Author Nevil Shute's will
Lawyers draft wills better than authors
When legal practices were first established in Australia, a significant portion of their work involved the management of complex wills and estates. However, over time, the founding firms of Allens shifted their focus from managing family estates and trusts to become predominantly commercial practices. This is the story of the firm's involvement in celebrated author Nevil Shute's will.
In the 1960s the founding firms all still advised private clients on estate matters and it was at this time celebrated author Nevil Shute's family learnt the hard way that the writing of a novel and the drafting of a legal document require very distinct skill sets. The family was caught up in a protracted legal dispute after the author insisted on drafting his own will.
During the peak of his fame, Nevil Shute was one of the world's best-selling novelists with 24 novels to his name including A town like Alice and On the beach. His popularity continued well after his death, and increasing income from his books caused problems for his family, because the author insisted he could draft his will better than the lawyers at Hedderwick Fookes & Alston.
Born Nevil Shute Norway in London in 1899, as a young boy Shute developed a love of aeroplanes and writing. By twenty-four he was working for Havilland Aircraft Company, learning to fly and also completing his first novel, Marazan, which came out in 1926. Concerned his colleagues might question his commitment to aeronautical engineering, he published his books under the name Nevil Shute.
In 1931 Shute established his own aircraft construction company, Airspeed Ltd, which by the start of the Second World War was one of the major aircraft-makers in Britain. All the while he continued publishing his novels. By 1938 he had resigned from his burgeoning aeronautical business to focus on writing. Over the next seven years he published seven more novels and enjoyed considerable commercial success through the 1950s and ’60s.
Shute became disenchanted with life in Britain and, in 1948, he flew his wife and two daughters in his plane to Australia to establish a new life. They settled on a farm in Langwarrin, south-east of Melbourne, and it was there he wrote some of his most popular novels including A town like Alice and On the beach, both of which have been adapted several times for film, television and radio.
Hedderwick Fookes & Alston was engaged by Shute to assist with the preparation of his will. Preferring the elegant prose of his novels, Shute was unimpressed with the formal language used by partner Jack Richards and, refusing to 'put his pen to the legal jargon', drafted his own will.
Shute was stunned when his version received a poor reception. Despite heated debate, Richards could only convince Shute to add three words to a critical passage related to the capital and income of the estate. As the firm had not drafted the will, and did not agree with the contents, it only endorsed the will as 'engrossed by Hedderwick Fookes & Alston'. Shute let his opinions be known to senior partner James Forrest, who suggested Shute take his business elsewhere. And he did – to Arthur Robinson & Co.
When Shute died in 1960 his will was contested by his widow. The increasing income from his novels meant that in the four years since his death his estate had grown in value from £154,000 to more than £230,000. His widow had been allocated an annual pension in the will but was now seeking a greater share of the estate. Arthur Robinson & Co found itself in the Supreme Court acting for Shute’s executor. The passage in the will that had so concerned Jack Richards became the subject of an appeal to the High Court. As it turned out, those three words Shute had begrudgingly agreed to – 'from whatever source' – helped resolve the dispute and ensure capital as well as income was received by his wife.
While observing the twenty barristers and solicitors in court for the proceedings, Justice Adams questioned whether it was wise for Shute to have written his own will. He noted that although the homemade will was of literary merit, it would have been cheaper to have had a solicitor draft it.