Monday, May 16, 2011
The Rule Against Perpetuities has come to Lexington, KY. The RAP has finally ended a local girl's lengthy wait to get a share of a family fortune that's long been tied up in trust. Christina Alexander Cameron, the great-great-great-granddaughter of lumber baron Wellington R. Burt, is one of 12 heirs set to split Burt's $100 million estate -- 92 years after his death. Burt included a clause in his will that prevented his family from collecting any money until 21 years after the death of his youngest grandchild in existence when he died.
Other than the RAP angle, this story has a number of delicious twists and turns. First, by all accounts, settling the estate has been an absolute nightmare. The Probate Judge has noted that the case involved negotiations among 20 attorneys - the affair has become "one of the most complicated research projects" to blow through the legal community in Saginaw. In addition to the many legal questions, the probate judge has been tasked completing some serious genealogical research. Initially, 30 people claimed to be direct descendents of Burt. Public records, however, proved that only a dozen from that group are the fruit of Burt's family tree.
Second, the drama surrounding the estate appears to have torn the family apart and brought much havoc in the lives of Burt's descendants. According to one account, "Within a year of Burt’s death, some of his children attempted to break the trust in court, claiming the old man wasn’t in his right mind when dictating that last testament. Fighting the lumber baron’s trustees legally became a tradition for generations of Burts." Cameron herself describes the money as something of a "curse" that's been a central obsession for generations of her family.
Finally, it seems like the trustee of Burt's fortune did a rather poor job managing the corpus. When Burt died in 1917 his wealth was estimated at somewhere between $40 million to $90 million, and yet the trust is currently worth only $100 million. If these estimates prove true, the trustee could find itself hit with a lawsuit for breaching the duty of prudence or care.
(Pic: Burt's actual will. It's handwritten!)