When it comes to wills, how strange can you get?
Before he died in 1994 a man from Springfield, Ore., included in his will the provision that his skin be tanned like leather and used to bind a book of self-penned poetry. A California woman who died in 1979 ordered that her dog be put down to save him the pain of living on after she had gone. Another woman from Beverly Hills, Calif., who died in 1977 wanted to be buried in her Ferrari and dressed in her favorite nightgown.
Such stories may be fodder for jokes, but unusual post-death wishes are a serious issue in estate planning. It may be rare to come across cases like that of the man from Bethlehem, Pa., who died in 1998 and arranged a monthly reward for the police officer who issued the most tickets for double parking. But in more subtle ways people are testing how far they can move away from the expected.
“Everyone’s got their own quirks,” said Kathleen Hunt, an estate planning attorney from El Cerrito, Calif. “Everyone is individual, and everyone’s got some strange idea that needs to be accounted for.” It’s for this reason, Hunt said, that she called her three-year-old practice Unique Law.
There’s a growing number of people leading nontraditional lives, Hunt said. The parallel to this is more nontraditional deaths. She’s helping a young couple arrange to become, in the event of their death, part of the Body Worlds exhibition of plastinated human corpses.
Pet trusts are quickly becoming more common. Between 12 percent and 27 percent of pet owners include their pets in their wills, Texas Tech University law professor Gerry Beyer wrote in a recent article. After years of resistance, more states are making it easier to set up a trust for a pet. A guardian is appointed to care for the animal and a trustee to take care of the finances.
Actress Betty White plans to leave her $5 million estate to her pets, according to newspaper reports.
“Estate planning is becoming more and more elaborate as time goes by,” said Daniel Klein, an attorney in Phoenix. “People have a lot more options.” Some of his clients, mainly couples, want to make paternity testing a prerequisite for grandchildren before they can receive a share of their estates.
Klein, though, is leery about the pet trusts.
“If it’s a small amount of money compared to the rest of their estate, then I think that’s fine,” he said. “I haven’t had anybody disinherit kids or anything in favor of an animal.”
People can be very detailed in planning their own funerals, down to requesting specific songs and Bible verses. “It’s less of a taboo topic,” said Leanna Hamill, an attorney from Hingham, Mass. “People talk about it more.”
The possibility of legal challenges can limit what one can do with a will. The Beverly Hills woman was buried in her Ferrari, but the man’s skin wasn’t tanned and the dog wasn’t put down. They both violated laws about what could be done with human remains and animals. Even where your ashes can be scattered are subject to restrictions that vary across states.
Outside of the law, strange but benign provisions are easy to ignore. The Pennsylvania police officers didn’t get their reward. And your family doesn’t have to dispose of your remains the way you wish.
“The farther you go from standard provisions the more uncertain they are to be fulfilled,” said Neil Hendershot, an attorney from Harrisburg, Pa.
If you want to do anything unusual, the attorneys give this advice: Do your research. Talk to your family or anyone else involved long in advance. And, of course, consult a competent estate planner.