26th October 2021

Why Downton Abbey taught me to have a Formal Will in Place

If you have managed to watch, or like myself, re-watch all of the Downton Abbey drama you will no doubt remember one of the series most shocking events (warning: spoilers ahead!).   Lady Mary’s husband, Matthew, died in a tragic car accident on his way home from meeting his newborn son at the hospital.

There is a great deal of uncertainty about what will happen to Matthew’s estate following his death, particularly because he is the Downton heir. Without a Will, under the law at the time, his estate did not pass to Lady Mary but to his newborn son.

Miraculously, a handwritten Will signed by Matthew is later found inside a book. However, it was not initially clear whether it would be valid, causing further distress.

As well as making great TV, there are some valuable lessons that can be learned from this scenario.

Is handwriting a Will myself enough or should I see a Solicitor?

So now you have decided you should maybe make a Will, right? The first thing you might do is turn to Google for some advice, where you will likely see things such as “How to make a Will: A Free Step to Step Guide” pop up on your screen and the idea becomes ever so tempting to follow in Matthew’s not so wise footsteps and prepare your own Will.

While it is possible to write your own Will, it does not mean that is always going to be legally valid or do what you intended it to. Moreover, online writing tools, YouTube videos and other ‘quick fixes’ are not guaranteed as the best educational source to write something so important. There are many vital differences, even within the UK, of the essential content and signing requirements for a Will to be legally binding. A number of online guides will refer only to English procedures and formalities, which may lead to the Will requiring extra procedures being followed through the Court for the Will to be considered as valid in Scotland.

For example, when Matthew’s Will was located, Lord Grantham did not think the Will would be valid, causing distress to Lady Mary that her late husband’s wishes may not be effected. There is also the issue that the Will may not be found for some time, or perhaps ever, if you do not store it securely, such as with a Solicitor. This may mean that your wishes are never known or implemented.  

Depending on your age and family relationships you make think that there is no need to make a Will. However, as we saw with Matthew death can be untimely and sadly, even in the real world, we do not know what the future holds. If you have children or own a property, regardless of your age, it is very important that you write a Will to make matters as easy as possible for your family should the worst happen.

The best way to ensure that all of your assets are distributed in the way you envisioned, and to prevent any drama, is to instruct a Solicitor to prepare your Will. It also can prevent arguments arising after your death if your homemade Will is unclear. Furthermore, if there is uncertainty about the validity of a Will there can be delays and expenses associated with ascertaining whether or not the Will is valid and following any additional procedures which may be required.

A Solicitor will also be able to advise on other important matters specific to you and your circumstances, such as including a clause to say who you would like to be the guardian of any children you may have, and also advise on Legal Rights. Legal Rights are a claim that your spouse or children may have on your estate, and can alter the distribution of your estate.

So, what did I learn from Downton Abbey? A handwritten Will may make a good storyline, but the drama is better left on screen than in our real lives. The best way to do this is to instruct a Solicitor to prepare your Will.

While the idea of making a Will can be seen as upsetting or stressful, those feelings do not necessarily disappear by hiding them a drawer.

If you are yet to make a Will or feel that the Will you have requires updating, please contact a member of the Blackadders Private Client team working in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth.

Alex Peddie, Trainee Solicitor
Private Client
Blackadders LLP




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