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Is Your Will Valid?

Writing a Will is important to make sure your end-of-life wishes are realised, and it is essential to write your Will properly or else risk having no legal Will at all.

The more complicated your family ties are during your lifetime and the more complex your estate (including assets in different jurisdictions), the more care you need to take when preparing this legal document.

After over nine years of court battles, the family of Sir Peter Ustinov, the late British actor and Oscar winner, may have lost much of his money to lawyers because his will was not properly written.  The actor died in 2004 at the age of 82.  His fortune at that time was estimated at tens of millions of pounds, including a Renoir and a country estate in Switzerland.  So what happened to his legacy?

Ustinov was married three times and had four children.  The actor, who lived in Switzerland, wrote his last Will 36 years before he died. The Will was written in pencil, which led judges in Switzerland to rule that he died without a valid Will and, as a result, his money passed to his widow, Helene, as per the rules of intestacy.

However, Igor Cloutier von Ustinov, the actor's son by his second wife, claimed that his father had set up trusts in Switzerland and Lichtenstein, meaning that much of his estate should be passed to his children.  Last week he brought proceedings at the High Court in London, claiming that the trusts are governed by British law and should be passed on to him and his sisters. The other children of the actor have also been drawn into the legal battle.

As there is no evidence of the trusts being set up, and the late actor's son cannot prove who the beneficiaries are and the terms of the trust, the UK claim was rejected. However, legal proceedings are still underway in Switzerland and it is becoming clear that much of the actor's fortune has been lost in the costly legal disputes.

The immediate lesson here is that when writing a Will you must ensure it is valid - writing your Will in pencil is certainly not advised.  It is recommended you seek professional advice on the exact wording of your wishes, and how to keep your Will updated to capture important changes in your life and assets.  Writing a will may seem like a simple and straightforward exercise, and in some cases it is, although it may also involves complex legal and tax considerations which require expert advice.