When Princess Diana passed away in a tragic 1997 car accident, most people probably imagined that her money and belongings would go to her boys, William and Harry. And her will, written in 1993, seemed pretty short and straightforward. But the story didn’t turn out as you might have expected. At the end of the probate process, some people were left deeply hurt.
It’s amazing that we were able to find out what was in Princess Diana’s will at all, really — that wouldn’t usually be allowed for royals. That’s because the English court is usually requested to seal the will of a deceased highness. It’s been that way for more than 100 years, but Princess Diana was an exception to the rule.
Protecting the Queen
It was the case for Prince Philip, who passed away in 2021, and will likely be the same for Queen Elizabeth. The English High Court determined that the public won't see the contents of Prince Philip's will for just shy of a century. It ruled that the “dignity and standing” of Queen Elizabeth II needs to be upheld. This is uncommon for British wills, which anyone can usually request to see.
The judge who gave the ruling explained why. They said, “I accepted the submission that, whilst there may be public curiosity as to the private arrangements that a member of the Royal Family may choose to make in their will, there is no true public interest in the public knowing this wholly private information.” But the situation was very different for Diana.
In 1998, the public won out, and it was decided that Princess Diana’s will wouldn’t remain a secret. Quite the opposite, in fact. The law firm responsible for her estate said it wouldn’t even ask for the will to be sealed. Lawyer Martyn Gowar of the Lawrence Graham law firm confirmed that he and his colleagues hadn’t taken this step. Why?
Press agency AP reported that Gowar said, “It’s not going to be a private document as it could have been.” The princess’ family wanted to meet the public’s almost insatiable lust to know all there is to know about their beloved Diana. So the will was released just like any other, and people were able simply to walk into Somerset House in London and purchase their own version to take home.
Leaked to the press
Not that the press had to wait for the will to be available at the government archives. Nope, someone sneakily showed it to journalists. And to their surprise, it wasn’t really a complicated document at all. But the reports that were released with it were the first hint that things weren’t quite as they seemed. There was even talk of the will being adjusted, for instance.
Letter of Wishes
In fact, there are still some unanswered questions about the will that won’t ever get cleared up. The thing is, Princess Diana also wrote a document called a “Letter of Wishes,” but the executors didn’t follow its instructions. That meant the money the princess left her sons didn’t arrive when she’d planned.
These questions are important because Princess Diana left a ton of money in her will — among other things. This didn’t exactly look like it would be the case when she and Charles first started seeing each other. Back then, Diana worked as a nanny and in a kindergarten class, so she wasn’t exactly raking in the cash. It equated to about $5 an hour — definitely not a king’s ransom! But you’d never guess that from looking at her will years later.
In her will, Diana ended up leaving nearly $32 million in 1997 money, which is about $55 million at the time of writing. And that wasn’t everything. She’d gathered a fair few jewels, and of course, an epic selection of clothes made by the top designers.
It wasn’t really surprising where Diana had gained all of that money. When she divorced Charles in 1996, the princess received a settlement that was reported to be “$22.5 million in cash, as well as about $600,000 a year to maintain her private office.” She didn’t receive any regular alimony, though.
Keep it in the family
So, who did Diana trust to execute her wishes after she passed? Two ladies got the job: one was Frances Ruth Shand Kydd and the other was Lady Elizabeth Sarah Lavinia McCorquodale. These two weren’t just any splendidly named English aristos — the former was Diana’s mom and the latter her big sister.
Lady Sarah wasn’t supposed to get the job in the first place. The man initially earmarked as executor was Patrick Jephson, who had been Diana’s private secretary. But he moved out of the job in 1996, after Diana did something that the world would never, ever forget.
Jephson’s version of the story came out in 2021, when revelations about journalist Martin Bashir surfaced. Bashir was involved in a huge scandal that showed he’d told fibs and forged papers to get Diana to do a candid tell-all on TV program Panorama. And some of the lies had supposedly been about Jephson, who’d felt upset at the interview and had quit his post when he’d found out about it. So, it was down to Diana’s mom and sister to sort out the will.
And when they saw it, the pair weren’t happy. They made that clear by taking legal action to get a “variation order.” This permitted them to alter the bequests in the will and the associated “Letter of Wishes.” Diana had penned this document the day after drawing up her will, and it would usually have legal force. What was different this time?
The alteration of Diana’s stated wishes wasn’t a public matter like the will, though. It was kept on the down-low, and what the ladies had done only came out years later. That’s when Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell was himself in court. And when the truth emerged, there were some very unhappy people.
Burrell is an interesting character and was extremely close to the princess. Diana is well known to have described him as “her rock.” When she passed, Burrell was heartbroken and was the only non-family member permitted to attend her burial. He even made the catalog of the things that she’d left behind.
The executors were allowed to not pay any attention to the “Letter of Wishes.” That’s because it wasn’t written in the way that the law insists on. So, the outcome was that Diana’s sister and mom were able to do what it said if it suited them, regardless of what the princess may have wanted.
Now it may be — no one can say for sure — that Diana’s relations simply wanted to do right by William and Harry. After all, the outcome of their decision did seem to favor the princes. On the other hand, though, the brothers did have to wait an extra five years before they saw any of the money that they were entitled to. And there were other items that Diana had wanted to pass down, too.
Aside from the money, there were, of course, her physical possessions. That includes the beautiful dress in which she married Charles. And there were also more dresses, lots of jewelry, some photos, and even the lyrics to Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.”
So, if that collection of things didn’t go to the boys straight away, who had it? Well, Diana’s sibling Earl Spencer took care of it. And he put all of that stuff on display for a couple of months a year at Althorp, Diana’s childhood home. And people who came to look at the collection coughed up a tidy fee for the pleasure. The rest of the time it went on a tour of museums and various exhibitions.
That, as you can imagine, made a ton of money. The website for the Princess Diana Collection said that by 2011, it had raked in $2 million, which went to charity. But word went around that it actually brought in more than 15 times that. Diana’s family said it all went to a fund that had been set up in her memory.
In her will, Diana had asked that documents such as the “Letter of Wishes” be put into action “not later than two years” after she had passed. This would have meant a windfall for the people she’d named. But by ignoring the letter, the Spencer family used the collection to make money for 17 years.
Who got more?
So, who did people think would cash in from Diana’s will? Back in the day, William would have gotten the lot. He’s the eldest child, after all. But before anyone saw the will, fans suggested it would look very different. As a future king, William stands to make a lot of cash from the Crown estate — while Harry does not. So, maybe the younger prince would get all of Diana’s inheritance, they were wondering.
That didn’t happen. The plan was that the boys would share three-quarters of the estate’s proceeds equally. They’d initially been set to get the money when they were 25, but the executors changed the age of inheritance to 30. Although it’s no compensation for losing a beloved parent, $16 million — which is what they each likely received — surely comes in handy.
Godkids in need
But, as we know, the two sons didn’t get everything in the will. Nope, Diana wouldn’t forget her godchildren — and she had plenty of them. There were 17 kids who could say the Princess of Hearts was their godmother. Apparently, she was very fond of them all and wanted to help them out.
Diana kept these kids in mind when she was thinking about what to do in the event of her passing. In her “Letter of Wishes,” she wrote, “I would like you to divide, at your discretion, my personal chattels between my sons and my godchildren. The division is to be three-quarters in value to my sons and one-quarter between my godchildren.”
“Personal chattels” is a fancy way of saying “my things.” And in Diana’s case, that meant a swag of cars, clothes, and jewelry. Sharing a quarter of her things among 17 inheritors might sound like they wouldn’t get much, but it amounted to $160,000 each. So it represented something of a considerable windfall.
It was, though, a windfall that Diana’s godchildren would never get. The legal action brought by the princess’ sister and mom altered the bequest, so the godkids only ended up with a single item from Diana’s “chattels.” And the executors chose these pieces. Some of the recipients are reported to have dubbed what they got as a “tacky memento.”
Diana’s sons also got to take one bit of jewelry each, but they were allowed to choose their own. William opted for a watch by Cartier, while Harry picked her engagement ring, resplendent with diamonds and sapphires. But because William got engaged first, they actually swapped. That’s why you may well have seen Meghan sporting the watch.
When Oprah Winfrey interviewed the prince and Meghan, Harry shared that his family had closed the money faucet. He said, “I have what my mom left me, and without that, we wouldn’t have been able to do this. It’s like she saw it coming, and she’s been with us through this whole process.”
The princes and godchildren weren’t the only people to benefit from the will. Diana also left just over $80,000 to Burrell. But it seems this didn’t satisfy the former butler, as he’s been known to use his connection to the princess to make a lot more money. He even ended up on trial, accused of robbing some of her possessions. He was found not guilty, though.
One surprising omission from Diana’s will was charities. The princess didn’t give any one particular organization money, but she did set up a fund that aimed to provide cash for the groups that she favored. It was, however, seeded with just a small sum, and her sons were allowed to dip into it. On the plus side, charities could still make money from Diana’s image and name, since they were left the rights.
One group that did do very well out of Diana’s estate was the U.K. government, which took a huge cut through taxes. The government’s share ended up being roughly $14 million. But it could have ended up getting a great deal less if Charles had used a perfectly legal tactic.
Death and taxes
Charles could have put in what’s known as a Barder application to retrieve millions he’d given in the divorce settlement. That’s because the settlement was given after the will was written. So, Diana had made her bequests based on what she’d had at the time, which was a lot less money than she ended up with.
Once Charles had the money back, he could have popped it into a trust for the princes. This would have brought a much lower amount in taxes. Imagine how much the press would have feasted on the idea that Charles was robbing the estate for his own pocket, though! It’s no wonder he gave it a miss!
Her final wish
There was another point in Diana’s will: she wanted to be buried instead of cremated. As it turned out, Diana had a huge send-off. Millions lined the street to see her casket go by, and she was then buried at Althorp. So, at least this was somewhat in line with her wishes.
Diana also asked that, “Should I predecease my husband… he will consult with my mother with regard to the upbringing in education and welfare of our children.” This proved quite prescient, given that Charles was a fair bit older than her. When she wrote it, Diana probably would have had every expectation of outliving him. It’s not known whether he complied.
For us, one question remains: who ended up with the wedding dress? You know, that beautiful creation by the Emmanuels, with its resplendent, 25-foot train. Well, when Harry turned 30, Diana’s brother handed it over to her two sons. Of course, neither of their wives wore it at their weddings. Kate chose a stunning dress designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen. But it would be the embroiderer who would come forward with details about making the dress — and what Kate was really like in the fittings.