by Sean O'Bryan

Michigan Estate Planning Attorney

 

Mark Twain died in 1910.  He was only survived by 1 of his 4 children.  His wife also preceded him in death.  Much has been made of Twain's own prediction that he would die with the arrival of Haley's Comet, having been born during it's earlier appearance.  But not much has been written about Twain's Last Will, and more particularly - the simple but powerful restrictions he put in place to protect his daughter from "any control or interference on the part of any husband she may have."

When Mark Twain died on April 21, 1910, he was living in Redding, Connecticut.  He was 74 years old, and the year before was quoted as having said: "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together."

Officials at the time his Will was submitted to probate estimated the value of his estate at $477,000. To give you some comparison, a similar estate today would be worth $12 million dollars.  Besides the steady royalty stream produced by Twain’s literary works, the estate, according to probate court documents,  included a 230-acre homestead, at least $170,000 in blue-chip stocks, and more than $10,000 of furnishings, between a $2,000 collection of books, two horses and a cow, and a $200 orchestral. 

Clara Clemens

Clara Clemens

 
There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate - when he can afford it, and when he can’t.
— Mark Twain

That certainly was a lot of money.  However, Mark Twain, like so many writers of that time, didn't live a rich lifestyle.  In fact, Twain's money troubles caused a personal bankruptcy and he required many loans from friends to keep him afloat.  He knew, however, that his written works would continue to generate income for his family, perhaps even more after his death.  Therefore, he knew he wanted to have certain protections in place so that this money wasn't squandered - particularly because of the choices of one of his daughter's future spouses.

First some family background.  Twain was married to Olivia Langdon Clemens, and together they had a son and  3 daughters, Langdon, Susy, Clara & Jean.  Their life was marked by heartbreak.  Their son Langdon died of diphtheria at only 19 months of age.  Susy only lived to the age of 23, dying from meningitis.  Although the couple were married 34 years, Twain lost his wife in 1904, leaving him with his adult daughters, Clara & Jean.

The Clemens family

The Clemens family

Twain, anticipating his own death, went to a lawyer in 1909, and instructed him to prepare a Will, which he signed in 1909, some 9 months before his death. In his Last Will, he named both of his daughters, Clara & Jean, as the sole beneficiaries of his estate.

But tragedy struck the Twain household again, when Jean, who had struggled with her won health issues, died on Christmas eve in 1909.  She was just 29. Jean had been a personal favorite of Twain's, and her death really struck him hard. Twain resided with his 2 daughters throughout their lives.

Twain loved his daughters very much, but he was concerned both about their respective abilities to manage their finances, and the possible influence of someone they might eventually fall in love with.  So when Twain had visited his lawyer and had his final Will prepared, he insisted that provisions be inserted into the Will to protect them. 

Twain's Connecticut home

Twain's Connecticut home

What his lawyer did was to create a trust to hold Twain's estate - not just what he owned in tangible resources at the time of his death - but also the future income his books and celebrity might earn.  This type of a trust is called a "testamentary trust."  It is very much like a living trust - except that it is first created upon death, and under the direction of the probate court.  

Twain selected 3 people, his lawyer and 2 longtime friends, to act as trustees of the testamentary trust.  He gave each one a vote, and directed that majority rule would prevail.  He, of course, had no idea that the trust would only benefit one daughter.  But it did - and it worked remarkably well.  His daughter, Clara, lived to be 88 years of age.  She was married twice, and by all accounts, managed her life and money quite well.  Her first marriage was to a Russian concert pianist, and they had one daughter, Nina, who did not fair so well.  She, the last lineal descendant of Mark Twain, died in her 50's after a lifelong battle with alcohol and drugs.  

 
The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.
— Mark Twain

After her first husband died, Clara remarried.  She again chose a Russian musician - this time 20 years her junior.  Some have noted that the second husband attempted to misuse the trust income, and at one point Clara attended some Christian Scientist events.  As Twain once said, "There are two times in a man's life when he should not speculate - when he can afford it, and when he can't."

The trust her father left her made quarterly payments of all the income his estate produced.  This allowed Clara a rather carefree life.  The individuals who  acted as trustees for Twain's trust didn't outlive their positions, and thus other individuals had to be appointed by the probate court to continue to manage the trust. 

Next month, we will examine how you can incorporate Mark Twain's wisdom into your own estate plan, and perhaps protect your children from "any control or interference on the part of any husband she may have."