Continuing our theme of odd bequests (last time the blog considered the adventures of Trouble, Leona Helmsley’s millionaire Maltese), let’s consider some other weird or questionable estate plans if only as a warning to the reader.

“Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.” Thus did William Shakespeare make the sole provision for his wife in his will. While this has puzzled scholars for centuries, the current opinion seems to be that it was not a slight at all (Anne was entitled to one-third of the estate by Medieval law anyway.) To wit:

“In Shakespeare’s time, a bed was an expensive and luxurious item, generally regarded as a valuable heirloom to be passed down the generations rather than given to a surviving spouse. In a world where social status was highly prized, people were keen to show off their wealth at every possible opportunity. It wasn’t uncommon for the ‘best bed’ to be kept in one of the rooms downstairs, as a way of making sure all your visitors could see how well you were doing. It was also the bed that would be offered to staying guests, so the ‘second best bed’ referenced in Shakespeare’s will is likely to have been the actual marriage bed, the one that he and Anne shared as man and wife.” (Shakespeare  Birth Place Trust, Shakespeare second-best-bed.)

Make of the foregoing what you will. Perhaps we are being too harsh if we conclude any aspersion being cast on Anne. Shakespeare always knew what he was doing and Anne apparently was a beloved and crucial partner to the Bard because there is no record of family discord in his final years with Anne or any litigation in the wake of Shakespeare’s death. Moreover, Germaine Greer wrote a fine book called Shakespeare’s Wife. Nothing if not provocative, she argued that the relationship was a one of devotion and affection (reflected in the plays and their sympathetic views on marriage in general and wives in particular) and that Anne deserves great praise. Of course, this view was pilloried by the Shakespeare scholarly establishment (despite the book’s meticulous scholarship and Ms. Greer’s PhD in Elizabethan drama from Cambridge with her thesis being “Love and Marriage in Shakespeare’s Early Comedies”). Greer’s knowledge, verve for style, and imagination make a persuasive case for Anne being the actual head of a considerable household (mostly in Will’s absence) and as an effective businesswoman and partner to her husband.

One can only imagine the litigation such an instrument would have caused today. The provision for his wife was apparently made in a very shaky hand as an interlineation; there were other interlineations; the document was prepared at several different times.  Probate proceedings, construction proceedings, accountings, rights of election.  It is enough to make a trust and estates litigator like your writer cry tears of joy. Avoiding such a result should be a prime goal of defensive estate planning. (There’s more to estate planning than tax efficiency!)

Apropos of nothing, a slight digression. Shakespeare’s life gives lie to the modern conceit that creative genius and business acumen do not mix. Shakespeare was not just the supreme poet and dramatist of the English language (a hard thing for an Irishman to admit), he was also an actor, a producer, a very astute business person, and not a college graduate.  Perhaps these factors figure in the academic debates (then and now) on the “true” identity of Shakespeare and the backlash experienced by a non-academic like Germaine Greer whose brilliance, achievements, daring,  and iconoclasm can disturb mainstream minds. Your writer suspects Ms. Greer would agree with Shakespeare’s jibe at professional scholars in Measure for Measure:

. . . scholar, proud scholar,

Dress’d in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d–

His glassy essence–like an angry ape

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As makes the angels weep . . .

We moderns are not immune from making odd bequests, even with the help of professionals. Perhaps the salient example of late is the mess the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman made of his estate. His will, executed ten years before his death when he had only one child, gave everything to the actor’s then partner and the mother of his three children. By the time of his sad and untimely death, the couple were separated. His taxable estate was estimated to total $35 million. Upon reading this, the trusts and estates professionals will recoil in horror. They are imagining upwards of $12 million flying out the window and into the waiting arms tentacles of the IRS. Say what you want about the institution of marriage (and I am very happily married, thank you), it does have its tax advantages.

But that is not all. In his will, Mr. Hoffman also requested that his son (and presumably his after born children)  live in New York City (Manhattan, specifically), Chicago, or San Francisco or that they visit one or more of these cities at least twice a year. Why? “The purpose of this request is so that my son will be exposed to the culture, arts, and architecture that such cities offer.”  The story is also told that one of the motivating factors to Mr. Hoffman’s testamentary intent was to avoid his children becoming “trust fund kids.”  As if there is something wrong with that.