Wills Gone Wild: The Shocks & Surprises from 7 Astonishing Estates
Here’s What We Can Learn from Some of History’s Wildest Wills & the Battles That Ensued
Wills and last wishes can be as complex and unique as the people behind them. That can lead to some strange terms, bizarre requests, and even forgotten provisions in wills. It can also give rise to will contests, heated fights in probate court, and prolonged litigation.
While that can happen with both modest and larger estates, the wills of some rich and famous folks truly take the cake when it comes to peculiar provisions, shocking requests, and the nearly unbelievable events they’ve unleashed.
Let’s find out what’s behind some of the most unusual wills on record and what’s come of them.
These wills (or lack of them) are associated with the estates of:
Ben Franklin: A Will for the Future
When Benjamin Franklin died in April 1790 at the age of 84, he was one of the richest men in the U.S. — and he did have a will in place, leaving some assets to his loved ones, including his wife, Deborah Franklin, as well as his children and other relatives.
Remarkably, however, Benjamin Franklin’s will also put some money in a trust as a gift for the cities of Philadelphia and Boston. Specifically, he left $:2,000 in 1790 for both cities, with the intention of those funds being equally divided between Philadelphia and Boston. That’s roughly $1 million in today’s dollars.
That generous gift spoke to Benjamin Franklin’s support of the budding American democracy, and it did have some strings attached. The catch was that Philadelphia and Boston were not permitted to:
- Touch a good portion of the inherited funds for 100 years: Instead, the funds were supposed to be used as loans for young apprentices and entrepreneurs, like Franklin had been at one time.
- Access the rest of the money for at least 200 years: At some point, the funds were put in a trust, where they accumulated interest until their ultimate dispersal.
That 200-year timeframe was up in 1990, at which point both Philadelphia and Boston received the gifted funds, with interest, resulting in a total of $6.5 million from Benjamin Franklin’s will. Since then:
- Many have advocated that the money be used to fund education, low-income housing, and other city improvements.
- There haven’t been any wills on record bequeathing gifts to be withheld for a century (or longer).
Wellington Burt: An Embittered Legacy
In March 1919 at the age of 87, Lumber Magnate Wellington Burt passed away, leaving behind about $40 to $90 million at the time. That’s about $625 million to $1.41 billion in today’s dollars, and:
- Certain individuals were gifted about $1,000 a year: This included Mr. Burt’s wife, children, and four servants.
- Most of the fortune went into a trust: Mr. Burt named his relatives as the heirs to the trust.
Reportedly, however, Mr. Burt had a falling out with his loved ones before he passed, making it a point to highlight that in his last wishes.
In fact, although Mr. Burt’s relatives were heirs to the trust, no payments would be distributed from the trust until 21 years after the death of his last grandchild. In other words, only heirs who were great-grandchildren or more distant relatives would be eligible to receive a payout from the trust.
Ultimately, Mr. Burt’s last grandchild passed away in 1989, at which point the 21-year countdown started. It came to an end in November 2010, just 9 years shy of a century after Mr. Burt died.
At that point, the trust reportedly held about $110 million, and it was divided between 12 heirs. The remarkable terms of this trust and Mr. Burt’s unusual estate plan have come to be referred to as a “legacy of bitterness” in and outside of legal circles.
William Jennens: An Intestate Pile-on
When William Jennens died in 1798 at the age of 97, this financier was reportedly known as “The Miser of Acton” and the richest “commoner in England,” accumulating about £2 million over a lifetime of lending money to gamblers in London’s casinos. That’s about £2.5 billion these days.
Crucially, Mr. Jennens was not married when he died intestate, meaning he didn’t leave behind a valid will or a surviving spouse. He also did not have any known children at the time.
Consequently, the court declared a relative of Mr. Jennens’ aunt to be the heir. That heir soon passed away, however, opening up the floodgates for the estate to receive all sorts of claims from alleged descendants of Mr. Jennens. In fact:
- Supposed relatives from both the U.S. and England were coming out of the woodworks to claim some type of relation to Mr. Jennens and, in turn, try to lay claim to some of his fortune.
- Several “Jennens clubs” formed, with people coming together to research bloodlines and try to establish connections to the Jennens fortune. These clubs popped up in Virginia, Tennessee, Birmingham, Ireland, and beyond.
- The estate was inundated with claims from alleged heirs, with the last official claim filed in 1915.
In the end, no heir was ever determined, and the fortune ended up going to legal fees and other costs associated with running the estate.
As mind-blowing as that may be, none of it may have happened at all if Mr. Jennens had simply signed the sealed will that was in his coat pocket before he passed away. According to some reports, Mr. Jennens had a will written up, and he hadn’t executed it yet because he didn’t have his glasses on him.
The circumstances and outcome of the Jennens estate continue to serve as a warning about what can happen when decedents don’t create or execute valid wills. Beyond that, the Jennens inheritance drama lives on in literature, as it reportedly inspired Charles Dickens and the fictional legal case, Jarndyce v Jarndyce, described in Bleak House.
4 Other Famous Figures & Celebrities with Off-the-Wall Wills
While the estates of Benjamin Franklin, Wellington Burt, and William Jennens have become the stuff of legend, they are by no means the only well-known figures to have unusual circumstances associated with their wills or estates.
Many others over the years have carved out a distinct name and legacy for themselves in the realm of estate planning, with their own astonishing stories, some of which are still awaiting a conclusion. That includes (and is by no means limited to):
- Prince: This iconic musician died intestate in 2016, leaving behind no spouse, no children, and an estate valued at about $156 million. After a 6-year legal battle, Prince’s 6 half siblings were named as heirs to the estate.
- Matthew Mellon: When banking Heir Matthew Mellon suddenly died from a heart attack in 2018, he took the digital keys to his $500 million in cryptocurrency with him to the grave, leaving behind no way for his heirs to access the digital funds.
- Jim Morrison: When Jim Morrison passed away in 1971, leaving behind a 2-page will, he didn’t have much, but he did hold 25% interest in The Doors. He bequeathed that to his girlfriend, Pamela Courson. About 3 years later, she died intestate, and her parents inherited her estate. Morrison’s parents sued, arguing that the original will was not valid. In the end, the matter was settled out of court, with Morrison’s estate split between Courson’s parents and Morrison’s parents.
- Anna Nicole Smith: At the center of two will battles, Anna Nicole Smith filed a claim against the estate of her late husband, J. Howard Marshall, in 1995, alleging that Marshall had intended to change his will before he passed away and leave her half of his fortune. She was ultimately awarded $475 million after a 20-year legal battle. Then, when Smith passed away in 2007, not mentioning her daughter, Dannielynn, in her will and leaving everything to her deceased son, several parties stepped forward claiming to be Dannielynn’s father. Ultimately, Dannielynn inherited Anna Nicole Smith’s estate.
Unique Last Wishes & Wild Wills: Key Takeaways
With estates, valid wills, and lasting legacies, the reality is that you can’t be too careful when it comes to covering your bases, complying with the law, and selecting the right estate planning devices and language to fit your needs and objectives. Getting it wrong or putting things off can easily derail best-laid plans and the greatest of intentions — and that can end up steamrolling your legacy while leaving your loved ones fighting in court (potentially for years or longer).
Beyond your will and estate plan, you can also be an heir or an executor of a will or estate that isn’t as buttoned up as it maybe should be. That can unleash all sorts of confusion and questions, with court battles in some cases.
Whatever that looks like for you, partnering with an experienced attorney can provide the support, guidance, and counsel you need to protect your rights and interests at every step going forward.
Find Out More About Wills, Will Contests & Probate
Whether you’re creating a will or administering a trust or estate plan, any oversights can give rise to contentious disputes and high-states courtroom battles. No matter where you stand or what you’re fighting for, you can turn to an experienced Austin estate attorney at the Law Office of Todd A. Wilson, now also TAW Law TX. We are ready to share confidential advice in a free, no-obligation consultation. Simply reach out to get more answers today.
Todd A. Wilson
Todd A. Wilson has been practicing law since 2007, with the aim of educating all strata of society and sharing crucial insights about the importance of estate planning, probate, and more.
The Law Office of Todd A. Wilson (also known as TAW Law TX) offers affordable estate planning and probate services.