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Video: Staggering sum: Stingy tycoon left unusual will

TODAY contributor
updated 5/27/2011 8:56:52 AM ET 2011-05-27T12:56:52

In 1919, he was a greedy multimillionaire who didn’t want to see his family get its hands on the vast fortune he’d amassed as a lumber baron.

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But in 2011, Wellington R. Burt is the sort of generous benefactor who usually exists only in daydreams — the long-lost relative you never met who leaves you millions of dollars.

With the conditions of a strange will — which barred any money from his estate being distributed until 21 years after the death of his last grandchild — having been met, 12 of Burt’s descendants split a fortune estimated at about $100 million. By 5 p.m. on Monday, each of those 12 became instant millionaires after Saginaw, Mich., County Chief Probate Judge Patrick McGraw ordered full distribution of the estate by that deadline. 

It took 20 attorneys working together to get it done, and Citizens Bank Wealth Management, the estate’s trustee, paid out the fortune on Monday.

The lucky dozen
When Burt died in Saginaw in March 1919 at the age of 87, he was one of the eight richest men in America, as well as a former mayor of the city and Michigan state senator. Most likely as a result of a family conflict at the time, he did not want to leave any substantial amount of his money to his immediate family — so he made his strange stipulation when he hand-wrote his will in 1917.

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His last grandchild died in 1989, but it wasn’t until 2010 that a group of Burt’s descendants began the legal proceedings to reach an agreement to disburse his fortune. Thirty of them applied to claim a piece of that pile of money, but genealogical research whittled them down to the lucky group of 12.

The recipients range in age from 19 to 94 years old, and live in eight different states; only one lives in Michigan. The lucky dozen have succeeded where six children, seven grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and 11 great-great-grandchildren could not. That group either was banned from receiving a large inheritance by Burt’s will, or died in the 92-year waiting period before an agreement was finally reached.

Video: Staggering sum: Stingy tycoon left unusual will (on this page)

While many would be high-fiving everyone in sight after learning the news, it barely merited a shrug from one of Burt’s great-great-great-granddaughters, 19-year-old Christina Alexander Cameron, even though she and her sister Cory each inherited a reported $2.6 to $2.9 million.

That is small change compared to the estimated $14.5 million to $16 million that was paid to the biggest beneficiary, but it is still life-changing money. Still, “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.”

What may have made the reward bittersweet for Cameron is that her grandfather, John Scott Lansill Jr., and her mother, Julia Burt Lansill Cameron, were each in line to receive what is now her share of the estate. Both have died in the past two years; her mother was only 50 when she died in February 2010.

“I guess all of this happening within a year made this seem more like a curse,” Cameron told the Saginaw News.

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The ‘golden egg’
The most that any of Burt’s immediate family ever received out of the estate he once referred to as “the golden egg” was a $30,000 annual payment to a “favorite son,’’ according to the Saginaw News. The other children were left with anything from $1,000 to $5,000 a year — amounts similar to what Burt left his secretary, housekeeper, chauffeur and cook. The tightfisted millionaire removed a $5,000 annuity from one of his daughters because she got divorced.

Since Burt’s death, his descendants tried multiple times to get portions of the “golden egg” by attempting to break the trust in court, but none was successful in having any significant part of his estate awarded. The strange case, which became public earlier this month, has drawn headlines from Taiwan to Serbia. Historian Thomas B. Mudd told NBC News that it was “one of the most bizarre, if not the most bizarre, ways of distributing money after death that I have ever run into.”

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A son, three daughters and four granddaughters were able to scrape away $720,000 in cash and title in 1920 from iron mine leases that Burt controlled in Minnesota, and in 1961, a group of descendants was able to grab $700,000 in a settlement for a suit brought against the trust. Still, no one could fully get their hands on an estate estimated as the biggest that any judge has ever dealt with in Saginaw history.

The heirs actually petitioned to leave $1 million in the account, but McGraw denied the request. McGraw told the Saginaw News that the attorneys for the heirs most likely wanted to leave money in there for potential trustee fees in case attorneys questioned the estate records at a later date.

Thus a case that McGraw called “one of the most complicated research projects’’ in his 12-year tenure, one that was the talk of the local courthouse for years, finally has come to a close. After 92 years, Burt’s remains remain in a 15-foot-high white mausoleum in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Saginaw — but the iron grip he kept on his vast fortune has finally been released.

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