Interesting wills of the rich, famous, and or just nutty

The Leona Helmsley Will Thread has me thinking of odd wills in history. In that thread I mentioned Natalie Schafer (TV’s Mrs. Howell) and one of the Quaker State heirs, both of whom left millions to their dogs (like Helmsley did). Liberace also left millions for the care of his dogs (though it went to his other heirs afterwards).

What are some other odd bequests in wills of the rich and famous (and or just nutty)?

A few I remember- cites should be available if requested-

Shakespeare’s only bequest to his wife was his “second best bed”.

W.C. Fields left a fortune for the establishment of a private academy for orphaned white children (non-whites specifically excluded). His family broke the will. (Legends of his “hidden money” are probably exaggerated, though he probaby did have some.)

John Wayne left an odd structured payment to his children- something like $5000 for each year between their age at his death and their 21st birthday (so a 31 year old child, in other words, would inherit $50,000). No idea why he did this- I can only think that he assumed his youngest children would be provided for by their mother who inherited most of the marital estate.

Jokes about Howard Hughes’s fake wills made it onto Sanford & Son, Chico & the Man, and other sit-coms. Apparently they were coming out of the woodwork. (I know that his ex, Terry Moore [who wrote a book claiming among other things they were the reincarnations of Mormon pioneers], received a substantial payout from the estate, but the lion’s share was divided by distant cousins.)

Joan Crawford famously disinherited her son and her oldest daughter, the latter of whom famously wrote the mother of all celebrity tell-alls. Her archrival Bette Davis (quite understandably) completely disinherited the daughter who wrote a tell-all book about her in the last couple of years of her life. (The daughter is now a fundamentalist minister.)

One of the Texas oil billionaires- I can’t remember which- left a huge endowment to the University of Texas. One of his stipulations was that the school’s orchestra had to begin every season by playing his favorite song, Ol’ Black Joe.

William Frawley (Fred from I Love Lucy) had a much much younger longtime live-in lady companion when he died who he made no major provision for and she challenged the estate. Most of it went to his brothers and sisters anyway (he was divorced but had no kids).

Thomas Jefferson left fortunes to his daughters and grandchildren. Unfortunately, he was too deeply in debt for the bequests to be paid (though the state did honor the manumissions he gave 6 of his slaves).

George Washington manumitted all of his slaves in his will, delaying it til the death of his wife (which came 2 years after his). He asked Martha in the will to free hers as well (George and Martha each owned slaves independently of the others- Martha more than George due to inheritance from her father and first husband) but Martha declined. She divided her slaves among her grandson and granddaughter, the former of whom manumitted them in his will (though, like Jefferson, he died deeply in debt). His son-in-law, Robert E. Lee, used the slaves labor for 5 years in order to pay the estate debts enough to carry out the manumissions, and the last slave was freed ironically on January 1, 1863- the same day the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect.

Hermann Göring left his claims to 2 castles and vast estates in north Germany that he had owned to his wife and daughter, though of course these were long confiscated.

In my course on wills and estates in law school, the professor would occasionally read interesting and/or exceptionally mean will provisions at the beginning of class to liven things up a bit. My favorite went something like this:

“To my wife I leave thirty pieces of silver or thirty dimes, whichever is smaller. Perhaps she can buy herself some bourbon with it.”

(Thirty pieces of silver, of course, is the amount for which Judas betrayed Jesus.)

How valid are such backhanded wills? I mean, usually, the wife is entitled to the estate…can the husband legally cut her out completely?

Likewise, the “To my beloved son, I leave the sum of $30 million…as long as he’s married by his 29th birthday.” Can that hold up in court?

The wife isn’t entitled to the entire estate. In most states, if the wife doesn’t feel she’s been treated fairly in the will, she can choose to take the “elective share,” an amount determined by statute but usually somewhere in the range of 40%. IIRC, Georgia is the only state with no elective share provision; in Georgia, a husband can completely cut his wife out of his will. If there’s anything unaccounted for in the will and no residuary clause (“anything not otherwise disposed of in this will goes to X”), then the wife will get a share of that via intestate succession.

Probably not; courts don’t like to toss marriage around like that. It can depend on how it’s phrased in the will, though. And of course if a provision like that were upheld, it would mean the estate would have to go into trust until the son either gets married (and takes the estate) or turns 29 (when it would go to some other devisee).

Well, there was the Great Stork Derby when Charles Vance Millar left a portion of his estate to the woman in Toronto who had the most babies within ten years of his death.

James Smithson, irritated over how discriminated against he had been for being illegitimate (probably the illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland) left $500,000 in gold to the U.S. (a nation he’d never set foot in) to establish a world class educational institution/museum (now the Smithsonian Institution).

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1793-1877), an extremely superstitious man who became the richest man in the world (and a first rate bastard) left a fortune worth $100 million+ (most of it liquid) in 1877. He was survived by 8 daughters and 2 sons. He left 5 of his daughters stock worth 250,000 (several million in today's ), his 3 favorite daughters stock worth $300K/$400K/$500K respectively, his younger son Cornelius Jeremiah the income of a trust fund worth $200,000 (again, quite a comfortable living), his widow (not the mother of his children but a cousin who was 50 years his junior) a trust fund worth $500,000 and his house, and Vanderbilt University $50,000. The rest of the estate, which was 99% of it and well over $100 million, he left to his oldest surviving son William Henry (save for the $1 million each he left William Henry’s sons). This sparked a huge lawsuit against him by his sisters and his brother who claimed they weren’t upset they got so little (they acknowledged that even $200,000 was a fortune in a time when most people lived on less than $1000 per year) but because Wm. Henry and his family got too much. (M-hmm.)
The trial was fascinating. Among other things it was learned that the Commodore had used not only the stockbroker services of first female stockbroker Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin (who probably also had sexual relations with the horny old man as well) but also their psychic services. The sisters claimed to be able to channel the dead and the old man was a firm believer in spiritualism. He used them to connect with his mother (for a lecherous unscrupulous ruthless business man he was one hell of a mama’s boy), his first wife (also his first cousin) Sophia who he physically abused (also committed her to sanitariums, but it’s probably she really was mentally ill) and cheated on constantly during their marriage, and his favorite child- the only one he had any soft-spot for- George Washington Vanderbilt (not the builder of Biltmore but his namesake) who died of disease during the Civil War. Among the many messages these dead relatives passed to him were constant assurances that of all his many children, “only William Henry really loves you… you should leave him everything- the rest are right down bad 'uns”.
Of course it was alleged, and probably with between 99% and 100% accuracy, that William Henry- who was tired of taking crap from his domineering father for his entire life- was in cahoots with the sisters and had promised to make it worth their while if the dead could put in a good word for him. Either way, they did and it worked.
Halfway through the trial William Henry worked out an out-of-court settlement with his sisters and brothers, shaving about $3 million off his inheritance (perhaps $50 million in today’s USD). His brother Jeremiah, who had been hated by their father (he was the Vanderbilt version of Fredo), killed himself soon after the trial even though he’d received enough to live almost lavishly from the settlement. Wm. Henry proved he wasn’t quite the idiot his dad thought he was by more than doubling his inheritance in less than 7 years and leaving his four sons the richest heirs in the country.
Due to inheritance taxes and opulent lifestyles and property upkeep and income taxes the fortune was mostly gone by the 1930s. Gloria Vanderbilt’s grandfather, Cornelius II, had left more than $100 million when he died in 1899 but by the time her father, one of his 4 surviving sons, died in the 1920s Gloria had to settle for a measly 1/2 of a $2.5 million trust fund (still pretty good, especially after the Depression hit, but her real fortune came from her career and her licensing of her name, and Anderson Cooper’s $50 million contract with CNN is probably more than she earned).

Peter Sellers’ will left each of his children $10,000 and his wife the bulk of his fortune (about $10 million). The day he died of a sudden heart attack he had been scheduled to meet with his lawyer to finalize his divorce from that wife. She later married David Frost who got some of the fortune in their divorce settlement, and then she died young of alcohol and drug abuse and left it to her relatives and charities.

Alex Haley had a similar situation due to a not finalized divorce. Initially it was stated that he died penniless, which was not quite true: he had many assets but the amount of his debts were about equal. (Had he lived it would have been okay- he was working on two novels that upon completion would have generated more than $2 million in remaining advances.) An estate auction was held to pay his debts, but after several years of revenue from Roots and Autobiography of Malcolm X and other incomes his estate was considerable once more.

Benjamin Franlkin left a trust fund of £2,000, half for Boston (his hometown) and half for Philadelphia. For the first 99 years the interest was to be used to make low interest loans to craftsmen with part of the balance to be used in the 100th year for a project of the city’s choosing- it was used to build a trade school- and the rest reinvested. In 1990 Philadelphia’s share was $1.7 million (not bad considering that the majority of the principal had been used a century before).

William Randolph Hearst left $1 to anybody who could through blood test and witnesses prove beyond a doubt he was Hearst’s illegitimate child.

Brando’s estate was worth about $30 million with debts totalling about $30 million. Eventually it will be sizeable, but his kids weren’t left well off by his death. (He was actually sued for child support a few months before he died as his serious cash-flow problem prevented him from supporting his 3 elementary school aged kids and their mom [his former housekeeper].)

Phil Silvers’ will (leaving everything to his daughters and his synagogue) was hand written on a napkin. He didn’t die destitute but he wasn’t very rich either as he’d gambled most of it away.
John Cassavetes’ will, leaving everything to his widow Gena Rowlands, was similarly a handwritten document on a crumpled (but witnessed) piece of paper.

Sammy Davis Jr. did not leave his family destitute as is often reported. His estate was considerable, it just happened to be attached by the IRS and because they’d frozen his assets he’d been unable to pay a lot of other bills. Eventually the dust cleared and his widow was left not-fabulously-wealthy but comfortable. (There’s a rumor that at one point before his debts were settled she had his body exhumed and the fortune in jewelry stripped from his corpse, but she vehemently denies this.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald changed his will shortly before he died. He had previously requested a marble mausoleum. In the revised will he asked for the cheapest burial his family would allow. This is what he got (not pauper’s and not imperial).

Mary Wickes was one of the great “that’s old what’s her name” actresses who turned up on every sitcom and was most famous either for episodic guest appearances or Disney movies. She lived comfortably and quietly in an upper middle class Hollywood condo- she never married or had kids. Even friends were surprised when she died 12 years ago at the size of her estate- she left $2 million in cash to the Motion Picture Home alone and millions to other charities.

Another miser, but not nearly as wealthy, was Butterfly McQueen (bka Prissy from GWTW). She lived in a shotgun house in Augusta, Georgia- very modest lower middle class part of town- half the year, the rest of the year she shared a home in Queens NY with a friend. She’d quit Hollywood at the height of her success because she was fed up with playing dimwitted slaves and maids and for a time worked for a taxi company in NYC. She burned to death in an accident at her home, which people assumed she lived in because she was broke; in fact she had written $30,000 in checks to charitable contributions that day. Her considerable estate was divided among her tenants, a couple of friends, and charities including- most surprisingly of all to many- a free-thought organization- Butterfly was an outspoken atheist.

Interesting stuff!