At first glance, wills and estate planning can seem dull. We don’t blame you for thinking that, but we have some stories that might just change your mind.

Join us for Eccentric Estates as we cover famous and fascinating wills in history that will make estate planning a bit more… fun?

This week, we’re sharing the story of Philip Lanagan. Philip lived in Saskatchewan and passed away in 2015, leaving seven children behind.

Before he passed away, Philip made a will — but it wasn’t your typical will, it was just a few words scribbled on a McDonald’s napkin.

Would you like a will with that?

Sometime between 2006 and 2015, Philip was eating at a McDonald’s in Saskatchewan, and believed he was feeling the symptoms of a heart attack. Afraid he was going to pass away under the golden arches, Philip grabbed a pen and jotted down his will on a napkin right there in the booth. On the napkin, he wrote just a few words: “Split my property evenly, Dad Philip Lanagan”. It turned out, Philip wasn’t having a heart attack. After the scare, he decided to give the napkin to his daughter Sharon and told her to take care of it in case anything happened to him.

But it gets complicated…

Shortly after Philip passed away in 2015, Sharon produced the will — but Philip’s daughter Maryann was skeptical that the napkin was written by her father. Maryann didn’t have a sample of his handwriting to compare it with, and said he had told her he didn’t plan to leave a will because he wanted “us kids to fight like he had to.” Plus, the will wasn’t dated, a formal requirement for a valid will in Saskatchewan. So Maryann decided to challenge the validity of the will in court.

Saskatchewan legislation allows for substantial compliance, which means that a court can save a will that doesn’t strictly comply with legislative requirements from being invalid. To do that, a court will look for testamentary intention — what did the testator (the will-maker) actually intend?

In February 2020, a judge upheld the napkin will as valid. While Philip left minimal details on the napkin, the judge decided that there was enough evidence that Philip intended to create a will when he wrote the note on the McDonald’s napkin. The note was written when Philip believed he was having a heart attack, a crisis that would lead a person without a will to reasonably think about estate planning. He also immediately gave the napkin to his daughter Sharon and made a comment about safeguarding it, which shows a clear “testamentary intention”.

What did we learn?

Whether you choose to write your will by hand, use an online platform like Willful, or get help from a lawyer, It’s important to be clear with your wishes. That means clearly stating what you do want and don’t want to do with your estate. Holographic wills can leave challenges for loved ones to deal with down the road, since people often leave out important details or make contradictions. In provinces like BC and PEI, holographic wills aren’t recognized at all.

While Philip’s McDonald’s napkin turned out to be valid, his method probably isn’t one to emulate. It’s important to make a will long before you think you’ll need one — because as Philip’s near-death experience in McDonald’s goes to show, life is unpredictable and none of us know when that will be.