Worth The Wait? Midwest Lumber Baron’s Fortune Passes To Heirs 90 Years After His Death

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

Anyone who went through law school remembers the rule against perpetuities, and with very few (entirely twisted) exceptions, most don't remember it fondly.  For the uninitiated, Black's Law Dictionary provides that the Rule Against Perpetuities prohibits "a grant of an estate unless the interest must vest, if at all, no later than 21 years . . . after the death of some person alive when the interest was created."   The rule goes back many centuries, and was intended to prevent landowners from controlling the use and disposition of property from beyond the grave and otherwise tying up property for generation after generation.  (Note:  If, at this point, you have no idea what the rule means or how it would be applied, then you find yourself in the same position I did right before my Property final.)  While some law schools no longer even teach the Rule Against Perpetuities because many states have modified or eliminated it by statute, a recent story from Michigan may cause them to rethink this position.

In a recent article, "Perpetuities Rule Finally Ends $100M Waiting Game For Lumber Baron's Heirs, 92 Years After His Death," the ABA Journal told the story of Wellington Burt, a "cantankerous Michigan lumber baron" whose hand-written will provided that his heirs were not allowed to collect their share of his fortune until 21 years after the death of his youngest grandchild in existence when he died.  Well, sadly for that youngest grandchild, this triggering event finally happened, so Burt's 12 great, great great, and great great great grandchildren, who range in age from 19 to 94 years old, will finally see their respective shares of his fortune some time month.  Incidentally, Mr. Burt died in 1919.


   The ABA Journal article references, as its source, a longer piece that appeared in the Saginaw (Michigan) News, "Wellington's Millions: History Kinder To Saginaw Lumber Baron Than Family's Legacy, Preservationist Says," which tells the story of Mr. Burt, who was, to the say the least, an interesting man.  Among other tidbits, the article notes that Burt was, at one time in the early 20th century, among the eight wealthiest men in America, and that he revised his will a few years before he died to eliminate millions in public bequests after Saginaw officials raised the assessed valuation on property he owned from $400,000 to $1 million. 

Finally, the Property Prof Blog ("It's Alive: The Rule Against Perpetuities In The News") noted that the compelling personal aspects of the story are nearly equaled by the legal aspects surrounding the administration of the estate:

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.

As for how much the estate is worth, Property Prof Blog notes that it was valued as high as $90 million when Burt died, but is worth only $100 million today, more than 90 years after his death.

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