Historical Figures Say: The Butler Did It

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Tobacco heiress and Newport, R.I., debutante Doris Duke was known early in life as "the world's richest girl." Altruistically, she became quite a philanthropist, upon her death leaving all of her $1.2 billion fortune to charities. With no living immediate family members, other than a disinherited adopted daughter, Doris selected her butler—described in court as a barely literate alcoholic—as her executor. The butler abused much of her estate funds for his own "profligate lifestyle." Yes, once again, the butler did it.

Brooke Astor married into the family of the man who was probably America's first multimillionaire, John Jacob Astor. Evidently fur trading and real estate were better business models back then. Like Doris Duke, Brooke had a charitable heart, donating $200 million to nonprofits during her long lifetime. Even so, when she died at 105, she had $180 million left in her estate. But she named her son as executor, who was later removed and convicted of fraud and grand larceny while plundering her estate. Last word was he's appealing. The estate was tied up in court for the longest of time. And favorite charities like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library were left twiddling their thumbs. Despite the amount that appears to have been sifted off, the charities eventually did get $100 million.

So, lesson learned: Pick your administrator carefully. But some folks learn their lessons too well.

Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the once-powerful Washington Redskins and one of D.C.'s richest and most influential men, named not one, not two, but seven executors (mostly former employees). Then again, he had four wives. Suffice it to say, it became a real mess. Even the handoff of the team was fumbled.

Being executor of an estate can be a time-consuming job with a raft of responsibilities. While your first inclination might be to name a family member or trusted friend who knows you and your wishes, do consider a professional. They know the ropes, they don't have any conflicts of interest and most likely they have liability insurance.

Another tip: Name an alternative executor, in case your first choice becomes ill, dies or at the last minute declines to serve.

Remember, wills are a great way to protect your loved ones and assure that your intentions toward charities are respected, but all this can be undone by an incompetent or unscrupulous executor.

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Where to Find Assistance

Your estate planning attorney is the best resource when it comes to updating your plans. If you're interested in supporting Gustavus Adolphus College through your estate plans, we would be happy to work with you and your advisors to find a giving option that works for you. Contact Jackie Peterson at 507-933-7543 or jpeters9@gustavus.edu