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7 extraordinary wills and the lives they changed

Hotelier Leona Helmsley left strict instructions in her will for her $4 billion fortune to be spent caring for dogs. Her nine-year-old Maltese, Trouble, was bequeathed $12 million, later reduced to $2 million by a judge. Despite this rude reversal of fortune, Trouble had to go into hiding amid multiple death and kidnapping threats.1 We all need to write a will, whether or not it includes a legacy of unlimited doggie treats, to ensure our belongings are left to the people—or pets—we intend.

“The man who dies rich, dies disgraced,” Andrew Carnegie once said. When the steel baron passed away in 1919, he ensured his nearest and dearest would be comfortable, but not surrounded by luxury like other Gilded Age families. Instead, he donated most of his money to fund 1,689 public libraries across the country, Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Carnegie Museums, which now include the Andy Warhol Museum (more on that below).2 Oh, and he also pioneered pension funds, by financing the organization that became TIAA, which 100 years later provides lifetime income options for those who serve others. If you don’t have a Manhattan townhouse to leave your descendants, as Carnegie did, there’s always a life insurance policy to give them peace of mind while passing on assets to cherished causes.

That 18th century gentleman on the $100 bill wanted to teach 20th century savers about the miracle of compound interest. In his will, Benjamin Franklin granted £1,000 (around $4,400) each to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia.3 What makes this will so remarkable was not the instruction to invest it in young apprentices—but that it couldn’t be touched, in part, for 100 years and the other part for 200 years! By the time those cities could finally tap all the money, in 1990, the Boston fund alone was worth over $4.5 million.4 That’s more than a thousand-fold increase—something to consider next time you have $100 in your wallet. Imagine how much it could compound between now and when a beloved heir (or city) could get it.

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Andy Warhol may never have coined that phrase. But it remains part of his cultural legacy, along with his soup can paintings. Warhol’s will was rather vague, leading to legal disputes—reminding the non-famous among us (even for 15 minutes) that we need to get serious about writing a will—stating in no uncertain terms who gets what assets. To be fair, Warhol’s estate was bigger than most; he left 4,118 paintings, 5,103 drawings, 19,086 prints and 66,512 photographs.5 You can view some of it in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Funded by the Carnegie Institute, it’s the largest museum in North America dedicated to one artist.

Obsessed with a number that most people (and some hotel elevators) avoid, Sarah Winchester left her will in 13 sections and signed it 13 times. The American heiress had used her late husband’s $20 million fortune to continuously build a house without end, and with staircases leading nowhere, in order to appease the spirits that haunted her. Her strange house was bought in 1933 and instantly preserved as a living museum, today a California Historical Landmark known as the Winchester Mystery House. Estate planning documents can take many forms, and although you might not go to the same lengths as Sarah Winchester, a will is flexible enough to reflect your needs—however unusual.

Oseola McCarty grew up poor in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, but she’d saved up enough from washing clothes to open a savings account when she was only 8 years old. “Didn’t know how to do it. Went there myself. Didn’t tell mama and them I was goin’,” she was quoted as saying. Oseola left school in sixth grade to care for her aunt, and continued as a washerwoman for wealthy families. “I knew there were people who didn’t have to work as hard as I did, but it didn’t make me feel sad. I loved to work, and when you love to do anything, those things don’t bother you.” By the time she retired in 1995, her savings had grown to $250,000. She was doing laundry for a local lawyer when he suggested she create an estate plan. She left $150,000 in scholarship money to the University of Southern Mississippi—to help underprivileged young people get the education she never had.6

When her boss asked what she was doing, coming into the office during a blizzard, legal secretary Sylvia Bloom answered, “Why, where should I be?’” Bloom was employed for 67 years by the same Brooklyn firm, where she discreetly observed the investing and saving choices of the high-profile lawyers she worked for. When she died, at age 100, her coworkers—and even close family members—were astonished to learn she’d quietly amassed $9 million. Of that, $6.2 million went to the Henry Street Settlement on New York’s Lower East Side to fund college scholarships.7

It’s not just eccentric billionaires, artists and donors who need to write a will—we all do. And whatever loved ones—or pets—get a mention, an estate plan can help bulletproof your wishes. Here are some tips to help you get things in order for those you love.

1“Cosseted Life and Secret End of a Millionaire Maltese,” The New York Times, June 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/10/nyregion/leona-helmsleys-millionaire-dog-trouble-is-dead.html

2“How Andrew Carnegie Turned His Fortune Into A Library Legacy,” NPR.org, August 2013, https://www.npr.org/2013/08/01/207272849/how-andrew-carnegie-turned-his-fortune-into-a-library-legacy

3Source: http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/lastwill.html

4“From Ben Franklin, a Gift That’s Worth Two Fights,” The New York Times, 1990, https://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/21/us/from-ben-franklin-a-gift-that-s-worth-two-fights.html

5“Seven years after his death, Andy Warhol’s work is still controversial. Valuation of his estate is the subject of a bitter legal drama which has kept the New York art world enthralled,” The Independent, July 1994, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art-market-warhol-famous-for-dollars-500m-seven-years-after-his-death-andy-warhols-work-is-still-1411418.html

6“Oseola McCarty,” philanthropyroundtable.org, accessed June 2018, https://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/people/hall-of-fame/detail/oseola-mccarty

7“96-Year-Old Secretary Quietly Amasses Fortune, Then Donates $8.2 Million,” The New York Times, May 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/06/nyregion/secretary-fortune-donates.html