The English say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” but increasingly where there’s a will there’s litigation, bad blood and even cause for suspicion of foul play. As a reader of old English detective stories, I know that wills play a significant part in many of the mysteries from the golden age of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and all the other writers of that genre from those times. Increasingly, though, there are wills that lead to a different type of suspicion- essentially whether that person being of sound body was also of sound mind when the will was made. As Poirot would say, their little grey cells might have been addled.
The great magician, Harry Houdini, believed in the afterlife and one of the provisions in his will was that his wife Bess should hold a séance every year on the anniversary of his death. After ten years and no Harry, Bess did what was best and gave it up. California prune rancher, Thomas Shewbridge, bequeathed the shareholder rights of his estate to his two dogs. They became the owners of 29,000 stock shares in the local electric company. The dogs regularly attended stockholders’ and board of directors’ meetings. People thought Shewbridge was barking mad.
If that was shocking, consider the case of hotel magnate, Leona Helmsley. Known as the “Queen of Mean” this multi-millionaire (who served a jail term for tax evasion) disinherited two of her four grandchildren. Instead, she left a $12 million trust for the care of Trouble, her dog. She loved Trouble and caused a lot of it in her family. Ms Helmsley, known for her saying “Only little people pay taxes” did some things by the book. She insisted that her other two grandchildren make regular visits to their father’s grave and had to sign a registration book to show that they were there.
If you think that Leona Helmsley was looking for trouble, German countess Carlotta Liebenstein outdid her. She left her entire $80-million estate to her dog, Gunther. Edward G Robinson, the tough guy movie star who starred in the gangster classic Little Caesar left his multi-million dollar art collection to his dog. Then there was Eleanor E Ritchey, the heir to the Quaker State Refining Corporation, who in 1968 left $4.5 million to her dogs, all 150 of them. In her case, it was not entirely smooth driving. Her family contested the will and the dogs ended up with $9 million (the value grew to $14 million while the case was in dispute). When the last dog died in 1984 the remainder of the money went to Auburn University Research Fund for research into animal diseases.
Not all the money goes to the dogs. Animal lover Jonathan Jackson died around 1880. His will stipulated that, “It is man’s duty as lord of animals to watch over and protect the lesser and feebler.” He left money for the creation of a cat house, not the kind you find in Reno and other dens of iniquity, but a genuine one where cats could enjoy comforts such as bedrooms, a dining hall, an auditorium to listen to live accordion music, an exercise room, and a specially designed roof for climbing without risking any of their nine lives. It was purrfect, I tell you!
There are others that I particularly like. Anthony Scott’s will was a classic, “To my first wife Sue, whom I always promised to mention in my Will. Hello Sue’’. A condition in Edith Walsall’s will was that her vast estate was not to be spent on slow horses and fast women. Sara Clarke’s will read “I leave £1.00 to my daughter for the kindness and love she has never shown me’’. Norman Digweed in 1897 left £26,000 “for Jesus Christ should he return.”
Many people made a claim but the money was nevertheless passed on to the Crown in 1977 as a result of the application of the perpetuity rule. In a similar vein, a woman in Cherokee County, North Carolina left her entire fortune to God. The court actually instructed the county sheriff to find God. A few days later the sheriff returned and submitted his report with the conclusion that “after due and diligent search God cannot be found in this county”.
Samuel Bratt used his will to get even with his wife who banned him from smoking. He left her £330,000, provided that she smoked five cigars per day. Another disgruntled husband left his money to his sisters and specified in his will that his wife “for deserting me and leaving me in peace” should get a pocket handkerchief to weep in after his death.
The German poet, Heinrich Heine, left his entire fortune to his wife, but he stipulated that she had to remarry “because then there will be at least one man to regret my death.”
What prompted all this? Ronna Scoratow has dogs, cats and even parakeets but she is leaving some of her money to a plant and is still alive to explain it. The Wall Street Journal reports, “There is only one shadow in this love story: ‘This plant will definitely outlive me,’ said Ms Scoratow, a landlady who is 63 years old and in good health. ‘After I pass, I don’t want her to go unloved.” Ms Scoratow has no children. Her siblings don’t share her enthusiasm for indoor greenery. So last year she put a provision in her will granting $5,000 for a friend to use in caring for the plant. ‘It was ‘interesting,’ her lawyer, James Wood, said when asked about that provision. ‘I’ve done provisions for pets but never a plant.’” While not botanically appropriate, the general comment on the unusual bequest was, “Son of a beech!”
• Tony Deyal was last seen enjoying an Irishman’s will that read, “To my wife, I leave her lover and the knowledge that I was not the fool she thought me; to my son, I leave the pleasure of earning a living. For 20 years he thought the pleasure was mine; he was mistaken.”