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2 March 2015 | Comment | Article by Roman Kubiak TEP

Rest in Peace – lessons we can learn from the will of Alfred Nobel

Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896) is the inventor of dynamite. The successful engineer, scholar and business man is, however, perhaps best known for his philanthropic legacy as the founder of the Nobel Prizes. Nobel is an undoubtedly interesting historical figure, and for a probate lawyer, his will is one of history’s most unusual.

Nobel died on 10 December 1896 and this date now marks the annual award ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Peace Prize, alongside the other four Nobel Prizes, were all created in Nobel’s last will and testament. The annual Peace Prize ceremony is held in Oslo, Norway.

In 1895 Nobel signed his third and last will and testament. In this will he left the majority of his substantial estate to the establishment of the Nobel Prizes. He did this by creating a trust.

While I would certainly not recommend using Nobel’s will as a pointer for writing a will today (we are of course considering a will made for a different jurisdiction, written two centuries ago and which deals with sums far greater than most testators need to comprehend – approximately £175 million in today’s money), we can lift some important examples when we think about what we as testators may want to consider when writing a will.

Keep your will under review

Alfred Nobel famously drafted his own will without legal help. The will was very complex, but he was of course an exceptionally intelligent man. In any event what is clear is that he had given time throughout his life to consider his options and wishes. Nobel’s last will, as has already been mentioned, was his third will, so we should all keep in mind that preparing a will is not a one-time exercise. Our wishes, our estates, our families all change over our lifetimes and it is therefore important to keep our wills up to date.

Keep your will in a secure, safe place

The second lesson we can learn from Nobel is that storing a will safely and securely is extremely important. Nobel was born in Sweden, lived for sometime in Norway and latterly in France before spending his last few years in Italy. Most of us may live a more grounded existence than that of a world famous inventor, but Nobel did not overlook the importance of his last will and testament being stored safely for when it would be needed. All of Nobel’s wills were deposited in a Stockholm bank vault. It is, of course, sensible to ensure that wills are securely stored, rather than keeping them amongst our personal filing system somewhere in our own home!

Seek professional advice

After Nobel’s death his will was read out in a will reading ceremony (as was a usual practice in the 1800s but is rare today – for more on which, see Eleanor’s blog on ‘The myth of the ‘reading of the will”), and the contents were a shock to many. Although Nobel did not leave any children, he still had close relatives who challenged the will. Even the King of Sweden challenged the will on the grounds of not being ‘patriotically minded’. We cannot suppose that any monarch would challenge a will in today’s society, but the contentious issues that faced Nobel’s executors and his intended wishes are something we should all keep at the forefront of our minds when writing our own wills. Consideration for our nearest and dearest and anyone who may be expected to be included in your will should be given due thought whether they are to be remembered or not. There are of course many legal techniques and planning devices to ensure your wishes are met during your lifetime and after your days, but there are also ways for those we leave behind to challenge a will that can be both lengthy and costly to our estates. Perhaps if Nobel had consulted legal advice when he made his final will he could have avoided the five-year administration period that followed his death.

For Nobel’s will, the contentious issues were eventually settled and in 1901 the Nobel Foundation was created and the first set of Nobel Prizes were awarded. The Nobel Foundation was, and still is the trust created in Nobel’s will. Unlike Nobel, anyone seeking to create a complex trust should consider seeking expert advice. However, it has to be said that Nobel’s intentions were eventually fulfilled, and as we know, the Nobel Prizes are still being awarded today. The trustees’ management of the trust has been so effective that the monetary element of the prize is now greater than ever and we are set to see all the five prizes to be continually awarded for the foreseeable future. Therefore, albeit in a very glamorous yet humanitarian manner, the inclusion of a trust in a will can be seen to great effect with Alfred Nobel.

Choose appropriate executors and trustees

Clearly, a prominent theme in the story of Alfred Nobel’s will is the appointment of his executors and trustees. Nobel appointed his young assistant Ragnar Sohlman as one of the executors and trustees. While it may have been surprising to have a young assistant as the executor and trustee, with hindsight it was apparently a good choice, with Sohlman taking the role seriously and performing well. For example, he was reported to rush around Paris, Stockholm and many other countries within the continent collecting Nobel’s cash, belongings and bonds before setting about to sell Nobel’s vast portfolio of shares before any of the companies collapsed without the influence of the late inventor and businessman. Sohlman’s consideration of his late boss’s estate was admirable and Nobel’s choice of a dedicated knowledgeable executor with hindsight was a good one. Any testator should ensure that they choose executors who are capable of administering the estate they will likely leave behind or at least have the notion to instruct legal help should matters turn out to be less straightforward.

Albeit a potentially daunting thought, our whole lives, and the management of our continuing wishes will be dictated by a single legal document should we decide to leave a last will and testament. In my opinion, the story of Alfred Nobel’s will should be used as both positive and negative examples for every potential testator. When we choose to write our wills, what help we seek, who we include, our knowledge of the extent of our estate, where we store our wills and the use of specialised legal techniques all need to be considered to ensure our wishes are fully met, for potentially, years down the line. Then, perhaps, like Alfred Bernhard Nobel we can leave a peaceful legacy; even if it’s not in the form of an annual million pound prize!

Author bio

Roman Kubiak TEP


Roman Kubiak is a Partner and Head of the market leading Private Wealth Disputes team.

He advises across the whole spectrum of private wealth disputes, with a particular focus on high value, complex and cross-border disputes including: trust disputes, breach of trust claims and applications to remove trustees; will disputes, particularly those with an international element; claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975; and claims for equitable relief under proprietary estoppel, constructive trusts and resulting trusts.

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