All About Estates

What Will your Will Say? Part II

In a previous post, I shared with you a number of interesting (often odd) requests and bequests in a last will and testament.  Today, I share part two of some of the most interesting last wills and testaments in the last few centuries:

  1. Can we communicate with the dead?

Harry Houdini is known for his magic tricks and illusions.  He died on October 31, 1926, at the young age of 52.  Houdini was a skeptic of mediums and the ability to communicate with spirits.  Nevertheless, he had his curiosities about the afterlife.  So much so that he and his wife promised each other that the first to die would try to communicate with the other from the ‘other side.’

In his last will, he divided his estate among his wife, family, friends and charity (you know… the usual).  But (obviously) that’s not all.  Houdini asked his wife to conduct a séance every year so that he could appear and talk to her.  He left her a secret 10-digit code so that she would know it was actually his spirit.  For 10 years, Houdini’s wife held annual séances on Halloween (the anniversary of his death).  There is only speculation as to whether Houdini ever appeared or communicated the secret code to his beloved.  Houdini fans, however, continue the ritual every year.  After 91 years of silence, could October 31, 2017 be the year Houdini finally speaks up?

  1. 2010 was a lucky year for 12 people…

… for Wellington Burt’s descendants to be exact.  Wellington Burt was a wealthy lumber tycoon, known for being brilliant, but grumpy and eccentric.  He died in 1919, and his millions were expected to be passed to his immediate family.  No doubt one of the strangest bequests in US history, Burt stipulated in his will that his wealth would be passed on 21 years after the death of his last grandchild.  His last grandchild died in 1989 and the long-awaited countdown began.  The countdown ended in November 2010, at which time Burt’s estate was valued at approximately $110 million.  30 people came forward as heirs to the fortune, but genealogical research showed only 12 people were beneficiaries of Burt’s millions.  Well, ain’t that lucky!

  1. Marvel or DC?

Mark Gruenwald was an editor with Marvel Comics (the one with X-Men (not ashamed to admit I’m a fan), Iron Man (he’s okay too), and Spiderman (not so much a fan of this guy)).  Gruenwald supervised some of Marvel’s biggest comics, including Captain America and The Avengers.  He died in August 1996, at 42 years of age.  He loved his job, and (quite literally) put himself into his work.

In his last will, he requested that his organs be donated and his ashes put into a comic book.  He wasn’t joking and his requests were respected.  Some of his ashes were mixed at a printing plant and used in “Squadron Supreme” (a reprint of a limited 1985 comic Gruenwald wrote).  In the comic’s foreword, his wife wrote, “He has truly become one with the story.”  20 years after his death, his wife again commemorated his memory by scattering some of his remaining ashes at the base of the Captain America statue in Brooklyn.

  1. Poor execution or a cruel joke?

As previously blogged about by my colleague Jacob Kaufman, in 1928, an anonymous donation of £500,000.00 was made to help the UK government pay off its debt.  The donation, however, was made on the condition that it cannot be touched until the funds are enough to clear the entire national debt.  The fund, called the National Fund, is managed by Barclays and is now worth more than £400 million.  Unfortunately, the national debt currently stands at more than £1.7 trillion and so the country can’t touch the money.  The anonymous donor stipulated that trustees could use part of the fund to pay debts if national circumstances merited it, but no event has been worthy of a payout yet (neither WWII nor the financial crisis provoked a payout!).  Barclays has been trying for years to make the cash available as charitable grants or to hand it to the Treasury.  But, its efforts so far have not been fruitful.  A gift only if it can clear a nation’s debt? Talk about overreaching.

  1. Always leaving us wondering, Shakespeare

William Shakespeare needs no introduction.  Having written some of the most famous tragic love stories, perhaps he wished to carry the spirit of his dramas in his last will and testament.

Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, married in 1582.  At that time, Shakespeare was only 18 and Anne was 26 and pregnant with their first child (I imagine this was a scandal back then).  Historians question how happy Shakespeare and Anne were together (particularly given what seems like a hasty wedding).  Looking for clues as to just how in love they were (or not), the only mention of Anne in Shakespeare’s will is “I give unto my wife my second best bed.”  The rest of his estate was divided between his family and friends.

Back to the “second best bed” to the wife… That was it.  The only gift to his wife of 34 years.  Not even the best bed.  It sounds pretty harsh, no?  But, under the law at the time, Anne would have automatically inherited one third of Shakespeare’s wealth.  So, supposedly, Shakespeare did not have to address her in his will.  Plus, the “best bed” in the house was apparently the guestroom bed.  The “second best bed” was their marriage bed.  Was the “second best bed” a damning last statement to Anne or an intimate gesture? Who knows – no relationship is perfect.

What is the most peculiar request or bequest in a will that you have come across?  This writer welcomes you to share your stories with us!

About Anna Alizadeh
Anna was called to the Ontario Bar in June 2016. Prior to joining de VRIES LITIGATION LLP, she articled at a full service firm where she developed a strong background in litigation and alternative dispute resolution. Anna also worked on estate litigation files and estate planning matters, and co-authored a chapter on Physician Assisted Dying for Key Developments in Estates and Trusts Law in Ontario, 2015-2016 edition. She obtained her Honours Bachelor of Science in Psychology, with a minor in Biology, from York University, and her Juris Doctor from the University of Ottawa. While in law school, Anna participated in an exchange program in Paris, France, where she obtained her Certificate in French and European Union Law. Anna practices in the areas of estates, trusts and capacity litigation. She is fluent in Farsi and has a professional working proficiency in French. Email: AAlizadeh@devrieslitigation.com

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