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Harry Houdini | Wills of the Rich and Famous

Attorney Thomas B. Burton looks at the will of the spectacular escape artist, illusionist, stunt performer Harry Houdini on the latest episode of Wills of the Rich and Famous. In this educational video series Attorney Burton uses examples from the Wills of the rich and famous to illustrate important estate planning principles that individuals can learn from and implement in their own estate planning.


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Welcome back to Wills of the Rich and Famous!


I'm your host Attorney Thomas Burton and today, we're going to be looking at another will of a famous person and learning from their will, important lessons about estate planning.


So if you've joined us before, you know, I have this book 'Wills of the Rich and Famous' by Herbert E. Nass ESQ., an attorney and it's quite a large volume going through various celebrity wills. He went through the wills, read them and put excerpts for people to enjoy in this book and then important distinction here is that, remember a will becomes public after your death, so anyone can go through the court records and read the will and that's what this author has done and enterprisingly created a book. So in today's episode, we're going to be talking about Harry Houdini which the author has titled 'No Escape'. He was born 1874 in Brooklyn, New York and died 1926 in Detroit, Michigan.


So I'll read you just a bit of background and then get to the excerpt I want to emphasize today.


The world famous magician and great escape artist known simply as Houdini was originally named Eric Weisz at birth and was the son of a rabbi. At the age of nine, Houdini joined a traveling circus as a contortionist and trapeze performer and the rest is mystery. At a young age, Houdini became a celebrated figure throughout America and earned large sums of money for performing in vaudeville acts and winning bets.


So and as you know, he became quite famous for escaping from several supposedly, secure lock boxes and handcuffs and things like that. It says, during his lifetime, Houdini collected an extensive library devoted to magic, spiritualism in the black arts. When he died that book collection was valued at $500,000. Under his will, Houdini bequeathed his library relating to spiritualism, occultism and psychical research to the congressional library at Washington and his collection of books, pamphlets, letters and the like related to spiritualism, occultism and psychical research to the American society for psychical research. However, in the hastily drawn Codicil to his will, Houdini revokes the bequest to the society as follows - "I wish to cancel the Codicil giving my spiritualistic library to the American society of psychic research. The entire collection is to go with my magical library to the congressional library in Washington. The reason I object giving my spiritualistic library to the American society of psychical research is because I object to a dishonorable person like J. Malcolm Bird being connected with any reputable organization." And the author says, obviously Houdini believed J. Malcolm Bird to be a strange bird!


So I noticed this stood out to me when reading about his will and estate plan and there's several other places where he's had some interesting things, cut people in and out but the Codicil, I wanted to emphasize, is a way to amend your will, it's what we call, we call it a Codicil, the legal term for an amendment to your will and often as the author says here, it's something drawn up later to add or remove a section. So he calls it a hastily written Codicil and the Codicil says, "I wish to cancel the Codicil", so essentially he's doing an amendment, canceling a previous amendment and what I wanted to point out here is while you can do a Codicil to a will, in today's modern age, back when he was doing this, they were still likely using typewriters to draw up these wills but now, if you get to more than one Codicil to your will, I recommend you execute a completely new will. Just have the entire thing redrawn, so it's clear what you want to happen because when you start having a Codicil to a Codicil, canceling a Codicil, your personal representative left behind, it can become confusing, how to keep it all together. Plus, you have all those dates and witnesses at different times and if it would lead to a will challenge, in my opinion, then each Codicil is subject to a challenge, 'excuse me', to make sure it was executed in accordance with the proper laws and requirements.


So he executed a hastily drawn Codicil that says, I wish to cancel this previous Codicil and for those of you watching today, I thought this would be informative on the topic of a Codicil, when you hear that word come up, a Codicil is an amendment to a will and in my opinion I don't really recommend doing multiple Codicils like this. Better to just redraft the will, remove the section you wanted or didn't want and make it all clean and especially for someone of significant means like Harry Houdini, in today's world with modern technology, simply re-drafting the will to meet his needs in my opinion would be a good move. Now perhaps he was on his deathbed, it doesn't say when the codicil was executed or if he had much time but there's one other point about Houdini's will, that's sort of interesting, it says, despite Houdini's magical powers, there appears to have been a significant domestic strife within the Weisz family. Remember that was his name. In one section of his will, Houdini expressly disinherits a woman named Sadie Glanz Weisz, the divorced wife of my brother Nathan Joseph Weisz and the present wife of my brother Dr. Leopold David Weisz.


So it appears that this person he removed from his will or what we call disinheriting someone, the Sadie Glanz Weisz was married to one brother, Nathan, divorced him and married the other brother, this Dr. Leopold David Weisz. So I'm sure that made for some interesting family holidays and dinners together.


So as a reminder, in Houdini's case that would be a sister-in-law or previous sister-in-law of one brother and now this sister-in-law of another brother but you're not required to leave your estate to anyone other than who you wish and especially, an in-law, they wouldn't fall in the Intestate Succession Statutes the default statutory scheme in Wisconsin, if you died without a will and so, Houdini I don't know if he had left a bequest to her before but he wanted to explicitly make clear that, he was disinheriting that Sadie Glanz Weisz, so she would never receive a portion of his estate and if that's something you want to do with your estate, discuss it with your attorney as well because it's it's very helpful to us to know if there's someone in your family tree that you want to make sure never would receive a portion of the estate, it's often a good idea to expressly disinherit them like Houdini did here.


So thanks for tuning in to this episode of Wills of the Rich and Famous. thanks for watching and we'll see you next time.


© 2022 Burton Law LLC. All Rights Reserved. Transcript and captions provided for ease of access for the hearing impaired. For questions about this topic, or to suggest a topic for a future blog post, please contact the office.

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