For those who may have missed it – King Charles III was Crowned in a lavish (but purposefully not too lavish!) ceremony on Saturday 6 May 2023.
Ahead of the coronation we had a bit of fun recording a podcast on the automatic passing of the Royal Inheritance from one sovereign to the next. In preparing for the podcast I found myself drawn into the many legal complexities of the Royal Inheritance and, in particular, the sealing of Royal Wills.
A Royal state of affairs
124 and 125 of the Senior Courts Act 1981 set out that if a person pays the requisite fee, they can have sight of any Will on which a Grant has been obtained. The default position is therefore that any and all Wills where a Grant of Probate is obtained will become public.
However, this does not apply to the Sovereign, as since 1822 (see In the Goods of his late Majesty King George 111 Deceased (1822)) it has been established that the Sovereign does not need to apply for a Grant of Probate. It therefore automatically follows that if there is no Grant of Probate, there is no right for the public to access that document.
This does not apply to other members of the Royal Family, however. Meaning a prompt application is necessary to the Court on each occasion to seek any such bar in disclosure to the general public.
The application is made under Rule 58 of the Non-Contentious Probate Rules, which allows any Will (Royal or otherwise) to be removed from public scrutiny if a District Judge or Registrar deems such inspection to be undesirable or inappropriate.
The first known senior Royal to have their Will sealed was His Serene Highness Prince Francis of Teck. For those not up to date on their Royal History, Prince Francis was the younger brother of Princess Mary of Teck, who later married King George V, making her Queen Mary in 1910.
With the precedent set, it has been possible for the Executors of Senior Royals to make an application to seal the relevant Will since this time, preventing their content from being known to the public. Whether or not a person is considered a Senior Royal was confirmed in the recent case of The Will of his Late Royal Highness Prince Philip The Duke of Edinburgh (2021). This case referenced an earlier Judgment by Lord Phillips and Mr Justice Charlies.
The Judgment summarised that the following would be deemed Senior Royals:
- The Consort of a Sovereign or former Sovereign;
- The child of a Sovereign or former Sovereign; and
- A member of the Royal Family who, at the time of His or Her death, is first or second in line of succession to the throne, or a child of such a person.
Clearly when applying this to the current list of Royals, it appears many would be considered Senior Royals.
While a little more research would be required to gather an exact list of all of the Wills that have been sealed, the Judgment in Prince Philip’s Estate’s did helpfully confirm that both Princess Margaret (Queen Elizabeth II’s sister) and The Queen Mother (Queen Elizabeth II’s mother) had their Wills sealed in recent years, in addition now to Prince Philip. However, perhaps rather unexpectedly, Diana The Princess of Wales’s Will was not sealed.
A personal matter
Historically sealed Wills were done so indefinitely. However, in the case of Prince Philip, the Court decided that the Will should be sealed for a minimum of 90 years, on the grounds that this was proportionate and sufficient in that particular matter. At the end of the 90 year period specific parties are to be involved in deciding whether the Will should, at that time, be open for public scrutiny or whether it should remain sealed for a further period of time.
When making such a decision, the Court noted that the relevant circumstances are primarily the inherent public interest in protecting the Sovereign’s dignity and that of the close members of the family, in order to protect their position and fulfil their constitutional role.
Due to the automatic sealing of the Sovereign’s Will and the equal ability for Senior Royals to have their Will’s sealed, very little is factually known about the Royal Family’s personal wealth or their intended beneficiaries. However, in due course, future generations may be able to glean a little more.
Cara Hough, Partner