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Taking a leaf from Nida’s last will and testament

(Article published in the November 26, 2001 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

Reports last week that Nida Blanca’s will was found under her bed, true or not, highlight a characteristic of wills not shared by any other legal document. No legal deed or instrument comes close to a will in serving as an eloquent testament to a person’s eccentricity.

Take the matter of where to keep one’s will. A will transfers property. Thus, it serves the same function as a deed of sale of land or a deed of assignment of shares or an endorsement of a check. What differentiates a will from these instruments is that a will, instead of taking effect immediately, activates the transfer of property only upon the death of the testator. Thus, the timing difference in effectivity aside, wills therefore should be as carefully kept and filed like a deed.

But, no, many testators, seem to think that the way they keep their wills must reflect more their personality than the demands of common prudence. An overriding desire is to keep the will secret from everyone. Therefore, like Nida, they hide their wills in places where they cannot be found, thereby indicating their distrust of everyone, including their lawyers (not that lawyers do not at times deserve such attitude).

One such distrusting testator was Howard Hughes. Probably one of the richest man that ever lived in America, he died in 1976 with a huge fortune consisting of holdings in then major defense contractors Hughes Aircraft and Hughes Helicopter, Las Vegas hotels and casinos, TV station and network, large lands holdings and California, Nevada, Texas and Louisiana and other properties which when inventoried required a big book.

One of his aides testified that at one time Hughes told him that he had written a holographic will, one which under our laws (as well as in other countries) in the handwriting of the testator. When this aide asked Hughes where he kept his will, the response was, "You don’t think I’m going to tell you where it is, do you?"

It seems that, if he really made a will, he told nobody at all. Right after his death, some forty wills surfaced, each claiming to be wills Howard Hughes’ last will.

The most famous was known as the "Mormon Will" because it was found on the desk of an official in the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. One of its provisions was the grant of one-sixteenth of Hughes’ estate to a certain Utah gas-station operator who claimed he once picked up a disheveled man by a roadside in Nevada and took him to Las Vegas. That man, it was claimed, was Hughes. After seven months of trial, the Mormon will was declared a fake by a Nevada jury. Many other attempts were made to locate Hughes’ will; but in the end, it seemed that, if at all he made a will, his distrust of everyone, resulted in his estate being fought over by people, as if he made no will at all.

In contrast to Hughes, Daisy Alexander, the third daughter of Isaac Singer of sewing machine fame, in fact made a will. But where she put it was too hard to find.

She made a will giving her $15-million (in preinflation values) estate to two people and, it seemed, placed it in a bottle and threw it in the ocean. Probably for safekeeping.

In 1947 Jack Wurm, an unemployed restaurant worker, found the bottle on a deserted beach in San Francisco. Apparently washed ashore by the tide. An expert in ocean currents testified that it would take about twelve years for a bottle to travel from London to San Francisco where Alexander lived. The bottle was found eleven years and eight months after the date on the will.

Who were the two heirs under the will? The will said, "To avoid confusion, I leave my entire estate to the lucky person who finds this bottle and to my attorney, Barry Cohen, share and share alike". Confusion, of course, she did not avoid; not surprisingly, thirty nine years of litigation were insufficient to settle the estate of Alexander.

Not too many of us are as eccentric or as rich as Hughes or Alexander; therefore, for us lesser mortals, a more prosaic but prudent way of keeping our wills is called for. I strongly suggest putting your will in a safe deposit box in a bank and telling somebody you trust about it.

Show you eccentricity in other ways.