The most significant thing in the world is family. We all have relatives who annoy us, though, at the same time. Uncles who practice racism, slacker cousins, intrusive in-laws, and so forth. I hope your extended family doesn’t include too many of these people. What if you did, though? Imagine a horrible world if you abhorred every single member of your own family. Imagine a world where you are immensely wealthy and all of your horrible relatives are eagerly awaiting your passing so they can inherit your fortune. How would you respond? Well, if you’re lumber and mining mogul Wellington R. Burt from the 19th century, you probably come up with what is likely the most peculiar and spiteful will in American legal history.
On August 26, 1831, Wellington R. Burt was born into a substandard farming family in Pike, New York (near Rochester). The eighth of 13 children, he was. And despite being the ninth born child, he was actually the first born son. Just picture the queue for the restroom on a Friday night.
When he was 12 years old, his father died and Wellington became the head of the family and farm. Burt developed a ferocious work ethic and a chilly personality as a result of the impossibly challenging undertaking, which he would carry with him for the rest of his life.
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 business magnate loved Australia and Melbourne in particular.
At the age of 26, Wellington traveled back to Michigan in 1857. 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 salary for the work was $13 per month, about $350 in today’s money. Burt received a pay raise and a promotion within a short period of time, and he was appointed foreman of the entire camp.
Burt, Wellington R. (Public Domain)
A Fortune Is Born
Given his largely impoverished upbringing, Wellington appreciated the need of saving money. 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.
Soon, his lumber business was booming. He continued to amass land during the following ten years, particularly in and 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. Melbourne quickly became home to one of the biggest lumber mills in the world.
Wellington R. Burt went from being a modestly successful timber businessman to becoming a multi-millionaire as a result of the iron discovery.
Again not one to rest on his laurels, Wellington diversified his timber and iron profits by investing in railroad and banking companies. C.S. & M. Railroad, which he personally funded, was later sold to the Grand Trunk Railroad Company for a tidy little profit.
At his height, Wellington effectively controlled the whole network of railroads entering and leaving Michigan, particularly Ann Arbor. The consummate traveler, he even purchased railroads in China and Russia at a time when such an endeavor was unheard of. Burt also began his political career, which included a successful term as a state senator from 1893 to 1894 and an unsuccessful bid for governor of Michigan.
Skipping A Generation
Wellington had two marriages, seven children, and two grandchildren while working his way up to that wealth.
For a time, Burt intended to leave that fortune to his family and various state-run organizations in Michigan. It was altered.
Burt was furious. He angrily told the Saginaw city council:
“Killing the goose that laid the golden egg” would only be a waste of time.
The subtext was that they shouldn’t bother a man who was about to give enormous sums of money to regional and local charities.
Then there were disputes within families. What specifically transpired to make Burt despise his immediate relatives is not totally known. But this is what is known: When Burt’s family members finally received his will following his passing, they discovered that it was coupled with 42 pages of in-depth personal complaints.
To be fair, he did set aside some modest annual payments for a few individuals. For instance, he gave several of his kids yearly presents of $1,000 or $5,000. An annuity of $30,000 per year ($400,000 in today’s values) was handed to his favorite son. One girl was entirely left out. His longstanding secretary received $4000 ($54k today) annually. Each of his housekeeper, coachman, chef, and chauffeur received $1,000 year ($13,000 in modern currency).
Consider how awful that must have been for his family, who had no idea what was going on and had no idea whether it was even legal. In actuality, some legalities were up for debate. A “generational skipping trust,” as this sort of will is also known, is prohibited in some states. Minnesota, where a sizable percentage of the funds originated, was one of the states where it was prohibited at the time. As a result, a year after his passing, his family was able to challenge his will and obtain $720,000 in cash as well as $5 million in assets tied to the Minnesota mines. It was a modest acquiescence. The vast majority of the fortune would remain locked up at Second National Bank in Saginaw until 21 years after the youngest grandchild died.
Marion Lansill was Wellington’s youngest grandchild at the time of his passing in 1919. In 1905, Marion was born. She was therefore 14 years old. Had Marion died a year later, the family members – many of whom would likely still be alive – would inherit an enormous fortune 21 years later, 1941.
To her relative’s chagrin, Marion Lansill lived to be 84 years old before passing away in November 1989!
triplets of great-grandchildren
The majority of the recipients were unaware of Wellington R. Burt. Beneficiaries received an average of $2.9 million. Several of the more senior heirs each earned about $14.5 million. The beneficiary’s range in age was from 19 to 94. The beneficiary, now 19 years old, was born in 1992, 72 years after the passing of her great-great-great-grandfather. She and her sister, who is 21 years old, both won $2.9 million.
More than 30 potential direct descendants in total—most notably his children and grandchildren—passed away before they could take advantage of the trust. Bankers and lawyers who protected the money accumulated more than 40 full boxes related to Burt’s will.
Consider that your father is currently among the ten richest Americans in the world to put this into context. For illustration, suppose your father was Charles Koch, who currently ranks as the 10th-richest American with a wealth of $62 billion. Imagine Charles Koch passed away tomorrow, leaving a generation-skipping will and a grandson who is 14 years old. And suppose the grandchild reached the age of 89, just like Marion Lansill. A countdown of 21 years would then begin. Go ahead and imagine the year.
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