Jane Austen’s Will: It Used to Be So Easy
August 11, 2010
Many clients are shocked when they see the sheer volume of paper in a truly well-done estate plan. A trust by itself can be hundreds of pages, not to mention the other 6 to 16 documents you may or may not have—depending on your family situation. You may find that the “simple” estate plan you thought you were getting has turned into something of a size that would rival War and Peace!
It didn’t always used to be this way. The last will and testament of the great Jane Austen, for example, was only one paragraph long:
I Jane Austen of the Parish of Chawton do by this my last will I testament give and bequeath to my dearest sister Cassandra Elizabeth everything of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my Funeral expences, & to a Legacy of £50. to my Brother Henry, & £50 to Mde de Bigeon – which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my said dear sister the executrix of this my last will & testament.
April 27 1817
Although this simplicity may have worked in 1817 England, it isn’t practical in the here and now. Things just aren’t that simple anymore. First of all, although Austen appoints her sister Cassandra as the executrix of her will, the will itself neglects to specify what powers are included in that appointment, leaving Cassandra effectively unable to carry out Austen’s wishes. Secondly, the will neglects to make alternative provisions—what if Cassandra had unexpectedly died before Jane? Also notably lacking (from our contemporary perspective) are any provisions for estate taxes. And finally, discerning readers may notice that the will does not include the signatures of any witnesses, something which is absolutely necessary in order to execute a valid will today (with the exception of holographic wills, which are often created in emergency situations, are entirely hand written, and do not require the signatures of witnesses.)
We all may long for simpler times, especially when it comes to something most people think will only benefit their heirs and not themselves; but many of the rules and regulations that are dismissively thought of as “hoops to jump through” are there for your best interest. They exist to protect your heirs and your legacy from fraud, misuse, greed and neglect. Far from being a chore, creating a thoughtful and legally valid will these days is actually an act of love… One might even say it’s a matter of sense and sensibility.
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