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The most interesting will ever written?

August 26, 2019

When beginning to prepare your estate plan, it's important to consider how much control you want to have over your beneficiaries. While an estate plan can be a great way to leave your legacy, you can also use it to influence the decisions of those you leave behind. 

 

For example, an inheritance may be held in trust until the beneficiary graduates from college or starts a business. Another common provision might be to require a pre-nuptial agreement in the event of a spouse's remarriage. For the many farm families we work with, we might include rental or purchase options in favor of the farming children so that the land stays in the family. 

 

While all of these provisions can help ensure a lasting legacy, it's important to balance this type of "control beyond the grave" with the practical administration of your estate and people's lives. On the other hand, the estate plan can also be your last impact on the world. For one person, at least, it was also his last laugh. 

 

I recently came across the story of Charles Vance Millar. Millar was a successful lawyer and investor known for his love of practical jokes and pranks. When he died in 1926, his law partner found a writing that purported to be a will. His partner originally thought it was another practical joke, but it turned out to be Millar's final prank. The will begins by saying:

 

This Will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependents or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime.

 

The will included a number of bequests designed by its drafter (Millar himself) to test people's greed.

 

One bequest was to three attorneys that hated each other for the the use of a Jamaican vacation home. Millar knew they would need to work with each other if they wanted to use the tropical vacation property. 

 

He also left his shares in the jockey club to three men, including a minister and a judge, that were vocally opposed to horse racing. The will stipulated that all three men must become members of the club to claim their shares. They eventually did and cashed in. 

 

In another bequest, he left shares of a brewery to temperance-supporting ministers so long as they took part in its management. 

 

It was the final bequest that made Millar's will famous. The residue of Millar's estate was to be converted to cash ten years after his death and given to the Toronto woman who gave birth to the most children in that time. In the event of a tie, the "winners" would split the estate. The will survived litigation and attempts by distant relatives to invalidate it. The Great Stork Derby, as the contest came to be known, continued and eventually was settled. By the time the bequest was distributed it was worth $750,000 (over $13 million in 2019 dollars!). The prize was split among four women who each had 9 children. 

 

If there is a lesson here, it is that some people have a funny sense of humor. The other legal lesson is that there are a lot of things a person can include in their estate plan and have it hold up as valid. The real question is whether such provisions are wise. 

 

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