[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2007, 09:40 GMT
Where there's a will there's a whim
A view of Lisbon where 70 people became heirs out of the blue

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

A Portuguese aristocrat's bequest of his fortune to 70 total strangers is the latest in a line of unusual last wills and testaments.

He could have left it all to a charity, any charity - perhaps one that cares for cats as Jonathan Jackson of Columbus, Ohio, envisaged when he drew up his own will in the late 19th Century?

Mr Jackson left money for the creation of a "cat house", according to The People's Almanac, where cats had sleeping quarters, a dining hall, an exercise area, specially designed roofs for easy climbing, a conversation room and - why not? - an auditorium where they could listen to the accordion.

Instead, Luis Carlos de Noronha Cabral da Camara opted for setting a cat among the pigeons: 70 people listed in a Lisbon phone directory were contacted out of the blue after his death to be told he had made them his beneficiaries.

They had been chosen at random from the directory, in front of two witnesses at a registry office 13 years before.

one 12-room apartment in central Lisbon
one house near the historic northern town of Guimaraes
one car
25,000 euros ($32,000)

It certainly came as a shock to them, a top Portuguese lawyer told the BBC News website.

In the first place, people do not, as a rule, make wills in Portugal. In the second, Portuguese aristocrats are getting thin on the ground, let alone eccentric ones. In the third - to be chosen by phone directory? No wonder that some feared they were being scammed.

"Every day you hear of pranks people play on old people," 76-year-old heiress Helena told Portuguese weekly newspaper Sol.

Not that there is anything new about odd last wills and testaments.

  • Beverly Hills socialite Sandra West, 37, left most of her $3m fortune to her brother; her wish to be buried reclining in her baby-blue Ferrari and dressed in her favourite lace nightgown was granted after her death in 1977
  • McNair Ilgrenfritz, a wealthy American music-lover and composer, left $125,000 to be claimed by a major opera house should it agree to stage one of his self-penned operas; the New York Metropolitan Opera declined the request though it described his Phedre and Le Passant as competent
  • Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson tried to leave his birthday to a friend who complained of being born on Christmas Day; he asked that Annie H Ide treat his birthday (13 November) with "moderation and humanity... the said birthday not being so young as it once was"

The Portuguese legacy appears genuine enough - it is just that Luis Carlos had arranged his own departure to be a departure from the norm.

Pin in a book

"Normally if somebody makes a will they have to take it reasonably seriously in terms of making sure their wishes are complied with," said Richard Grosberg, who speaks for the Law Society of England and Wales on wills and probate.

You have those sorts of things that have a light-hearted element to them but the people are serious in that they want the money to go to that person
Richard Grosberg
Law Society

"You have people who will put something in which will mean something to the person who is receiving it."

He recalls one man bequeathing his watch to a friend who used to joke he would like to have it when he was "gone". Another man left 5,000 ($9,800) to a friend living in the Scottish borders so he could get mains water connected to his house.

"You have those sorts of things that have a light-hearted element to them but the people are serious in that they want the money to go to that person - as opposed to someone saying 'Right, I've no idea as to whom I'm going to leave it to so I'll stick a pin in the phone book'," says Mr Grosberg.

He points out that in England and Wales, "you can, generally speaking, do what you want" with your will though there are grounds for challenging it such as mental incapacity or the existence of dependents.

The result, as fellow wills and probate specialist Jeremy Wilson notes, is that wills can equally be used as a weapon to spite the living.

He knows of one case where the person leaving the will left a nominal sum to a close relative. "There was a lot of bitterness there," Mr Wilson notes.

On the European continent, however, things are usually rather different.

An untraditional aristocrat

Luis Carlos was a childless bachelor when he died at the age of 42 so he was unusually free to dispose of his estate, which consisted of a 12-room apartment in central Lisbon, a house in the north of Portugal, a car and 25,000 euros ($32,000).

Actually, to talk about a will here to somebody is a bit like talking about death and people don't like to talk about death
Dr Perri da Camara
vice-president of the Portuguese Law Association

Under the Portuguese system, which is similar to much of European continental law, close relatives - or "obliged heirs" as they are known - stand automatically to gain the greater part of a person's inheritance, and the person bequeathing gets to dispose freely of only about a quarter of it.

"We don't have a tradition of wills in Portugal," says Dr Perri da Camara, vice-president of the Portuguese Law Association.

"Actually, to talk about a will here to somebody is a bit like talking about death and people don't like to talk about death."

If the dead person has made no will and has no legal heirs, the fortune passes to the Portuguese state.

Aristocracy, Dr da Camara adds, is becoming a thing of the past in Portugal though there are still a few big families around,

In the village of Calvos, where Luis Carlos had latterly been living, he was remembered with fondness by a man who worked for him.

"He was a good man although he drank a lot," the man told Portuguese TV.

And he had a sense of humour too, according to one of his friends, Anibal Castro Vila, who told Sol newspaper:

"I am sure he just wanted to create confusion by leaving his belongings to strangers. That amused him."

Have you ever received an unexpected bequest?

Your comments:

My father once came to the rescue of a German-speaking woman at an airport- perhaps for immigration papers. They connected on the same flight and talked all the way to their destination. They must have exchanged contact information because about two years later my father received a package in the mail. In it was a letter from the woman's daughter stating that she had passed away and had always spoken of my father's help. He opened the package and found a German magazine. He didn't quite understand the significance until he flipped through it and found several rare German coins taped to the inside of one of the pages (presumably to prevent them from being noticed and stolen if they were sent simply in an envelope). She had remembered that my father collected coins and had insisted that her daughter send them to him when she passed. What a story!
A.M., Dallas, TX

My maternal grandmother had few belongings at the end, as she had lived in a small apartment, but to avoid confusion among her two children and 10 grandchildren, every item had a sticker with the person's name written on it, who was to receive the item. I think we all kept the stickers on the items to this day.
Laurie Salem, Philadelphia USA

The funniest I ever heard was a very well-to-do man who left everything he owned to his wife, except for whatever sum would result from the sale of his very expensive top-of-the range Mercedes Benz which should go to his mistress. Somehow the wife managed to sell the vehicle for what would be the equivalent of around US$250 today!
Gigi, Sydney, Australia

I grew up in Poland and one of my Grandma's friends spent the WWII years working for a rich man or lady (I can't remember which) as a housekeeper in the UK. After the war, she moved back to Poland. A few years later, she received a notice that her ex-employer had passed away and included her in the will. Imagining, no doubt, huge riches in her future, she travelled to the UK (I'm sure at great expense to her) to find out what she had received: a pet cat (as the will stated, she was always very nice and caring to the cat), along with instructions on what kind of ham and other treats to feed to the cat (ham and other fine foods were either unavailable or very expensive in post war Poland). I do not recall if she brought the cat back to Poland or what happened to it... but I thought it was funny!
Chris K., Houston, TX

One item almost caused a war within the family. My Grandmother gave me a cruet off of her dining table, because once when I was a teenager told her that when I saw it, I knew I was at Grandma's House. Turned out it was some valuable antique, which my Uncle (who collects such stuff) wanted. It's still on my dining table to this day.
CT Blake, Spring, TX

My parents received a 23rd each for taking an old lady (and her sister who died a few years prior) to church every week for many years. The other 23rds went to various friends and her surviving sister and her sister's daughter. Nobody received more than one 23rd. The family contested the will and lost. My parents used their shares to buy a new car for the first time in the lives.
Steven Wilson, Cambridge, UK

My grandmother and her sister each received controversial bequests back in 1953. Hylda was awarded almost everything- about half a million pounds, whilst Mary received rather less - a farthing!
James Booth, Cairo, Egypt

HK billionaire widow clears name
02 Dec 05 |  Asia-Pacific

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific