The Scheming Relative and Contingent Bequests

Old Man Scheming Relative Bequest

Imagine a bizarre lawyer calls you to proclaim that you’re about to inherit $25 million in accordance with your grandfather’s will.

“What’s the catch?!” you belt out after falling in disbelief to the floor. You are well aware that no one is going to show up at your house with cluster balloons, a check the size of an Escalade, and $3,000 a week for life. At first, the catch seems simple: you must spend $1 million of those dollars within two weeks to receive the full inheritance. Easy peasy… right? Who can’t spend a million bucks that fast?! Just buy a bright red Porsche to display in front of your gorgeous new beach house.

In Bequests We Can Trust?

Living up to the cliché, your greedy uncle gallivants onto the scene and reports that he’s had his grubby hands on the family fortune first – and did he ever have it out for your grandfather. To your foul delight, your uncle is also near death, but has added additional restrictions (are we surprised?). You hold your breath as the lawyer explains that your uncle will only leave the inheritance to you if you:

  1. Spend $1 million at the end of 2 weeks;
  2. Spend the $1 million in more than 1 place and on more than 1 person;
  3. Only give 5% of the $1 million to charity, and
  4. Keep the conditions of the will 100% secret. Not a single soul can know.

Immediately, you recall the times you spoiled your friend’s birthday surprise party, revealed Harry Potter’s fate with your brother who was still reading the books, and blurted out the Christmas gifts you bought for your family members early, 3 years in a row. Secret-keeping is not a part of your being; in fact, you are physically incapable of doing it. When your friends and family inevitably start looking up psychiatrists as you breeze through money like tap water, you can’t say a word to defend yourself. When your partner asks why you can suddenly afford two first-class tickets to a 3-month long vacation in Europe and were able to pay off your $75,000 in student loans in full, silence.

Not only are these stipulations nearly impossible – they’re designed for failure.

That’s Just Cringy

In case you think my imagination has gone wild, let me assure you – I am not making this up. In 1902, the mind of George Barr McCutcheon gifted us the novel, “Brewster’s Millions.” More than a dozen versions of his story have been adapted on stage and screen over the years, including a World War II film centered around a returning GI and a 1985 edition featuring Richard Pryor. Need a laugh? Go watch one of them.

The point is, odd, elaborate bequests occur in wills time and time again. Childless Charles Vance Miller offered his nearly $10 million fortune (by today’s standards) to the Canadian woman who could produce the most children in the 10 years after his 1926 death. “The Great Stork Derby” caused a 10-year long media frenzy and a baby-boom the likes of which Canada had never seen. Four winners tied with nine kids apiece, winning $125,000 each – around $1,900,000 by today’s standards.

When German poet Heinrich Heine died, he specified that his wife would inherit his estate if she remarried so “there will be at least one man to regret my death.” When Carlotta Liebenstein, a German countess, died in 1991, she left her entire $80-million estate to her dog, Gunther (imagine how many Insta followers the good doggo would’ve had now).

In Bequests You Can Trust!

In reality, you will probably never find yourself on the receiving end of a multi-million dollar inheritance, or navigating a will in which the donor leaves 95% of her estate to her pug and 5% to your nonprofit.

While a donor’s intentions in bequeathing their estate to your nonprofit may be good, any donor contemplating their last acts on this earth may wish to exert some level of control. Perhaps the donor’s control is fairly easy (and fun) to navigate, like their demanding beer and wine be provided at all board meetings. Or, perhaps the donor is tempting you with their bequest money to achieve a larger personal goal. For example, a $3 million bequest made to Swarthmore College in 1907 was conditional on the school stopping all participation in intercollegiate sports. Thankfully, Swarthmore turned the gift down.

We know you’ve got some of your own bequest stories to tell, and no matter the scenario you encounter, we’re here to help. offers nonprofits gearing up for a planned giving program everything from planned giving websites, brochures, and display ads, to audit plans, marketing plans and estate planning booklets.

So, next time some greedy uncle tries to leave you a ridiculously restricted gift, give us a call. We’ve got your back. We can even teach you negotiating skills at the Nonprofit Leadership Academy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *