It was recently announced that Prince Philip’s Will is to be kept secret for 90 years.

Whilst this will come as no surprise, it is not always widely known that after someone dies the documents made during their lifetime – the last Will and Codicils – become public record and can be obtained for as little as £1.50 via the government website.

Potential revelation of private information doesn’t stop there as a Grant of Probate or Letters of Administration – which are documents obtained after death can be obtained in the same way. Such documents will usually show the gross and net value of the estate. Such information is susceptible to prying or nosy eyes, whether innocent or malicious.

In many cases a Will or a probate document does not reveal anything surprising. However, the following scenarios can lead to family rifts and expensive litigation:

  • a disgruntled beneficiary may be incentivised to bring a claim under the 1975 Act if they feel or were told by the deceased that they should have benefitted more (especially if the estate is high value).
  • were siblings treated unequally?
  • was someone cut from the Will when they expected to benefit? Again there is a risk of the expectant party bringing a claim.
  • did the deceased have a secret child, partner or family? This can all come to light when gifts to secret parties are disclosed in a Will.

Whilst the above are extreme examples they can be avoided with careful planning.

So how can you keep your will under wraps?

Be discrete by placing everything into a discretionary trust.

You can name as many discretionary beneficiaries as you want, however no beneficiary has a right to anything, merely an “expectation of hope”. Your trustees can be given the power to add beneficiaries (should you want someone to secretly benefit) which means that that person never has to be named in a public document.

Put the confidential information in a letter of wishes.

Importantly the letter of wishes is generally private, however in certain cases they may be disclosed ie if someone legitimately challenges the Will, in relation to a 1975 Act claim or in divorce proceedings. The letter of wishes is paramount and guides your trustees. It sets out how you would want your estate to be distributed, and to whom. However, the ultimate decision does rest with the trustees and so one needs to have total confidence that your trustees would obey your wishes.

Not keen on the trust route? You can still make letters of wishes to sit alongside the Will.

Again these do not generally become public record. If you are contemplating making a Will, want to treat your children unequally, but have a good reason for doing so, recording your wishes may prevent the child from feeling they have been unfairly treated and can disincentivize someone from bringing a claim.