May 10, 2011 — -- The descendants of Wellington R. Burt, who became fabulously wealthy in the age of the robber barons, will finally inherit his fortune -- 92 years after his death.
Burt, who died in 1919 at age 87 in Saginaw, Mich., made his wealth in the lumber and iron industries. For reasons not described in his will, he stipulated that the majority of his fortune would be distributed 21 years after his last surviving grandchild's death.
That granddaughter died in 1989. Now 12 descendants will split the fortune, estimated at $100 million to $110 million.
"I don't think we'll ever know exactly what it was that ticked him off that said, hey, after my last grandchild dies, 21 years after that, then you can get your money," Thomas Mudd, local historic preservationist, told ABC affiliate WJRT in Michigan.
Danielle Mayoras, attorney and co-author of the book, Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, said she has never heard of a will or trust with a similar distribution.
People have been known to leave creative conditions in their will to motivate their heirs to have a work ethic or encourage them to attend college. But this is something else.
"I think this is beyond creativity," Mayoras said. "It's more of an insult."
She said she suspects the reason Burt chose 21 as the year stipulation was because the common law's Rule of Perpetuities. That rule forbids leaving money to anyone 21 years after the death of the last identifiable individual living at the time the will or trust was created.
Christina Alexander Cameron, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Burt, is one of the 12 heirs who agreed among themselves how to split the funds.
She and her sister, Cory, will each inherit about $2.6 to $2.9 million.
"I'd rather not rely on it," Christina Cameron told The Saginaw News. "I'll probably just save it. I don't know; it's just not as big of a deal to me as it was to most of my family."
Press accounts imply that Wellington Burt experienced familial conflicts, which led to the unusual will. Burt had left his children $1,000 to $5,000 annually, relatively small amounts, except for a "favorite son" who he gave $30,000 annually, according to The Saginaw News.
Burt, however, cancelled a $5,000 annuity to one of his daughters over a disagreement about her divorce, the newspaper reported.
Through a trust, he left his secretary $4,000 annually and a cook, housekeeper, coachman and chauffeur each received $1,000 annually.
Since his death, Burt's relatives tried to break the trust in court, claiming Burt was not of sound mind when he created his last testament, and engaged in other legal disputes.
But now a court order mandates that the trust must be distributed by May 21.
"I think he was kind of a wise old man, kind of foxy. And really, I think knew what he was doing in the long run," Probate Judge Patrick McGraw told ABC's WJRT.