Let's face it, we all have family members who get on our nerves. And nothing drives this fact home quite like the holidays. At some point in the coming weeks, many of us will be forced to spend hours making small talk with at least one person who, if the circumstances presented, we might not save from a burning building. Ok maybe that's harsh. But I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. Racist uncles, deadbeat cousins, obnoxious in-laws… etc. Hopefully you don't have this in your family, and if you do, hopefully it's only one or two people. Now imagine a terrible universe where you hated everyone in your immediate family. To make matters worse, imagine a universe where you are extremely wealthy and all of these hated relatives can't wait for you to die so they could inherit your estate. What would you do? Well, if you're 19th century lumber and mining baron Wellington R. Burt, you concoct what has been called the most bizarre and vindictive will in US legal history…
Wellington R. Burt was born on August 26, 1831 in Pike, New York (near Rochester) into a poor farming family. He was the ninth of 13 siblings. And despite being the ninth born child, he was actually the first born son. Imagine the bathroom line in that house on Friday nights. Or whatever was the popular night to be squired about town back in the 1850s. Both of his parents came from old New England families that could trace their American roots back to the mid-1600s.
When Wellington was seven, his entire family moved to Jackson County, Michigan, where they were able to purchase a much larger piece of land to farm. Michigan had only been a state for a few years (since 1837), and families like the Burts were incentivized to move out from the East with cheap plots of fertile farmland. When he was 12 years old, his father died and Wellington became the head of the family and farm. It was an enormously difficult task and instilled in Burt a furious work ethic and cold personal disposition that would remain throughout the rest of his life. When he was 20, Burt managed to attend two year's worth of college. At 22, he felt comfortable enough to leave the family farm for an extended period, so he took up work as a sailor on freighters that were bound for Australia, New Zealand and South America. The future tycoon cherished his time in Australia, especially the city of Melbourne.
Wellington returned to Michigan in 1857 at the age of 26. In those days, Michigan was in the early stages of an explosion in the lumber business that would later be called the "Green Gold Rush". Upon his return, Burt got a job at one of the lumber camps. The job paid $13 a month, which is the equivalent of $351 a month today. Within a few weeks, Burt was made foreman of the entire camp, and his monthly salary was doubled.
A Fortune Is Born
Having grown up mostly dirt poor, Wellington very much understood the value of saving. He lived modestly and pinched every penny so that within a year he had enough money to buy 320 acres of land in what is today called Gratiot County, Michigan. His lumber business slowly started to flourish and over the next decade he acquired more and more land, especially around Saginaw County, Michigan. In 1867 he founded a full service lumber community along his Saginaw River property which he named Melbourne, after his favorite city from this time as a sailor. Within a few years, Melbourne was one of the largest lumber mills in the world.
Unfortunately, Melbourne was destroyed by a fire in 1876. Had Burt not continued his habit of saving and diversifying, it surely would have bankrupted him forever. As his mills were being rebuilt in Michigan, Burt began focusing on land that he owned in Minnesota, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. As luck would have it, in addition to timber, the land in Michigan also turned out to contain large quantities of iron. It would later be known as the Mesabi iron range of Saint Louis County, Minnesota, and it would turn out to be one of the largest discoveries of iron in US history. The iron discovery eventually turned Wellington R. Burt into a millionaire.
Again not one to rest on his laurels, Wellington diversified his timber and iron profits by investing in railroad and banking companies. He personally financed a railroad called C.S. & M. Railroad which was eventually sold off to the Grand Trunk Railroad Company for a tidy little profit. At his peak, Wellington was essentially the sole owner of all railroads coming in and out of various areas of Michigan, especially Ann Arbor. Ever the worldly-man, he even bought railroads in China and Russia, at a time when that was completely unheard-of. Burt also launched a political career that included an unsuccessful run for Michigan Governor, and a successful term as a state Senator from 1893-1894.
One Of The Most Bizarre and Vindictive Wills in US History
Thanks to the enormous success of his various business ventures, by the time Wellington was in his sunset years he had amassed a fortune estimated at $40 to $90 million. That's the same as $500 million to $1.2 billion in today's dollars, which was enough to make Wellington one of the 10 richest people in America. And at this time, Burt intended to leave that fortune to his family and various state-run organizations in Michigan.
Along the way to earning that fortune, Wellington married twice and had seven children and two grandchildren. In 1915, when Wellington was 82 years old, he built a large fence around his mansion in downtown Saginaw. This triggered someone from the county assessor's office to come out to the mansion in order to reassess his property taxes. When the assessment was done, instead of paying $400,000 for his various real estate property taxes, the county wanted Burt to pay $1 million.
Burt was incensed. He angrily told the Saginaw city council "You'd merely be killing the goose that laid the golden egg." When the assessor wouldn't budge, Burt met with his lawyers an immediately had every state-run organization removed from his will.
He was not done being vindictive with his will. Frustrated by years of neediness, feuds, disappointments, failed marriages and general disagreements, Wellington made another late addition to his will.
Wellington instructed his lawyers to include literally what he called a "spite clause", in his will. The spite clause stipulated that his entire fortune be kept in a simple, minimal interest-bearing account at Second National Bank. Sounds ok so far, right? Well, unfortunately for his immediate heirs, Wellington also stipulated that his fortune by kept in that account, without being distributed, until all of his children and grandchildren had died. More specifically, he stipulated that the money would remain locked away until 21 years after the youngest grandchild at the time of his death, had died. The will was handwritten by Wellington Burt himself. It was signed and notarized in August 1917 and by that time it included 42 pages of family grievances to justify his wishes.
To be fair he did set aside a few small annual payments to a handful of people. For example, some of his children were given annual gifts of $1000 or $5000. His favorite son was given an annuity of $30,000 per year ($400k today). One daughter was cut out completely. His longtime secretary was given $4000 a year ($54k today). His cook, chauffeur, coachman and housekeeper were each given $1000 a year ($13,000 in today's dollars).
Think about how brutal that must have been for his family members who did not see this coming at all and did not even know if it was legal. As a matter of fact, some legalities were debatable. This type of will is called a "generational skipping trust", and they are illegal in some states. One of the states it was illegal in at the time was Minnesota, where a large portion of the money had come from. As such, a year after his death, the family members were able to contest the will and successfully secure $720,000 in cash and $5 million in assets related to the Minnesota mines. It was a small concession. The vast majority of the fortune would remain locked up at Second National Bank in Saginaw until 21 years after the youngest grandchild died.
Much to her relative's frustration, Wellington Burt's youngest grandchild Marion Lansill would go on to live well into her 80s. Marion died in November 1989. That event started the countdown for 21 more years. In November 2010, the magic moment had finally come but the surviving family members now had to meet with lawyers to figure out the most equitable way to pay out the funds.
In May 2011, after seven months of legal negotiations, Wellington's millions were finally distributed. The estate, which by now had grown to $110 million, was distributed to 12 people: Three great-grandchildren, seven great-great-grandchildren and two great-great-great-grandchildren. Most of the beneficiaries had never heard of Wellington R. Burt. The average beneficiary received $2.9 million. A handful of the older heirs received around $14.5 million. The oldest beneficiary was 94 years old, the youngest was 19. The 19 year old beneficiary was born in 1992, 72 years after her great-great-great-grandfather died. She and her 21 year old sister both received $2.9 million.
In total, more than 30 possible direct descendants, most notably his children and grandchildren, died before being able to benefit from the trust. Bankers and lawyers who protected the money accumulated more than 40 full boxes related to Burt's will.
What do you think of Wellington R. Burt's will? What would you do if you had $100 million but you hated your family? One thing is for sure, I would not have minded getting $2.9 million back when I was 19 years old!