History & freedom of disposition

Charles Vance Millar’s will was notorious for offering the bulk of his estate to the Toronto woman who had the greatest number of children in the ten years after his death (the Great Stork Derby). Attempts to invalidate it by his would-be heirs were unsuccessful, and the bulk of Millar’s fortune eventually went to four women.

The Thellusson Will Case was fictionalized by Charles Dickens as Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Bleak House, and led to Parliament legislating against such accumulation of money for later distribution.

According to Consumer Reports, as many as 56% of Americans don’t have a will. Among the notables who died either without a valid will or no will at all are Ross Alexander, Fatty Arbuckle, Anura Bandaranaike,Madhav Prasad Birla, Sonny Bono, George Brent, Lenny Bruce, Jacob A. Cantor, Kurt Cobain, Russ Columbo, Sam Cooke, James Dean, Sandy Dennis, John Denver, Divine, Duke Ellington, Cass Elliot, Chris Farley, Bobby Fischer, Redd Foxx, Mary Frann, James A. Garfield, Marvin Gaye, Ulysses S. Grant, Billie Holiday, Buddy Holly, Shemp Howard, Howard Hughes, Andrew Johnson, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ernie Kovacs, Harry Langdon, Bruce Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Peter Lorre, Jayne Mansfield, Rocky Marciano, Karl Marx, Steve McNair, Sal Mineo, Carmen Miranda, Keith Moon, Rosa Parks, Pablo Picasso, Mihajlo Idvorski Pupin, Tupac Shakur, Don Simpson, Anna Nicole Smith, William Desmond Taylor, Sharon Tate, Tiny Tim, Ritchie Valens, Hervé Villechaize, Barry White, and Jimmy Witherspoon.

The longest known legal will is that of Englishwoman Frederica Evelyn Stilwell Cook. Probated in 1925, it was 1,066 pages, and had to be bound in 4 volumes; her estate was worth $100,000. The shortest known legal wills are those of Bimla Rishi of Delhi, India (“all to son”) and Karl Tausch of Hesse, Germany, (“all to wife”) both containing only three words.[3]

Freedom of disposition

The conception of the freedom of disposition by will, familiar as it is in modern England and the United States, both generally considered common law systems, is by no means universal. In fact, complete freedom is the exception rather than the rule. Civil law systems often put some restrictions on the possibilities of disposal; see for example “Forced heirship”.

Advocates for gays and lesbians have pointed to the inheritance rights of spouses as desirable for same-sex couples as well, through same-sex marriage or civil unions. Opponents of such advocacy rebut this claim by pointing to the ability of same-sex couples to disperse their assets by will. Historically, courts have been more willing to strike down wills leaving property to a same-sex partner for reasons such as incapacity or undue influence.

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