Six things I learned about money from famous people's wills

The wills of famous people past can hold some crucial financial lessons. Take these six as an example.

Joel Ryan/Invision/AP/File
British actress Gemma Arterton, centre right, who plays the Duchess, performs a scene from The Duchess of Malfi at Shakespeare's Globe theatre in central London, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. Financial lessons can be learned from famous people's wills.

I've always been fascinated by William Shakespeare's will. Specifically, by the way he left his wife his "second-best bed," especially since historians are at odds over what he meant by it. Was this an insult to a spouse he didn't get along with, or a tender gesture? After all, since everything was handmade, furniture was much more valuable back in the 1600s than it is today.

Thinking about Shakespeare's seemingly odd bequests made me realize that what people list in their wills says a lot about what they value.

So when Ancestry made a searchable database of 170 million will and probate documents available to its subscribers, I eagerly dove in. Of course, most Ancestry members use this information to learn more about their family members; the site touts these records' value in particular for African Americans searching for family history, since wills from the slavery era may name their ancestors as property.

In fact, when I started searching well-known names, the first one I found was a slave owner: George Washington, whose will calls for the freeing of his slaves after Martha's death. (He also called for one, named William Lee, to be freed as soon as he died, which makes sense because Lee was Washington's personal valet.)

What can we learn from the wills of notable dead people? Here's what famous people's taught me about money and finances.

1. Furniture Was Really Valuable

Like Shakespeare, Paul Revere made specific plans for his household furniture after his death; he left it all to his only unmarried daughter — but only if she was still single by the time he died. Revere no doubt figured that if his daughter had already established her own household, she'd have no room for dad's tables, chairs, and beds, second best or otherwise.

2. Families Held Onto Silver No Matter What

Louisa May Alcott's family often went hungry in her childhood; in fact, poverty drove Alcott to start writing. Yet, they never became desperate enough to sell the "family silver" — Alcott left her share to a niece in her will.

Alcott's will also made me wonder if the famous author, who never married, had a love affair or some other skeleton in her closet to cover up, because she called for all her letters and manuscripts to be burned upon her death.

3. Intellectual Property Has Been Valuable for Hundreds of Years

Shakespeare's will makes no mention of his plays, because with no copyright law, intellectual property was not a thing yet. Shakespeare might not have even had copies of his own works.

Not so for Nathaniel Hawthorne, who died intestate in 1864. An inventory of his estate includes copyrights estimated at a $2,500 value — much more than his $200 book collection, his $800 worth of household goods, or any of his investments, which included 10 shares in Boston National Bank ($1,020) and two shares of Jamaica Plain Gas Company ($200).

4. The Price of Property in Florida Has Gone Way Up

Harriet Beecher Stowe was an early snowbird, buying property in Mandarin, Florida, where she enjoyed wintering with her husband. An inventory of her estate at her death in 1896 values a six-acre orange grove in Mandarin at $0.

Nowadays, according to Zillow, a lot of similar size in the area is listed for $799,000.

By the way, Stowe, whose book Uncle Tom's Cabin was a record-breaking bestseller, also had nearly $2,000 cash on hand when she died — more than $50,000 in today's dollars.

5. Parents Love Their Kids Equally — Except for Their Favorite

Booker T. Washington left his three children the future royalties from his books to "share and share alike." But he also left his gold watch and chain to his namesake, Booker T. Jr., while failing to bequeath any personal effects to the other two.

6. Ernest Hemingway Wrote a Tight Will

In life, Papa was known for short and meaty sentences, and his books are no longer than they need to be. So I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Hemingway's will, written from Finca Vigia, his house in Cuba, six years before he took his own life, is only one page long and contains a minimum of legalese.

Hemingway left everything to his spouse, designating nothing for his children, merely saying, "I repose complete confidence in my beloved wife Mary to provide for them according to written instructions I have given her."

This article first appeared at Wise Bread.

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