As part of our work as estate planning attorneys, we draft and review a lot of Wills and Trusts. For the most part, they are pretty standard. The testator of a Will and the Grantor of a Trust tend to leave assets to a surviving spouse, and then to children. Of course, there are some variations – a “specific bequest” to a certain person or charity (a certain amount of money usually), or perhaps a child is disinherited due to a chemical dependency, a rocky marriage or a spending problem. But the majority of our clients’ Estate Planning goals and objectives are to provide for their spouse and children and that the will and trust documents they need are drafted accordingly. They tend not to include much humor or any “unusual requests” for the most part.
But every so often, we see or read about (or are asked to draft) some more “colorful” provisions. Here are some of the more creative Estate Planning requests we’ve seen or read about.
1. US comedian Jack Benny included a provision in his Will that a single long-stemmed red rose be delivered to his wife every day for the rest of her life. And his florist ensured that it happened until Mrs. Benny died eight years later.
2. A donor in Britain in 1928 made a bequest of a half-million pounds for the purpose of clearing the national debt. The issue was, the donor specified that it can only be paid out once it is sufficient to clear the entire national debt. Although the bequest is now worth 350M pounds, it is not sufficient to clear the entire national debt so it remains held in trust.
3. The creator of the original Star Trek series, Gene Roddenberry, was understandably obsessed with space and this even appeared in his Estate Planning wishes. His famous quote was to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” In keeping with his obsession, his Will requested a celestial burial. His request was honored and several years after his passing, a portion of his remains were placed on a rocket and shot into space.
4. The magician, Harry Houdini, conducted seances during his life. His Will included a provision requesting that his wife conduct an annual session with the afterlife. He further asked her to commit a secret code to memory which, he believed, would provide evidence of communication with the “other side.” His wife honored this request from his will for ten years following Houdini’s death, always on Halloween (the anniversary of Houdini’s death).
5. Janice Joplin (known to her close friends as Pearl) died at the age of 27 from a drug overdose. Her Will included a bequest of $2,500 (approximately $16,000 in today’s dollars) to enable her friends to hold a rocking wake party which did happen in California several weeks after her death. The invitations stated “drinks are on Pearl.”
6. Benjamin Franklin’s Will left a picture frame containing more than 400 diamonds to his daughter with the instruction that she “not engage the expensive, vain and useless pastime of wearing jewels.” He intended for her to leave the frame intact. Shockingly, this Estate Planning wish was not honored.
7. Billionaire Leona Helmsley left her Maltese dog “Trouble” the de minimis sum of $12M. Her Will also instructed that the family mausoleum where she was buried be “washed or steam-cleaned at least once a year,” for which she left $3 million.
8. William Shakespeare’s Will bequeathed his “second-best bed” to his wife, Anne Hathaway and the majority of his assets to his daughter, Susanna. His Will stated “Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.”
9. German poet Heinrich Heine left his estate to his wife, Matilda, on the condition that she remarry so that there “will be at least one man to regret my death.”
10. Portuguese aristocrat Luis Carolos de Noronha Cabral da Camara left his sizeable fortune to 70 people selected from a Lisbon phone directory. They had been chosen at random from the directory, in front of two witnesses at a registry office 13 years before when Luis Carlos made his Will.
11. Napoleon Bonaparte’s last wish was that his head be shaved and the hair divided up amongst his friends, possibly his true heirs.
12. John Bowan, a millionaire from Virginia, constructed a mausoleum to house the remains of his wife and two daughters who predeceased him. Bowman believed that after he died the whole family would be reincarnated together. He passed away in 1891 and in his will left a $50,000 fund to maintain his mansion and the mausoleum. The High Net-Worth will provided that the house staff of the mansion were to prepare dinner every night just in case the Bowman family was hungry after returning from the dead. Additionally, no one was allowed to stay in the house overnight so they wouldn’t disturb the ghostly residents. This was carried out every night until 1950 when the trust fund ran out.
While these examples are entertaining and imaginative (and somewhat dramatic), these types of Estate Planning and Will and Trust provisions can be risky. It is important to remember that Wills can be challenged (contested) in court. If a beneficiary successfully challenges a Will, the provisions in the Will could be found to be void in part or in its entirety. If the Will is found to be void in its entirety, your estate would then be distributed according to the Rules of Intestacy in your state. Before being witty or creative in your estate planning wishes, check with your estate planning attorney. It might be possible to draft these types of provisions in a stand-alone letter of direction.
Attorney Julia Abbott is partner with the Dedham firm of Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC which focuses on advising its clients in the areas of estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. This article is not intended to provide legal advice or create or imply an attorney-client relationship. No information contained herein is a substitute for a personal consultation with an attorney. For more information visit www.ssbllc.com or call 781/461-1020.
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