Updated 11 February 2014

'To my wife, I leave nothing'

Wills are often a way of getting in the last word. Sometimes it is well-deserved and sometimes just downright nasty, says Susan Erasmus.


Wills are often a way of getting in the last word. Sometimes it is well-deserved and sometimes it is just downright nasty, says Susan Erasmus.

Technically you can leave your money and assets to whom or whatever you want. You could leave it all to charity, or to a friend, or to the local Chinese restaurant, as one UK woman, one Golda Bechal did. She left the owners of the restaurant, who had become friends of hers, almost R200m. It was contested unsuccessfully by her family, and her friends got to keep the cash.

Disinheriting someone is the stuff of movies and books and TV series: In an episode of Midsomer Murders, a man surprises his unfaithful wife with the following sentence in his will:

“To my wife, who is a liar and cheat, I leave her nothing. I would leave her less if I could.”

But in real life it is not that easy. A surviving spouse and dependent children can make a maintenance claim against an estate. In some countries, such as in Germany, one is obliged by law to leave a set percentage of one’s estate to a spouse – even an ex-spouse. This makes remarrying several times a very expensive venture.

Few things bring out the viciousness in people as a will that is perceived as unfair. When making a will, it should always be the aim of the testator to minimise possible strife, not maximise it. If at all possible, an equal distribution should be something to strive for. If you leave everything to one of your four children, and nothing to the rest, they will spend decades fighting.

It is always an expensive venture to contest a will, with the lawyers often being the only ones who really benefit. Sometimes people can include a clause that prohibits anyone who contests a will from inheriting anything. So if you got 50% of someone’s assets, instead of the 100% you expected and you contested the will, you could lose everything.

But there are some things which you are not allowed to do: it’s called trying to rule from the grave. These would be stipulations such as only leaving money to someone if they married a specific person, or if they produced a son, or changed to a specific religion. Most people would be successful in contesting such stipulations.

The reasons for wanting to disinherit someone vary:

  • Dislike of the person/bearing a grudge/having been betrayed by the person in question
  • Not agreeing with someone’s lifestyle choices (sex, religion, politics)
  • Not liking someone’s partner
  • Not wanting to support a drug habit, or a drinking habit, or a gambling addiction
  • Wanting to get at someone after your death
  • Wanting to cause endless family strife


Here are some peculiar stipulations from a few famous wills:

Leona Helmsley, well-known hotelier, left her Maltese dog $12m – more than she left any individual family member.

Canadian lawyer Charles Vance Millar was a notorious prankster. He left a holiday home in Jamaica to three people he knew hated each other. He also left the bulk of his estate to the Canadian woman who had the highest number of children over the next ten years. Four women, with nine children each, shared the $500 000dollars.

Abdel Nahas, a wealthy Cairo business man, left $2m to a dead mouse. He had had his beloved mouse mummified a year before his death.

T.M. Zink was a lawyer from Iowa who left his daughter $5 and nothing to his wife. But he did leave $100 000 in a trust for 75 years for the creation of a Womanless Library. (It was never built)



Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer for Health24.




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