.

Where are you storing your will? It might be in your safety deposit box. It might be in a fireproof safe at home. It might be in a drawer. It might be at your lawyer's office. It might be at a family member's house. Some people store their will in their freezer (with the understanding the freezer offers some protection in a house fire). Wherever it is, you want to be absolutely sure your family will find it. No one wants their family to go through the same difficulties as the Broughtons and the Briscoes.

You should tell your executor where you are storing your will. You should then tell your family the same thing. Here is the problem -- memories are short. You can tell people where to find the will, but they will forget. Here is a simple suggestion to make things easier.

You can draft and sign a notice that tells everyone, in writing, where your will is to be found, date it, then make five copies. You can send a copy to everyone who needs to know and keep a copy at home where it will easily be found.

 

John E. S. Poyser is a lawyer with Tradition Law LLP. Contact him at 204-947-6802 or jpoyser@traditionlaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2014 B4

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