Drafting wills is a task for experts and even the slightest mistake can become a focus of dispute. That point was made loud and clear by a case in which the true wishes of an eminent scientist were put in doubt by a basic geographical error.
The nuclear physicist was worth about £2.1 million when he died, leaving the lion’s share of his assets ‘within the UK’ to the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific institution. However, he had about £1 million in bank accounts in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, which every geographer knows are not part of the UK.
The society argued before the High Court that its benefactor’s wishes were clear and that the will simply contained an elementary mistake. However, his surviving relatives insisted that he had fallen out with the society in his autumn years and had intended to leave the money he had offshore to them.
Ruling in favour of the society, the Court noted that lawyers may understand the technical meaning of the term ‘UK’ but that even highly intelligent laymen may not. The use of the term in the will was not confined to its legal definition but embraced the whole of the British Isles. The Court was entirely satisfied that the scientist did intend to include the offshore accounts in his will and that their contents should therefore pass to the society.