Vindictive lumber baron's far-flung heirs inherit, 91 years after his death

12 descendants of Wellington R. Burt, a long-dead, vindictive lumber baron, have split a $100-$110 million inheritance that the plutocrat left to be disbursed to his descendants 21 years after the last of his living grandchildren had died.
Press accounts imply that Wellington Burt experienced familial conflicts, which led to the unusual will. Burt had left his children $1,000 to $5,000 annually, relatively small amounts, except for a "favorite son" who he gave $30,000 annually, according to The Saginaw News.

Burt, however, cancelled a $5,000 annuity to one of his daughters over a disagreement about her divorce, the newspaper reported.

Through a trust, he left his secretary $4,000 annually and a cook, housekeeper, coachman and chauffeur each received $1,000 annually.

$100 Million Finally to Be Split Between Descendants, 92 Years After Rich Relative's Death (via Consumerist)


  1. Huh, I always thought you couldn’t leave your estate to people who don’t exist at the time of your will. So you can’t choose to leave money to your grandchild if your grandchild hasn’t been born yet.

    I guess this gets around that by simply distributing the money to any descendants after a certain period of time?

    Anyway. Bet Thanksgiving dinners were fun in that family!

    1. Yeah I bet he was a real toast at the family reunion!

      That said at least he didn’t give it to his dog or cat or something nutsy like that.

      I actually kind of like the idea. By the sounds of it he was supporting all this extended family anyway. “Hey all you blood suckers, you’re not getting another red cent, or your spoiled kids. Once your all dead, whoever still is part of the family tree gets all my money”… Also probably ensures that it is divided among more family members. Perhaps he thought that adults couldn’t manage the money, and thought if he gave it to the kids, their parents would just find a way to wheedle it out of them.

  2. Whoever was managing this money was doing a crap job.

    His fortune was originally estimated at $40M-$90M in 1919 dollars. Using the lower figure of $40M, inflation puts the value of that fortune today at just shy of $500M.

    If you put it in absolutely the most conservative account you could find, you ought to be able to beat that by a wide margin. Even taking out the annuities he paid out–maybe a few million dollars over 91 years?–I’m still left wondering, where’s the damn money?

    Somebody either embezzled like a mofo, or lost it all on a bad gamble.

    1. If the estate had to pay estate taxes prior to about 2005 then there went 35+ percent of it.

      I am not a tax lawyer.

      1. I don’t think estate taxes are paid until the money is actually paid out to the beneficiaries.

        I am also not a tax lawyer.

      2. You got in the ‘I am not a tax lawyer’ too late. I had already read your tax advice before I got to it.

    2. According to the story, there were a rash of legal battles from heirs trying to break the will. That must have eaten up a lot of legal fees right there. The “favorite son” who did so much better than the other children must have needed extra funds for bodyguards too.

  3. Wow. This guy really was truly diabolical.
    The standard a-h0le move wouldve been to simply:
    Give the money to someone else,
    or give it to a person/cause that shows your heirs how little
    you value them (like Helmsley giving money to her dog).

    This guy takes it to a revolting level.

    He’s motivating his heirs to hate/envy their own children.
    (By the way, how does “fabulously wealthy” in 1919 translate to $100Mln
    in today’s dollars. wealthy, sure. but fabulously?)

    1. Yeah, it would be bad-ass if it wasn’t so sad! It’s the ultimate f- you gesture to stab people through your will.

      I think $100mm in today’s dollars is fabulously wealthy. That is an enormous amount of money. With absolutely no effort at investing or getting a return of any kind, you could spend $2mm/year and not run out of money before you die, assuming you’re older than your 20’s. That’s pretty freakin’ rich.

      1. I agree. Anyone who said that much money isn’t freaking amazing needs a reality check. Most Americans can’t even fathom how much that could buy them. Given that much money, I’d probably giggle maniacally and piss on myself with joy.

  4. SamSam

    Rule against perpetuities = “no interest is good unless it must vest, if at all, not later than twenty-one years after the death of some life in being at the creation of the interest”

    Essentially, this prevents a person from controlling their assets in perpetuity (except through corporation or trust), by requiring you to distribute your stuff within 21 years of someone who is then living. Here, the will specified that the money wasn’t to be given out until 21 years after the last grandchild died.

  5. I don’t have a problem with someone not giving their children their inheritance* but this guy went out of his way to be a jerk. Why didn’t he simply give the money to charity after his death? That way, he can be a jerk to his children and needy people benefit. Also, he doesn’t look like such a jerk. As for people who don’t give their children their fortunes, I don’t think Warren Buffet is giving his children much but he’s not doing it be a jerk either.

    *as long as the children are treated equally, ie either none of the children inherit, or they all inherit the same amount

  6. 12 descendants are going to get roughly 10 million bucks each.

    Considering that the grandchildren of this guy are all dead, these descendents are probably the living children or grandchildren of those people. Which means they are at least old enough to be working adults and possibly even of retirement age, and probably all or mostly all of them have families of their own.

    So 10 million bucks to 12 different families . . . why does this make the guy evil? It’s possible all his kids turned out to be rich, spoiled little shits and he decided to leave them with nothing to force them to work hard for themselves. As Chris Rock said during one of his stand ups . . . and I am paraphrasing . . . “I am conflicted as a parent, because I don’t want my kids to be deprived of anything, but I’m also rich, and I’ve always hated rich kids!”

    So 12 people got a (I assume) nice surprise windfall. Good for them! Ten million bucks isn’t enough to quit working forever (unless you’re already near retirement age) but it will mean they will live comfortably, their kids won’t have to worry about college tuition, and so on.

    1. Ten million bucks isn’t enough to quit working forever

      Err, what?

      Even when invested conservatively, this would easily yield 500.000 a year – without touching the capital.

      Or one could not invest anything at all and use up 125.000 $ each year, which mean that they are broke after 80 years.

      1. Made me chuckle too. That would be 250k a year for doing nothing until I’m 80 years old, presuming I live that long. Not bad. Hell I could just quit my job and pay myself the small percentage of that, that I make now and invest the rest and be great.

        Anyway, why didn’t he give this money to charity? I always think it’s funny how people who are against social programs just think that the wealthy will take up the slack out of the kindness of their own hearts.

    2. Ten million bucks isn’t enough to quit working forever

      Seriously? I’d be prepared to give it a fucking good try, like.

  7. Why all the bitching about this guy? I, for one, welcome my new dead forebear! (I wish!)

  8. I forsee so many “heirs” just coming out of the woodwork to claim their stake on the money that the main people who will be making out like bandits on this deal will be some lawyers. The real descendants will spend years and years and years (if not forever) fighting party after party with flimsy claims against the money.

  9. For those that are complaining that he should have done something different so we all wouldn’t judge him for being a jerk…he’s been dead 91 freaking years. I don’t think he’s too concerned with our opinion.

  10. What are the odds the last grandkid took a “spill” down the stairs?

    “Mom, when’s granny gonna die, I’m hungry?”

    As for Unmutual, I think I’d scrape by with a measly $10,000,000 where do you live Burncashistan?

  11. The most amazing thing is that the attorney didn’t “accidentally” spend or lose all the money in some unforeseen and legal way.

  12. Still not buying it.

    Let’s, again, use the lower figure of $40M. (It might be as much as $90M!)

    Let’s say, very generously, that they spent $10M-$20M on legal fees out of this fortune.

    (The favorite son only got 30k/year, so that ate up perhaps 1.8M only. His bodyguard fees have to come out of his already-stipulated stipend, sorry.)

    Eventually they all give up on the fight/die, so once those legal fees are spent, there aren’t going to be significantly more, and that’s still allowing for a crazy amount–$20M worth of legal fighting.

    Inflation puts the amount left at $250M. A quite modest investment yield of 5% would give them $1.7 billion dollars instead.

    Somebody embezzled.

    1. Don’t forget that early in that 91-year period, there was a massive, worldwide, and across-the-board economic downturn that wiped out a lot of paper wealth, including among those who were “conservatively” invested. (In 1920, a multi-millionaire did not have the diversification options that even a small investor does today.)

      What’s more, the lawyers managing the trust in 1929, with the eventual disbursement god-knows-how-many decades away, may have felt that they had a more immediate duty to make absolutely iron-clad the principle for the annuities they had to pay right now to living people–to say nothing of their own fees–rather than make “savvy” investments to ensure a 10-figure inheritance for the People of the Future.

      In other words, the way you stayed relatively rich during the Depression was to ride out the storm and hold onto the title to as much as you could–or buy up “worthless” title on the cheap, a la Old Man Potter. But that’s a better and more logical strategy for a live person than the representatives of a dead (and crazy) person. So without any breach of fiduciary duty or overt foolishness, the trustees may have sold off a hefty portion of that giant estate for pennies on the dollar, very early in the game.

    2. You dont know what the trust was invested in and the Great Depression might have had something to do with it.

  13. People are upset that he left his children “only” $1,000 – $30,000 per year. Christ! Back in 1919, a whole house was $500 – $1000 dollars. And income taxes barely existed then. $4,000 per year to live on in 1919 made you very well off!

  14. Who says the money had to be invested at all? It could have just been left in cash- no interest, no capital gains, no adjusting for inflation. A waste, sure, but entirely possible if Mr. Burt didn’t trust others to manage the money- which, given the nature of the story, seems likely.

    Why didn’t he just give it to charity? Maybe he wasn’t a charitable kind of guy- comes in handy for making fortunes, then and now.

  15. Sounds like they did a great job of managing his money – they probably got away with a fortune.

    A former coworker used to work at Goldman. He said they used to joke: “We manage your money until you don’t have any more.”

    Those are the people who want us to continue to invest our retirement in their market.

  16. Also, can I just say that I hope that in the 22nd century I’m still remembered as a “vindictive [something] baron.”

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