June 12, 2009

Strange Wills – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Last WillPeople have used their wills to do do some pretty strange things. Some are good. Some are not. Some are downright ugly. All, however, show that wills and trusts and all the other tools of estate planning (as opposed to just estate tax planning) are nothing more than getting the right things to the right people at the right time under the right conditions and care at the right cost. Sometimes wills do something the person always wanted to do. Sometimes it’s to take one last jab. Here are a few examples of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Harry Houdini believed in life after death. He wanted to make sure that when he came back to visit his wife, she would know it was him. He apparently was concerned about frauds bothering her. So he left her a secret code – 10 randomly selected words – she could use to corroborate the identity of any spiritual presence. He died in 1926 when his appendix ruptured. She held a séance every Halloween for 10 years. We don’t know if Mrs. Houdini was ever able to use that secret code. But we do know that he left books on magic and the occult to the American Society for Psychological Research but only if the research officer and editor of its journal resigned. He refused and the books went to the Library of Congress.

Janis Joplin, the rock and blues singer, signed a will just days before she died of a drug overdose in 1970. Most of the will is straightforward. But hidden in Article Eleventh, the instructions to her executor is a provision that allowed the executor to spend up to $2,500 “to cause a gathering of my friends and acquaintances at a suitable location as a final gesture of appreciation and farewell to such friends and acquaintances.” Various reports on the Internet embellish that and say her will provided for a posthumous all-night party for 200 guests at her favorite pub in San Anselmo, California, “so my friends can get blasted after I’m gone.”

George Harris was a Canadian farmer when he died in a tractor accident in 1948. When friends went back to the scene of the accident days later, they noticed some writing scratched on the fender of Harris’ tractor. It read “In case I die in this mess, I leave all to the wife. Cecil George Harris.” They removed the fender from the tractor and submitted it to the Surrogate Court in the District of Kerrobert, which duly admitted it as Harris’ Last Will and Testament.

Solomon Sanborn, a hatmaker, died in 1871. He left his body to science with one stipulation. His skin was to be used to make two drums that would be given to a friend. At dawn every June 17th after that, the friend was to go to Bunker Hill and pound out “Yankee Doodle” to commemorate the anniversary of that famous revolutionary war battle. The rest of his body was “to be composted for a fertilizer to contribute to the growth of an American elm, to be planted in some rural thoroughfare.”

Carrying on that tanning theme, John Bowman, a tanner from Vermont, died in 1891. He left a $50,000 trust fund to preserve his 21-room mansion and mausoleum. He was so sure that he, his wife and their two daughters would return from the grave that he ordered servants prepare and serve dinner every night – just in case the Bowmans had a touch of hunger when they made their grand appearance. They served dinner every night until 1950. That’s when the money ran out.

And another while we’re on the subject of tanning. This one did not work out. Donal Russell of Springfield, Oregon died in 1994. The 62-year old wordsmith left a will saying that his body “be skinned from the head down and tanned for the purpose of face binding volumes of my verse.” His widow wanted to grant his wish (though we don’t know if she was going to display the resultant volume of verse in her living room). The funeral directors were a bit more squeamish. Mrs. Russell went to court. The court eventually refused to let the late Mr. Russell be tanned, saying to do so violated state laws about what can be done with human remains.

Red Rose and Jack BennyJack Benny, however, didn’t have any problem with one of his wishes to get the right things to the right people at the right time. Jack and Sayde Marks (better known as Mary Livingstone, the character she played on his radio show) were married 48 years when he died on the day after Christmas 1974. Their marriage was far from ideal. According to one source, she was sharp-tongued, demanding and vain. He was a philanderer. After he died, she claimed that his signature gesture of holding one hand to the side of his face came from trying to hide scratches she inflicted after he took a phone call from a female admirer. But he loved her and was devoted to her. The day after Benny’s funeral, a florist delivered a single long-stemmed red rose to her. She received another the next day. And the day after that and the day after that. Some stories say she called the florist and demanded to know where they were coming from. More likely she just read his Will. In his will, Jack set aside money to get a rose to her every day for the rest of her life. She lived another 9 years with that daily reminder of her husband’s love.

Harold West clearly believed in vampires. He left exact instructions about what to do with his body after he died in 1972. This included an instruction that “my doctor is to drive a steel stake through my heart to make sure that I am properly dead.”

Samuel Bratt used his will simply to get even. His wife never allowed him to smoke his favorite cigars. When he died in 1960, the embittered Bratt returned the favor. He left her £330,000. To get it, however, she had to smoke five cigars a day.

Henry Green, in his 1679 will gave his sister, Catharine Green, the use of all his land during her lifetime – if she agreed to do something to preserve his good name. She had to give “four green waistcoats to four poor women in a green old age, every year, such green waistcoats to be lined with green galloon lace, and to be delivered to the said poor women on or before 21st December, yearly, that they might be worn on Christmas Day.”

Napoleon Bonaparte left a will directing that his head be shaved and the hair divided among friends. Analysis (much later) showed large amounts of arsenic. Symptoms before his death (vomiting dried blood) were consistent with arsenic poisoning. Where did it come from? Some say the walls of his room contained arsenic – which common at the time. Others say the English poisoned him. Or maybe it was the other drugs his doctors gave him for stomach cancer.

Iowa Attorney T.M. Zink (he should have known better) left $100,000 in trust when he died in 1930. No one could touch the principal or income for 75 years. The money would then be used to “establish, equip and maintain a library on whose shelves will be no woman author, on whose catalogs will be no woman’s name, over whose portal will blaze: ‘No Women Admitted'”. In his will he tried to explain. “My intense hatred of women is not of recent origin or development nor based upon any personal differences I ever had with them but is the result of my experiences with women, observations of them and study of all literatures and philosophical works.” He left $5 to his daughter and nothing to his wife – which probably was the cause of a prolonged will contest. Eight years after his death, Time Magazine carried a story about Maybelle Trow Knox. Mrs. Knox had been imprisoned for a year “for trying to collect $10,000 on a forged note from the estate of an eccentric Le Mars lawyer named T. M. Zink.” Zink’s family eventually prevailed in challenging his will.

Jeremy BenthamJeremy Bentham was a British philosopher and social reformer. When he died in 1832, he gave his entire estate to the London Hospital on the condition that his remains were to be preserved and allowed to preside over its board meetings. Surprisingly, the hospital agreed to the demands of his will. Dr. Southwood Smith dissected the body (to teach anatomy) and then reassembled the bones into a skeleton which was outfitted with Bentham’s clothes and put on a glass-fronted wooden cabinet seated in a chair. According to the University College London, at the centenary and sesquicentenary of the college, the good Mr. Bentham was brought out to the College Committee meeting. “He sat at one end of the table, the Provost at the other, and the minutes record ‘Jeremiah Bentham, present but not voting.'” According to the university, it is a myth that Bentham casts the deciding vote in case of a tie.

These are just a few of the more unique, strange (and perhaps bizarre) uses of estate planning. All, however, teach the basic purpose of that planning – what I call the five rights. Estate planning is nothing more than doing what is needed so that the right things can get to the right people at the right time under the right conditions and care and at the right cost.

Hope you got a smile from some of these. If you’re aware of some of the more strange uses of wills and trusts, please share them with others. Leave a comment or email me.


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