Thursday, May 12, 2011
Wellington R. Burt, once ranked among America’s eight wealthiest men, made his millions in the lumber and iron industries. At one point he was elected Mayor of East Saginaw and eventually became a state senator. He died in 1919, leaving behind a multimillion-dollar estate and a will that would be fought over for nearly a century.
The story of Burt’s will, which was dated August 1917, began in 1915 when Saginaw officials hiked the value of Burt’s personal property from $400,000 to $1 million. He retaliated by changing his will, scratching sizable bequests to Saginaw. He also shortchanged his family, stating that they could only reach his fortune 21 years after his grandchildren’s death. Attorney Danielle Mayoras believes that Burt chose a 21-year stipulation because of the common law Rule Against Perpetuities.
Burt didn’t completely disinherit his children; he left them each between $1,000 to $5,000 annually, except he left $30,000 annually to his “favorite son.” He cancelled one daughter’s $5,000 annuity over a disagreement regarding her divorce. He also left his secretary, cook, housekeeper, chauffeur, and coachman about the same annual amounts as he left his children.
The last grandchild alive during Burt’s life, Marion Stone Burt Lansill, died in November of 1989. Now that 21 years have passed, the fortune is finally being distributed to three great-grandchildren, seven great-great grandchildren, and two great-great-great grandchildren, ranging in age from 19-94. The fortune is valued between $100-110 million.
Saginaw County Chief Probate Judge Patrick McGraw currently has Burt’s handwritten will in his office. He also has 42 files full of grievances filed in the past 92 years by scorned relatives anxious to break the estate early. Some of the trust assets were reached, but Burt’s assets remained mostly intact for the past 92 years. McGraw allowed the heirs to sort out shares of the assets themselves and must distribute the assets in accordance with the agreement by the end of May.
Christina Cameron, the youngest of the heirs, lost her grandfather and mother in 2009 and 2010. When talking about the $2.6 million that she and her sister will each inherit, Christina stated, “I guess all of this happening within a year made this seem more like a curse. My grandfather was pretty excited about it, and then my mother was pretty excited about it as well. Cory and I are not as excited.”
Justin L. Engel, Wellington’s Millions: Great-Great-Great Granddaughter Calls Saginaw Lumber Legacy a ‘Curse’ on Family, mlive.com, May 9, 2011. See Susanna Kim, $100 Million Finally to be Split Between Descendants, 92 Years After Rich Relative’s Death, abcnews, May 10, 2011; Justin L. Engel, Wellington’s Millions: 92 Years After His Death, Saginaw Lumber Baron’s Vindictive Testament Nears Endgame, mlive.com, May 8, 2011; Justin L. Engel, Wellington’s Millions: Saginaw Judge Carries Out Century-Old Wishes of Unusual Lumber Tycoon, mlive.com, May 8, 2011; ; Justin L. Engel, Wellington’s Millions: History Kinder to Saginaw Lumber Baron Than Family’s Legacy, Preservationist Says, mlive.com, May 10, 2011.
Special thanks to Adam J. Hirsch (William and Catherine VanDercreek Professor of Law, Florida State University College of Law), Mary Lisa Mireles (Attorney at Law, San Antonio, TX), Barrett Shipp (Attorney at Law, San Antonio, TX), Sara Hudman (Attorney at Law, Lubbock, TX), and Peter Parlapiano (2011 MBA/M.S. PFP candidate, Texas Tech) for bringing this to my attention.