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Jack Benny | Wills of the Rich and Famous

Attorney Thomas B. Burton looks at the will of the famous American entertainer Jack Benny, who evolved from a modest success playing violin to a highly popular comedic career in radio, television and film, 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 return again to my amazon, my book purchased from Amazon - Wills of the Rich and Famous and for today's episode, we're going to be looking at the will of Jack Benny.

For viewers, younger viewers may not know the name but middle aged and older viewers would know him as the famous comedian.

Originally named Benjamin Kubelsky, Jack Benny was given his first violin at age eight. For the rest of his seventy year plus career, the violin became his signature prop which he used more as an instrument to evoke laughter than to create music. His success with the violin led him to collect at least two valuable violins - a Stradivarius and a Pressenda about which Benny's will states - "I declare that I have heretofore made a gift of my Pressenda and Stradivarius violins during my lifetime to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Reserving only a life interest therein and I direct my executors to deliver said violins to the aforesaid Donee thereof."

So how's that for some legal mumbo jumbo!

But what I find interesting here is that Jack Benny had these expensive violins - Stradivarius and a Pressenda and he reserved this life interest in the violins but gave them to the museum.

Now, the author of the book says, by arranging to have Benny reserve only a life interest in the violins, Benny's attorney may have been able to avoid having that valuable property taxed to his estate. In a similar vein, Benny's will continues - "My wife and I have similarly made an inter-vivos gift", 'Inter-vivos' means a gift made during life. It's the Latin term Inter-vivos for during life of two paintings owned by us, namely - La Charrette De Paille, Montfoucault by Camille Pissarro and Montmartre Et Sacre Coeur by Maurice Utrillo.

Forgive my French pronunciation but "two French paintings to the Los Angeles county museum of art reserving a life interest therein for our joint lifetimes. If I survive my wife, I direct my executor to deliver said paintings to said museum".

So two violins plus two paintings he used this preserving the life interest in them and in my world, many people, many regular people's world where you'll see a life estate come up, it's maybe in real estate and you hear about someone reserving a life estate in their home meaning they have the right to live there for life and then when they die, it passes to the heirs they name often the children. It's more unusual to reserve a life interest in a violin or a painting but in this case, I agree with the author, it was likely a tax strategy for Jack Benny because he reserving that life interest, he could use the violin or the painting for life and it would pass to the museum upon death and the author says, of course, no one could not conceive of Jack Benny ever uttering such words but his lawyers were paid to put them in his mouth.

What I was referring to as the legal mumbo jumbo was likely not Jack Benny, it was his lawyers writing it in the will, using the legal mumbo jumbo to achieve this tax strategy. The author explains, Jack Benny, apparently claiming to be only 39 years old Jack Benny's humor depended upon people's common concerns and faults including lying about their age and penny pinching. Apparently, his penny pinching paid off as Jack died with an estate worth over four million dollars according to papers filed with the court.

Perhaps wanting to die up to, the author says, "his reputation as for penny pinching, he includes a one dollar In terrorem Clause in his will which includes as follows", so if you recall, we looked at this in a previous episode, an In terrorem Clause is a clause designed to discourage your heirs from litigating or contesting your will.

"If any", this is what Jack Benny says, "If any heir at law, next of kin or devisee, legatee or beneficiary under this will shall contest it or any of its parts or provisions, any share or interest given to that person shall be revoked and become void and in that event, I bequeath to any such person the sum of one dollar only."

And the author concludes by saying, "Maybe the penny pinching Jack Benny believed that even one dollar was too much". The will was dated June 26, 1974 and signed in Beverly Hills, California.

So in Jack Benny's case that In terrorem Clause was designed to say to these people who had received bequests under the will and there were several others, I didn't go through them all today,. If you contest the will then all you get is one dollar and nothing else and we looked at that in a previous episode with Bing Crosby, several famous celebrities include this especially when you have a blended family, multiple children, who may or may not be from the current spouse but they are a way to try to discourage litigation and fight over your will or trust, after you're gone and that's what's called an In terrorem Clause. Sometimes it says they're left nothing, in this case Jack Benny left them one dollar, if they contest the will.

So two interesting things to note - reserving that life interest in a violin and a painting and also his creative use of the In terrorem Clause to discourage litigation after he's gone.

I think there's lessons we all can learn from these celebrity wills and trust because the problems of celebrities are often the same as the problems of regular people, just magnified oftentimes by the celebrity in the amount of money.

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

© 2021 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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