Dian Fossey’s Will

If you’ve seen today’s Google Doodle, then you already know that it’s dedicated to the late gorilla researcher, Dian Fossey. Fossey dedicated her life to the study and protection of mountain gorillas in Rwanda and eventually became as respected in the study of gorillas as Goodall was in chimpanzees. She founded the Digit Fund, now renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, in order to prevent gorilla poaching and wrote Gorillas in the Mist, later adapted into a film with the same name.

At the time of her death in 1985, her estate was already large and growing. Her recent book was optioned, and royalties ballooned to about $4.9 million. Fossey had supposedly drafted a will in 1984 that left the majority of her estate to her charity, then called the Digit Fund, but numerous problems became immediately apparent with it. The first and foremost problem was that was unsigned.

Given Fossey’s history and her life dedicated to preserving mountain gorillas, the bequest may not seem out of character. This is compounded by the fact that funding problems were typical of her work in Africa, and the book and accompanying film were set to fund her anti-poaching efforts indefinitely. The Digit Foundation and 4 other beneficiaries certainly thought it was valid. However, it wasn’t executed with the typical solemnities to make it effective. For that matter, it wasn’t even signed. Even though it was submitted to probate, the only existent will of Fossey’s was simply a draft, and couldn’t be determined to be definitive. After some contests, the will was summarily thrown out.

There is a simple lession to be learned: if you care about what happens after you die, take estate planning seriosly