Could you leave your money to *nobody* in your will?

I just saw an old Gahan Wilson cartoon in a 1978 issue of Playboy that consists of an old, evil-looking man talking to his lawyer, and the caption is “…and I don’t want to leave a single goddamn cent to anyone or anything!”

This made me wonder if one could actually do this. Could you stipulate in your will that nobody receive any money from you? And by nobody, I literally mean nobody, so giving your money away to a charity organization or the government is out. I mean, could you specify in your will that you want all of your money to be destroyed? Could you stipulate that all your assets be cashed out in bills and then that the bills be burned?

In other words, ensure that your money dies with you?

You can put anything you want in your will. The question is whether a court will enforce it.

Probate is not my field, but I’ll hazard a guess that the answer is no. In some states, you can’t effectively disinherit your spouse, for example. In my state, if the widow isn’t left a certain percentage of available assets, she has the right to “elect against the will” and receive a portion of the estate regardless of what the decedent wanted.


I think you could make a gift to reduce the (US) national debt. That would be sort of like burning cash (which is a gift to all holders of dollars).

Interesting questions. How are you going to enforce “non-ownership” of say, your house. Eventually if taxes are unpaid the state will simply take it, and sell it, and it will have an owner. Relatives could petition for property and monetary assets on the grounds you were deranged, and the court would likely agree.

If you want to spend lots of money to set up a trust to keep your assets maintained (taxes and maintenance taken care of etc) and off limits on some pretext I suppose that’s the only real way you’re going to keep peoples hands off your stuff, but it would be stupid and expensive, and a court might overturn it at some point.

I don’t recall why I ever stumbled across this article–it may very well have been in response to some previous thread on the Dope–but here is an article that may be of interest from the Yale Law Journal by Lior Jacob Strahilevitz, an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago Law School, discussing the right of property owners to destroy their property. (74 page PDF file)

Just a WAG. No time or inclination to do the research. If you bequeath all property of which you die seized, real and personal, of every kind character and description, to “nobody” you have probably created a partial intestacy and the property will pass as if you had made no bequest at all – it ends up going to the people who would have gotten it if you had died without a will under your State’s particular rules of intestate succession . Generally that means the widow and the kiddies or, if there is no widow and no kiddies, out the family tree until you run into someone who is alive, maybe a third cousin twice removed who will remember you fondly.

It is a cut-off-you-nose maneuver and the mark of an anti-social curmudgeon. Don’t expect anyone to donate a stained glass window in your memory.

At the end of the day, non-devised property will escheat to the state, if there’s no one else to take it. Like the others, I don’t know how the probate court would treat it, but I’m quite certain the property would eventually pass, either to the heirs through intestacy, or to the state.

Moreover, this would also violate the Rule Against Perpetuities. A testator can only control the disposition of his property for some limited time after his death (exactly how long is awfully complex, but isn’t germane to this discussion). Here, the testator is functionally trying to control the property for eternity; as such, it would fail.

Relatedly, people can establish perpetual trusts to hold property after death. But such trusts must be for certain specified charitable purposes – education, health and welfare, social organizations, etc. This wouldn’t meet that requirement, so you couldn’t use a perpetual trust to keep the property bottled up.


What if you were to arrange to die in secret, so no one from your family or who otherwise would have an interest in inheriting your estate knows you’re dead? As to how to arrange that; that’s left as an exercise for the reader. :slight_smile:

In 2005, when I took Decedents’ Estates (in law school), the only state with no “elective share” provision at all was Georgia. In all other states, a decedent’s spouse can contest the will and take a share, usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 40%, though the actual calculation is pretty complicated.

IANAL, but in the UK you can be legally declared dead if you’ve been missing for seven years - also the process can be speeded up, as in the case of the canoeist insurance fraud.

It would be a laugh if Lord Lucan popped up :slight_smile:

Probably the best bet is to squander the lot on fast women and slow horses, even a really frivolous trust will enrich the administrators and their cronies.

Hmm… I’ve just remembered something about a UK author whose father was pretty wealthy - one day the old man converted everything into cash, stuck it in a suitcase and deposited the lot in a ‘numbered account’ - presumably in Switzerland. He then obligingly died and the family had no idea where the cash was.

Admittedly some gnomes benefitted, but their gain would be trivial compared with the other orphan accounts that they are holding.

It raises an interesting issue. Can something become unowned? The answer seems to pretty much No. Whilst we seem to understand the idea that something isn’t owned, once it becomes owned, the mechanism can’t really be undone. Ownership is of course nothing more than an invention of society. There may be some flip-side to this as well. As well as the privileges ownership provide, it also comes with responsibilities. So we like to be able sheet home responsibility for things as well as ownership.

Burning money is interesting. In effect, if you burn a quantity of money, all you did it give to the government. After all, the paper money has no intrinsic worth. If you went to the bank and took out all your life’s saving in cash, what has happened is that the bank bought the banknotes from the government. In return the government (ignoring questions about the difference between “the government” the reserve bank, and the mint) gave them a pile of printed paper. The paper only has value as it is an instrument that conveys a value that is backed by the government. If you burn the paper all you have done is freed the government from that burden. That money of yours that the bank bought the paper with is now the governments with no remaining strings. You have actually just paid off a bit of the government debt.

I have no cite but isn’t burning currency in the U.S.(and probably other countries)totally illegal?

It’s illegal in France - that’s partly why Gainsbourg did it on live TV in the 80s.
But then, if you torch your entire fortune, what are they gonna do - fine you ?

I’ve always wondered if a person who knew they were dying could just wrack up an enormous amount of debt, and then leave it in their will to someone they hated. (Who would then have to pay it.)

Anways, if leaving your assets to “nobody” were popular, I’d suggest setting up a company called “nobody” and trying to get some serious dough.

Debts do not pass to inheritors. They are deducted from the estate, and written off if the estate is insufficient. Remember, a debt is the result of a contract, and no contract exists unless both sides intend to create one.

You’re just getting around to reading the cartoons of a 1978 Playboy now? But you buy it for the articles, right?

There’s a short story, possibly by Jeffrey Archer, where the protagonist, dying of cancer, and with appalling relatives, sells all his assets and secretly buys precious metals which he secretes in the false floor of his lead coffin. He then arranges to be buried at sea, taking his wealth with him.

There’s a twist: knowing that investigations would stop there, he then sold all the precious metals for cash and arranged to donate the cash to a charity

I would say that you are giving it to all other holders of that currency, in proportion to the amount that they hold (by making each unit of that currency more valuable). It doesn’t reduce the government’s debt. It actually hurts those in debt by causing deflation. (I’m assuming that we’re not talking about a currency that is redeemable for gold or some other commodity.)

Yes, but if you, e.g., take out a loan for an amount equal to your net worth, and burn that in cash, your heirs will get nothing.