Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Royal British Family, is 96 years old. She became the longest-reigning monarch in British History in 2015. Just days ago, she became the second-longest reigning monarch in world history.
However, the public grows concerned over her health. According to NPR, the Queen has demonstrated “declining health.” In recent months, she has been seen walking with a cane and missing public events.
When the Queen passes away, Operation “London Bridge” will go into effect. This is an operational plan that addresses what will happen to the United Kingdom on the day and immediately following the death of Queen Elizabeth II and ensures that her death is handled gracefully and sensitively.
Curious and probing minds can’t help to wonder, what will happen to the Queen’s estate when she passes away? Will her estate have certain privileges for its royal status?
An understanding of the Queen’s relationship to the Law can help provide some context.
The Queen’s Sovereignty
Until the 17th century, the United Kingdom’s Sovereign was directly involved in the enforcement of law and the establishment of different legal systems. In more simple terms, the royal family used to hold absolute power over the affairs of their kingdom. According to the Royal Family website, the Sovereign was known as the ‘Fount of Justice.’
Over time, this system changed. Today, the Queen serves as the Royal Head of the United Kingdom and retains a critical symbolic role. However, the Sovereign no longer carries out the enforcement of law in a practical way. Instead, Sovereign powers from the past were handed over to Parliament.
Because Parliament’s authority was granted by the Sovereign, however, the Sovereign is not subject to Parliament. For instance, UK passports and driver’s licenses are issued in the Sovereign’s name. However, the reigning Sovereign doesn’t have to have a passport or a driver’s license.
Civil and criminal proceedings cannot be taken against the Queen under UK law. Of course, the Queen is very proper and conducts herself in strict alignment with the law, she herself is quite literally above the law.
The Queen’s relationship to UK law helps explain certain privileges she has in relation to her estate.
The Sealing of Wills Challenged
The UK has a law stating that Will become a matter of public record when they go through probate. This is true in the United States as well.
However, members of the Royal family have certain privileges. For instance, the sealing of Royal wills became a tradition in 1910. The will of Prince Francis of Teck was sealed from public record. It apparently contained certain secrets that could bring about embarrassment to the Royal Family.
Today, it is tradition for the Royal Family to ask the courts to seal a will following the death of a senior member of the family. This means that the Will not be made available for public inspection.
History regarding the sealing of the Royal will is currently in the making. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II, passed away in April 2021. His will was set to be sealed indefinitely per Royal family tradition.
However, Sir Andrew MacFarlane, President of the Family Division and Head of Probate, had other plans. He currently serves as the custodian for over 30 sealed envelopes containing wills of dead Royal Family members.
For the first time in 100 years, Sir Andrew set out a process that could make these wills public. When the executor of Prince Philip’s estate filed an application to have the will sealed, the judge made a ruling that the will should only be sealed for 90 years.
After 90 years, each Royal will be opened and examined by the keeper of the Royal Archives, the attorney general, and any close relatives or representatives of the deceased who are still available. At this juncture, a decision will be made on whether any of these wills should be made public record. However, some of these wills may never be published.
Sir Andrew’s decision was based on a desire to give some “legal and historical context” to the custom of sealing Royal wills. It could also potentially reduce speculation that the sealing of Royal wills is extraordinary in any way.
However, 90 years is a long time from now. The odds of anyone currently alive to read Prince Philip’s will, or wills of the other senior Royal family members that have been sealed, is near zero.
Can the Queen’s Will Go Public in 90 Years?
Sir Andrew’s ruling that created an option for Royal wills to become unsealed in 90 years has stirred some excitement over the Queen’s will. If previously sealed will go public 90 years from now, does this mean we will be able to view the Queen’s will?
Here, the answer is ‘highly unlikely.’ It’s important to point out that the Queen isn’t just a member of the Royal Family. She is the Sovereign. The Crown is above the law, and thus the Queen will not be subject to court approval nor the probate process following her death. The Queen’s will is automatically valid because of her sovereign power and thus is not subject to UK laws determining whether wills should become a matter of public record or not. This is true unless the Queen makes the decision herself to provide public access to her will, which is unlikely.
Further, the Crown has legal tax exempt status, meaning her estate and beneficiaries will not be subject to income tax, capital gains tax, estate tax, or inheritance tax.
What Will Happen to The Queen’s Estate?
As the Sovereign of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II estate will not become a public record. Speculation says that Prince Charles, who stands to become the King of England, is the primary beneficiary of Queen Elizabeth II’s estate. However, we’ll have to stay tuned to see what will really happen with the Queen’s estate.
By Mitch Mitchell, Associate Counsel, Trust & Will