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 by the provisions in her will, and the impacts are still felt to this day.
Princess Diana was an exception to the rule
It’s amazing that we were able to find out the contents of Princess Diana’s will at all; such an intimate document usually wouldn’t be available to the public. That’s because the English court is normally ordered to seal the will of a deceased member of the royal family, and for obvious reasons (security purposes, privacy purposes; the list goes on). After all, would you want random people to know what your will says? This has been the custom for more than 100 years. But as you probably could've anticipated, Princess Diana was an exception to the rule.
Protecting the Queen
To put this into perspective, not even the highest-ranking royals were exempt from the rule. For example, when Prince Philip passed away in 2021, the public didn't have access to his will, and the same rule was imposed when Queen Elizabeth died. 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 needed to be upheld. This is uncommon for ordinary British wills, which anyone can usually request to see.
Public curiosity ran rampant
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.” As one of the wealthiest people in the world, the Queen's fortune being handed to her children after her death was no surprise. But the situation was very different for Diana.
The will wasn't private
Her tumultuous past with the royal family was far from a secret, and people were desperate to know just how much money she had — and how the royals factored into her last will and testament... if they factored in at all. 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?
Public fervor knew no bounds
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 to simply walk into Somerset House in London and purchase their own version to take home. This may sound a bit morbid, but the public fervor for information about Princess Diana knew no bounds, even after her death.
Leaked to the press
Because of this, the press didn't have to wait long for the will to be available in the government archives. Nope, someone sneakily showed it to journalists. Most people were expecting complicated provisions regarding Diana's fortune and how it would connect to the royals, but to most people's 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. This is because Princess Diana, who reportedly became distrustful of the royals and their protocol, took matters into her own hands when it came to making her final wishes known. Princess Diana personally wrote a document called a “Letter of Wishes,” which detailed exactly what she wanted to happen to her family in the event of her death. But the executors didn’t follow its instructions.
She made a meager salary
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.
A life-changing sum
In her will, Diana ended up leaving nearly $32 million in 1997 money, which is about $55 million at the time of writing. It's not even close to Queen Elizabeth's fortune, which was around $500 million, but for the popular ex-wife of then-Prince Charles and as a boundary-pushing princess, it was a life-changing sum of money. 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. The only thing that stood out more than Diana's knowing grin was her fabulous clothes, after all.
She was set for life
If the mind-boggling sum of $32 million shocks you, you're not alone. She may have been a wealthy royal at one point, but by the time she died in 1997, she had infamously divorced Prince Charles. But this didn't mean she was left out in the cold. On the contrary; the large sum of money actually wasn't surprising, because when the dust from the divorce settled, 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
Towards the end of her marriage, Diana reportedly started to feel more and more paranoid about those closest to her, including her once-trusted staff. She wasn't sure who she could talk to about breakfast, let alone her last will and testament. 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.
Her once-trusted secretary
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. The two had a close relationship, and Jephson later said that Diana had "wanted to be happy. Her natural state was optimistic, and she could see the funny side of the toughest day." But when one of Diana's toughest days yet came around, the trust between herself and Jephson crumbled. Their relationship splintered after Diana did something that the world would never, ever forget.
The bombshell interview
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 the candid tell-all on the TV program Panorama. And some of the lies had supposedly been about Jephson. When he found out about the bombshell interview, he felt so betrayed that he quit his post. So, it was down to Diana’s mom and sister to sort out the will.
Her family wasn't happy
And when they saw the will themselves, the pair weren’t happy. They made their displeasure 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.” The fact that someone could alter your own will after your death is a violating thought, especially in Diana's case. After all, she had penned this "Letter of Wishes" the day after drawing up her will, and it usually would've had legal force. What was different this time?
Diana's wishes were ignored
With Diana gone, the executors of her will were allowed to ignore the “Letter of Wishes.” That’s because the letter wasn’t written in the way that the law required. So, the outcome was that Diana’s sister and mom were able to do what it said only if it suited them, regardless of what the princess may have wanted. And it's safe to say that Frances Ruth Shand Kydd and her daughter, Lady Sarah, weren't pleased with what Diana wrote in her "Letter of Wishes."
Kept on the down-low
Not adhering to Diana's will may seem abhorrent, but Frances Ruth Shand Kydd and Lady Sarah didn't face public scrutiny back in the '90s. That's because the alteration of Diana’s stated wishes wasn’t a public matter like the will. 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.
He claimed to be Diana's "rock"
Burrell is an interesting character and was extremely close to the princess — or so he says. Burrell claimed that Diana often referred to him as “her rock," and that she once told him that he was "the only man she ever trusted." If their relationship was as close-knit as Burrell says, it makes sense that he was heartbroken. In fact, he was the only non-family member permitted to attend her burial. And he even made the catalog of the things that she’d left behind — some of which Diana clearly wished to bequeath to specific people.
Passing down her belongings
Now it may be — no one can say for sure — that Diana’s relations altered the will simply because they 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 designer dresses, lots of vintage jewelry, some treasured photos, and even the lyrics to Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” These were all highly valuable (not to mention coveted) items, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that they didn't all end up where Diana had envisioned. It's believed that she originally wanted her sons to be given most of her belongings.
Behind glass walls
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. 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. So, Diana's clothes and jewels ended up behind glass walls in a museum, instead of with her sons.
Breaking the terms of her will
As you can imagine, the Diana-themed museum exhibits 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, but some people still questioned how the Spencers were able to manipulate Diana's will to their own benefit.
They profited off of her belongings
After all, 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. But what about the people Diana specifically mentioned in her will? She'd wanted specific people to receive a portion of her fortune, but the executors of her will may not have followed these wishes.
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. Perhaps the younger prince would get all of Diana’s inheritance? Well, that didn't happen. In actuality, Princess Diana tried to make things as fair as possible.
For the Princes' benefit
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 — for reasons unknown to the public — 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. But, as we know, the two sons didn’t get everything in the will.
Godkids in need
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 as much she could, in life and in death. 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."
Princess Diana's "things"
She continued, "The division is to be three-quarters in value to my sons and one-quarter between my godchildren." One-quarter may not sound like a lot, but when we're talking millions of dollars worth of "chattels", it adds up quickly. "Personal chattels" is a fancy way of saying "my things," and in Diana’s case, her "things" were much more extravagant than some old dusty decor or an unsightly family heirloom. It was a characteristically generous move by the People's Princess, one that was meant to leave her 17 godchildren with a pricy piece of Diana's legacy.
Cars, clothes, and crowns
Diana's "personal chattels" included expensive cars, high-end clothes made by the most respected designers in the biz, and of course, vintage royal 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 — that's no small sum! So it represented something of a considerable windfall for those who were lucky enough to be named in Diana's will... if only the executors of Diana's will followed Diana's stipulations.
Yes, the money and chattels described in the will were 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.” This doesn't sound too shabby, but it's not like the godchildren could choose whichever sentimental item they wanted; it was the executors who chose what the godkids could take. Some of the recipients are reported to have dubbed what they got as a “tacky memento.”
A selfless split
Diana’s sons also got to take one bit of jewelry each, but unlike the godchildren, 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 instead of Kate! Swapping the treasured ring with his brother was a pretty generous move from Prince Harry; we suspect it's something his mother would've done.
He had a choice to make
But what happened to Diana’s stuff once it had been handed over to Harry and William? Well, they most likely didn’t need any cash that might have flowed from the collection. After all, they got the $16 million before tax. This money ended up being a lifeline for Harry when he faced enormous struggles years later. Just like his mother, Harry found himself with a choice to make: leave the royals and protect his family, or stay where the money always flows?
When Oprah Winfrey interviewed the prince and Meghan, it was clear which path Harry chose. Harry shared that his family had closed the money faucet when he decided to part ways with royal life and move to the States with his wife, Meghan Markle. 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.” Diana's money benefited her sons long after her death, and they weren't the only people mentioned in her will.
In a move that may have left many royal watchers surprised, Diana also left just over $80,000 to none other than Paul Burrell, her latterly butler. 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 once claimed to be Diana's most "trusted" friend, but years later, he was accused of trying to profit off of his connection to Diana. He even ended up on trial, accused of robbing some of her possessions. He was found not guilty, though.
What about her charity work?
As surprising as Burrell's inclusion in the will may have been, the was also a surprising omission: charitable donations. Since her tenure as Princess of Wales was characterized by her charity work, people were shocked that the princess didn’t give any one particular organization money in her will. She did, however, set up a fund that aimed to provide cash for the groups that she favored. The fund was seeded with just a small sum, though, 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. This is a huge gift from Diana, given her worldwide popularity to this day. 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
You see, Charles could have submitted what’s known as a Barder application to retrieve the millions he’d given in the divorce settlement. How is this allowed, you ask? Because the settlement was given after the will was written. So, Diana made her bequests based on the amount of money she had at the time, which was a lot less money than she ended up with. This was a pretty big loophole that Charles could have taken advantage of.
Charles ignored an obvious loophole
And 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. In some ways, this loophole sounds like a no-brainer, but Charles (and his legal team, no doubt) knew that ignoring the loophole was the better option. Imagine how much the press would have feasted on the idea that Charles was robbing the estate for his own pocket! It’s no wonder he gave it a miss.
Her final wish
It sounds morbid, but Diana also stipulated how she wanted her body to be handled after her death. She made it very clear that she wanted to be buried instead of cremated. Whatever her reasoning for this decision was, seeing her coffin as it was slowly driven through London may have helped the world come to terms with her sudden passing. 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 was very clear on another point in her will: her children's education. “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 with her wishes, especially since they were no longer husband and wife when she died.
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. After keeping the dress in a museum for some years, the boys decided to hold onto it privately. After all, it's one of the most important mementos from a surprisingly controversial day in British history.