A few weeks ago, Erline Andrews, a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism , in New York City, called to ask me about "strange wills".
She explained that students, such as she enrolled in that graduate program, participate in various online publications, and write articles based on interviews and research in the field. Many of these articles then are syndicated for publication by the Columbia News Service, which is operated by the graduate school.
The Columbia News Service operates as a feature syndicate whose stories are conceived, reported and written by students under the guidance of faculty members.Her chosen topic for an article was "strange wills" -- a survey of situations involving an odd "Last Will & Testament" to be enforced after death.
The best ones are displayed on the school’s web site and also distributed by The New York Times News Service for publication in some 400 daily newspapers throughout the United States and Canada.
I checked the website of the Columbia News Service for the posting of students' articles this semester. I was impressed with the breadth & depth of the stories. Some address topics of interest to seniors or their advisors. For example, so far in 2007, see:
"A way to care for your pet, even after your death" , by Ibby Caputo -- "Pet owners are now creating trust funds to provide for their animals after they're gone." (04/24/07) "Experts prescribe children's toys for Alzheimer's patients", by Rebecca Rosenberg -- "There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, and many patients become agitated as their minds waste away. Many caregivers say that children's dolls, books and games can provide comfort." (04/24/07) "Pet owners dish out big dollars for funerals", by Peter Cox --"Backyard burials for Sparky are a thing of the past. Today's pet owners are heading to the pet cemetery to memorialize their cherished hounds or felines." (04/10/07) "Open wide! More senior citizens opt for braces", by Candace Taylor -- "Braces used to be worn in high schools, not at bingo nights. Not anymore. Grandmas now say no to dentures, yes to the orthodontist’s chair." (04/10/07) "To cremate or not to cremate? Results are now in: Yes", by Andi Balla -- "The number of people opting for cremation, of themselves or of loved ones, has tripled since the 1980s, a trend that's been fueled by lower costs, relaxed religious rules and societal acceptance." (03/27/07) "Teens in mourning find solace in cyberspace", by Peter Cox -- "Young people turn to MySpace and Facebook to memorialize departed friends." (03/27/07) "Compulsive hoarding--a lot more than just being messy", by Melissa Korn -- "Compulsive hoarders surround themselves with piles of papers and stacks of stuff. Cleaning up the mess isn't as easy as hiring a professional organizer; their problems are psychological and require lifelong treatment." (03/13/07) "The picture of health? So why plan a funeral?", by Heather J. Ciras -- "Baby boomers are starting to plan their own funerals. Why? Because if you want your funeral done right, you have to do it yourself." (03/13/07) "Dying for attention: Why people are killing themselves online", by Howard Swains -- "Online deaths are not always what they seem to be. In many cases, Internet users are pretending to have died, and a group of cyber-sleuths is working to expose the fraudsters." (02/27/07)
There have been some books printed in the past on the subject of "weird wills". See: Weird Wills And Eccentric Last Wishes, by Michelle Lovric; and The Weird and Wonderful World of Wills, by Eamonn G. Mongey.
Before he died in 1994 a man from Springfield, Ore., included in his will the provision that his skin be tanned like leather and used to bind a book of self-penned poetry. A California woman who died in 1979 ordered that her dog be put down to save him the pain of living on after she had gone. Another woman from Beverly Hills, Calif., who died in 1977 wanted to be buried in her Ferrari and dressed in her favorite nightgown.
Such stories may be fodder for jokes, but unusual post-death wishes are a serious issue in estate planning. It may be rare to come across cases like that of the man from Bethlehem, Pa., who died in 1998 and arranged a monthly reward for the police officer who issued the most tickets for double parking. But in more subtle ways people are testing how far they can move away from the expected.
“Everyone’s got their own quirks,” said Kathleen Hunt, an estate planning attorney from El Cerrito, Calif. “Everyone is individual, and everyone’s got some strange idea that needs to be accounted for.” It’s for this reason, Hunt said, that she called her three-year-old practice Unique Law.
There’s a growing number of people leading nontraditional lives, Hunt said. The parallel to this is more nontraditional deaths. She’s helping a young couple arrange to become, in the event of their death, part of the Body Worlds exhibition of plastinated human corpses.
Pet trusts are quickly becoming more common. Between 12 percent and 27 percent of pet owners include their pets in their wills, Texas Tech University law professor Gerry Beyer wrote in a recent article. After years of resistance, more states are making it easier to set up a trust for a pet. A guardian is appointed to care for the animal and a trustee to take care of the finances.
Actress Betty White plans to leave her $5 million estate to her pets, according to newspaper reports.
“Estate planning is becoming more and more elaborate as time goes by,” said Daniel Klein, an attorney in Phoenix. “People have a lot more options.” Some of his clients, mainly couples, want to make paternity testing a prerequisite for grandchildren before they can receive a share of their estates.
Klein, though, is leery about the pet trusts.
“If it’s a small amount of money compared to the rest of their estate, then I think that’s fine,” he said. “I haven’t had anybody disinherit kids or anything in favor of an animal.”
People can be very detailed in planning their own funerals, down to requesting specific songs and Bible verses. “It’s less of a taboo topic,” said Leanna Hamill, an attorney from Hingham, Mass. “People talk about it more.”
The possibility of legal challenges can limit what one can do with a will. The Beverly Hills woman was buried in her Ferrari, but the man’s skin wasn’t tanned and the dog wasn’t put down. They both violated laws about what could be done with human remains and animals. Even where your ashes can be scattered are subject to restrictions that vary across states.
Outside of the law, strange but benign provisions are easy to ignore. The Pennsylvania police officers didn’t get their reward. And your family doesn’t have to dispose of your remains the way you wish.
“The farther you go from standard provisions the more uncertain they are to be fulfilled,” said Neil Hendershot, an attorney from Harrisburg, Pa.
If you want to do anything unusual, the attorneys give this advice: Do your research. Talk to your family or anyone else involved long in advance. And, of course, consult a competent estate planner.
And there have been some internet postings recalling odd testamentary directions. See: "Weird and Bizarre Last Will and Testaments", about a variety of strange and bizarre last will and testaments in history, posted at Trivia-Library.Com; and "Weird wills", by Roshni Johar, published in The India Tribune on September 20, 2003.
But, Erline's article is one of the few articles on the subject published recently. Nice choice of topic.
Advisors & practitioners, please try not to add to this literature.
" Leo Tolstoy bequeathed his possessions to the stump of a tree."
-- Roshni Johar
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On the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog, author-professor Gerry Beyer noted my posting in his own entry, dated May 5, 2007, entitled "Columbia University's Journalism School".
I note that Erline's entire article was published in the Naples Daily News on Saturday, May 5, 2007, as found online here.
Erline's article was also posted on May 24, 2007, by the Orlando Sentinel, under the title "Where there's a weird will, the way may be disputed --Legal challenges can limit what a person can do when the last wishes are peculiar". This title reflects my comment about her subject.
I note republication of Erline's article by the Winston-Salem Journal on June 20, 2007, here, under the title "Afterward: Estate planners face growing number of unusual post-death wishes".