There are many stories about people who make unusual bequests in their last will and testament. Perhaps the strangest story involved a wealthy Portuguese aristocrat who passed away several years ago at the age of 42. The man was unmarried and had no children. But he did leave a will, which named 70 different people to share in the proceeds of his estate.
What made the will unique was that the 70 people were complete strangers. According to a 2007 BBC report, the man sat in the presence of two witnesses and selected the 70 beneficiaries “at random” from a local telephone directory. These individuals had no idea they were the man’s beneficiaries until they were contacted after his death.
American vs. European Rules Governing Heirship
Aside from the unusual method of selecting beneficiaries, the BBC noted that “people do not, as a rule, make wills in Portugal.” While we think of wills as a basic necessity here in the United States, many foreign countries employ a form of civil law known as “forced heirship” to direct what happens to a people’s assets after they die. The Portuguese aristocrat was allowed to spread his generosity as he did only because he did not have a surviving wife or child who would have been automatically entitled to a certain percentage of his estate under that country’s laws.
California does not have any forced heirship rules. This means you are free to leave your property to anyone you wish. The principal restriction is that if you are married, you may only dispose of one-half of any community property held with your spouse at the time of your death. Otherwise, you are not compelled by state law to leave any part of your sole property to a spouse, child, or any other relative.
Does this mean you could follow the Portuguese aristocrat’s example and select 70 people out of the phone book—assuming you could even find a phone book these days—to split your estate? There is probably no barrier under California law to making such a will, but there are some practical reasons that would caution against such a move. For one thing, your estate would likely spend an inordinate amount of time and money locating all of the beneficiaries. And if some of them no longer live in California or have passed on themselves, that could delay the administration of your estates by several months or even years.
Need Advice From a California Estate Planning Attorney?
If you are looking to benefit a large number of strangers through your estate plan, you might consider leaving a bequest to one or more charitable organizations. Not only are such organizations equipped to deal with such gifts, but you can often work with the charity to direct your gift towards a specific purpose or project. A San Diego estate planning lawyer can help you with this and many other subjects. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney today.