$100 Million Finally to Be Split Between Descendants, 92 Years later
May 10, 2011 6:10 PM   Subscribe

Cantankerous curmudgeony robber baron Wellington R. Burt was among the 8 wealthiest Americans, worth around $90 million when he died in 1919. He feuded with his 7 children, and left them very little. In an act of supreme cruelty, or foxy genius, his will stipulated that 21 years after the death of his last grandchild, any remaining heirs would receive the fortune. 92 years later and the money is being distributed, to three great-grandchildren; seven great-great grandchildren; and two great-great-great grandchildren.
posted by stbalbach (54 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
WE LOVE YOU UNCLE WELLINGTON!
posted by clavdivs at 6:11 PM on May 10, 2011 [7 favorites]


But first they have to spend one night in his haunted mansion!
posted by bstreep at 6:16 PM on May 10, 2011 [65 favorites]


Damn, This is some John Jarndyce's shit.
posted by muddgirl at 6:16 PM on May 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


LOL rich people!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:20 PM on May 10, 2011


Please tell me there was some sort of interest-bearing investment since 1919... Oh, a musty old box? Thanks Great Great Great Grandpa...
posted by pupdog at 6:21 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


In before "Death Tax" cries.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 6:21 PM on May 10, 2011


Dang ol' Rule against Perpetuities. "No interest is good unless it must vest, if at all, twenty-one years after a life in being at the time of the creation of the interest." That's straight out of memory from law school. I always wondered how far you could stretch a permissible period these days.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:22 PM on May 10, 2011 [10 favorites]


It's weirdness like this that makes me love my hometown with all my heart.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 6:23 PM on May 10, 2011


I hate my kids, and I hate my kid's kids. But I hate every other worthy cause more than I hate my kid's kid's kids.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:23 PM on May 10, 2011 [19 favorites]


Damn, This is some John Jarndyce's shit.

At least somebody is getting the money here. Other than the equivalent to Mr. Vholes, I mean.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:27 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


He must have had an astounding lack of self-awareness. If you dislike all seven of your kids, the problem is probably with your character and not theirs. And if it isn't, you must be a monumentally awful parent and it's your fault anyway. Burt was pretty much the rich asshole from a communist fairytale.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:33 PM on May 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


It should be said his children outfoxed the old man, recovering $5 million in 1920, because some of the inheritance was located in a different state that didn't allow for such a protracted will.
posted by stbalbach at 6:33 PM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wellington's Beef: Or, How To Hold A Grudge Well After Death
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:34 PM on May 10, 2011 [23 favorites]


B'ah
wok-wok-wok.
posted by clavdivs at 6:36 PM on May 10, 2011


If you dislike all seven of your kids

Which he didn't, since he left one of them an annuity of $30,000, while the others only got $5,000 (or, in one case, nothing).
posted by kenko at 6:36 PM on May 10, 2011


Guess how I learned that, by the way.
posted by kenko at 6:37 PM on May 10, 2011 [35 favorites]


I always wondered how far you could stretch a permissible period these days.

In Clifton Fadiman's anthology Fantasia Mathematica, there's a story story called "John Jones' Dollar". A man in 1921 deposits a dollar to a bank account be claimed by his heir 40 generations hence. By that time, due to compounding interest, the account has become more valuable than the entire contents of the Solar System. Due to the 39th generation heir being disappointed in love, no 40th generation heir is produced. But the government is so scared by its close call that it immediately institutes universal socialism.

It's a science fiction anthology.
posted by Trurl at 6:39 PM on May 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


Christ, I'm having flashbacks. "Any future interest must vest, if at all, within 21 years of lives in being."
posted by ereshkigal45 at 6:42 PM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Did he have any property named Blackacre?
posted by Falconetti at 6:44 PM on May 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


Thank goodness we have low estate taxes so the government won't undermine these strong family bonds.
posted by brain_drain at 6:48 PM on May 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


In May 2011 the will was finally distributed, 21 years after the 1989 death of Burt's last grandchild (who was alive at the time of his death).

Even more notable, as most are usually dead at time of death. Rich people can do anything!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:51 PM on May 10, 2011 [7 favorites]


And of course the great-great-granddaughter is blase about the family feuds and says she'll probably just save the money. I guess if you've always known you'd inherit a share you might feel that way about it, but I think I'd be a bit more excited about somewhere between $2.6 and $2.9 million.
posted by immlass at 7:00 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


an act of supreme cruelty, or foxy genius

There is no need for the "OR" there. An act can be both supremely cruel and foxily genius.

If I had been one of the fucked imediate kids I would have changed name, moved to another state, and made it as impossible as possible to ever track my own kids' lineage to this asshole. In those days that was actually a lot easier to do than it is now. (All it really takes is moving to any southern town where the coutrhouse was burned down, as many of them were, to hide some important person's 1/32nd Negro heritage which was considered a bad thing some time back.)

In practice, what actually did was not have kids.
posted by localroger at 7:05 PM on May 10, 2011


Guess how I learned that, by the way.

You completed a novena to St. Jim the Smug and rubbed his picture on your boner during each recitation? My apologies if you're not Catholic.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:05 PM on May 10, 2011 [6 favorites]


Under the Rule Against Perpetuities, this was the longest that he could have delayed outright distribution. Just because you can do something, however, doesn't mean you should do it.

In many states, now, the rule has been abolished, so a similarly deranged wealthy person could now make his intended beneficiaries wait for 300 years if he wanted.
posted by megatherium at 7:15 PM on May 10, 2011


I'm guessing that as kids who grew up around rich friends they were able to find jobs and opportunities that way, so moving away.

It's also surprising that the account didn't seem to bear much interest in the interim. If it had been invested in the stock market I'm sure it would be worth billions by now.
posted by delmoi at 7:26 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's also surprising that the account didn't seem to bear much interest in the interim. If it had been invested in the stock market I'm sure it would be worth billions by now.

Even if it had merely kept pace with inflation it would be worth over a billion, according to the westegg inflation calculator. I wonder if it was invested at all. Even treasuries should have done better than that.
posted by jedicus at 7:33 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Of course, 1929 happened between then and now, so it might also be worth nothing.
posted by agentofselection at 7:34 PM on May 10, 2011


And of course the great-great-granddaughter is blase about the family feuds and says she'll probably just save the money. I guess if you've always known you'd inherit a share you might feel that way about it, but I think I'd be a bit more excited about somewhere between $2.6 and $2.9 million.

The share only went to her and her sister after her grandfather passed on in 2009, and her mother passed on in 2010 (age 50). They were both excited to get the share before their passing. She didn't know until last year that she'd have to lawyer up to claim the inheritance. (The lawyers for everyone negotiated exact details.) She and her sister are not as excited.
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:35 PM on May 10, 2011


He obviously cared something about his lineage, or he would have given it all to charity.
posted by blargerz at 7:53 PM on May 10, 2011


Wait I remember reading this in school, we've got to solve the puzzle of Westing's death, right?
posted by The Whelk at 7:55 PM on May 10, 2011 [7 favorites]


Under the Rule Against Perpetuities, this was the longest that he could have delayed outright distribution. Just because you can do something, however, doesn't mean you should do it.

I'm a little confused (and bad at property). Wasn't it possible that that the grandchild would not be born until after his death, which would then make them not a life in being? Or is it just due to the fact that the grandchild was in fact alive, and so here it's not a problem but it would have been void[able] otherwise?
posted by Lemurrhea at 8:14 PM on May 10, 2011


Being a firm supporter of the proposition that heirs should find their own damn jobs, I say "YAY GREAT-GRANDPA!"
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:17 PM on May 10, 2011


I'm a little confused (and bad at property). Wasn't it possible that that the grandchild would not be born until after his death

No, he picked a grandchild that was alive when he died, Marion Stone Burt Lansill (see here), specifically to make it take as long as possible.
posted by rkent at 8:19 PM on May 10, 2011


He said the estate was to be held in a trust "for 21 years after my last surviving grandchild that shall be living at the time of my death." He didn't pick one, rather until all were dead, from the pool who were alive at the time of his death in 1919.
posted by stbalbach at 8:25 PM on May 10, 2011


I can't help but admire the spite. I'm not saying spite is good, or something to admire, but that is some damn admirable spite.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:58 PM on May 10, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm surprised some great-grandkid didn't start offing relatives.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:03 PM on May 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


In your hands, you each have a lethal weapon. If you denounce me to the police, you will also be exposed and humiliated. I'll see to that in court. But, if one of you kills Wadsworth now, no one but the seven of us will ever know. He has the key to the front door, which he said would only be opened over his dead body. I suggest we take him up on that offer. The only way to avoid finding yourselves on the front pages is for one of you to kill Wadsworth. NOW.
posted by The Whelk at 9:11 PM on May 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


Of course, 1929 happened between then and now, so it might also be worth nothing.

The Dow closed at 108.76 on Jan 2, 1920. The Dow closed at 12,760 today.
posted by hwyengr at 9:26 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dammit Whelk, you are making my long wait until Sunday to see Clue on the big screen (Toronto Underground Cinema what what!) seem even more interminable.
posted by yellowbinder at 9:50 PM on May 10, 2011


The Dow closed at 108.76 on Jan 2, 1920. The Dow closed at 12,760 today.

"$108.76 in 1920 had the same buying power as $1,242.68 in 2010."

Thus, a dollar put into the stock market in 1920 would only have a true worth of $10.30 today (12760/1243).

A $1 principal invested for 91 years (2011-1920), compounded continuously for a total of $10.30, solves for an effective interest rate of 2.6%.

That interest rate is apparently slightly worse than year-to-year inflation over the same time period (2.74%). Yikes!

This seems to conflict with the general trope that sticking with the stock market through economic depressions will make one filthy rich.

Does someone know where my calculations are wrong, or is the picture really this bleak?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:17 PM on May 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm surprised some great-grandkid didn't start offing relatives.

Tontine
 
posted by rhizome at 10:20 PM on May 10, 2011


I'm surprised some great-grandkid didn't start offing relatives.

Sibella: "All of your cousins seem to get killed. I really wouldn't be the least surprised if you murdered them all."
posted by Modlizki at 10:59 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


BP, I think you're double counting the inflation.
posted by ryanrs at 11:13 PM on May 10, 2011


Blazecock, buying power is another way of saying inflation. Here's 100 years stock market performance inflation adjusted. In 2010 dollars, the market was at about 900 in 1920 and 11500 in 2010. That's a 11.7 times increase over 90 years, which solves for 2.77% -- almost exactly what you came up with. That does seem dismal.
posted by stbalbach at 11:17 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


2.77% is dismal, but the dip of 1929 was an aberration caused by unchecked greed and rampant speculation. The strong regulations enacted afterward will prevent such a calamity from occurring again.
posted by benzenedream at 11:31 PM on May 10, 2011 [11 favorites]


reminds me of something Roger Daltrey (from The Who) said in an interview way back when. When asked what he planned to do with his retirement, he said he'd go fishing and figure out a way to blow every penny he'd ever made, leaving nothing in inheritance to his kids ... because he'd never met anyone worth shit who came from money.
posted by philip-random at 11:48 PM on May 10, 2011


But even assuming a 2.77% interest rate over the whole period, the inheritance should be over 10 times what it was in 1920. It might not be worth any more in real terms due to inflation, but in absolute terms a total estate of 90 million should be over 1000 million in cash now; not 100-110.

Even accounting for taxes, bank fees, the $5 mill taken early and the small annuities etc, it's hard to see where 90% of it has gone, unless it wasn't actually invested in anything like a realistic investment rate for that entire period.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:19 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


My fav value-of-money calculator uses purchasing power. (DOW is fantasy money)

It tells me that $90M in 1919 has the power of $1.12 billion these days. That -was- a lot of money. Of course in cash, it'd still be worth $90M ... about 8% of its original purchasing power. The curse of inflation.

$90M at 5% (over inflation) for 92 years is almost $9B. With a -very talented- broker getting you 10% (over inflation) each year, you'd ... have more than enough to pay off the TARP fund.
posted by Twang at 2:13 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


As to the present day value issues, if you read the articles you will see that the trust has been under continuous challenge from family members since its inception.

Over the years judges have sliced off and distributed several of the more valuable portions leaving much less than would have been had the entire corpus been held together.
posted by mygoditsbob at 4:47 AM on May 11, 2011


Blazecock Pileon: "Does someone know where my calculations are wrong, or is the picture really this bleak?"

Stock splits and dividends.
posted by notsnot at 6:36 AM on May 11, 2011


Dang ol' Rule against Perpetuities

I'm certain that law school casebooks are being updated this very minute in order to include this story and thus help justify the release of an incrementally changed new edition, thereby ensuring sales of new books as older used copies become relatively worthless.

Props to Professor Thomas D. Morgan for avoiding this pressure with only two editions in 17 years of his antitrust casebook.
posted by exogenous at 7:56 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


notsnot: The Dow is adjusted for stock splits.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:02 AM on May 11, 2011


It's an interesting series of articles, but I wish the author would have said more about some of the other heirs --- sure, the cute little 19-year-old is interesting, but what about the older heirs? That 94-year-old, for instance: what was it like spending almost your entire life basically waiting for your family to die?!? Were some of them obsessed by it, did some just put it in the backs of their minds and go about their lives, did it divide the survivors or bring some closer together?

(I imagine that, especially for the older heirs, something like Great Britain's Prince Charles' situation: on the one hand, you win quite a prize; on the other, you only get it because you lose your mother.....)
posted by easily confused at 10:50 AM on May 11, 2011


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