'Trust' and Coordination

Jackie Bedard
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FX’s Trust wrapped up Sunday night. It’s a critically acclaimed, ten-episode show about the Getty kidnapping in the early 1970s. It was sensationalistic, front page news at the time, a paparazzi’s dream of a long, drawn-out photo op.

Trust is a terrific look inside great wealth, greater pettiness, and even (far) greater family disfunction. It skits around money matters, obliquely mentions the Sarah Getty Trust established by J. Paul’s mother in the 1930’s and wielded over the Getty heirs with impunity, while reminding viewers that Getty was beyond wealthy.

Getty himself was not shy about letting the world know he was its richest man. He was also renowned as a miser. Donald Sutherland epitomizes that trait in an Ebenezer Scrooge way without the subsequent redemption. This is, after all, a billionaire who installed payphones in the guest rooms in his English estate.

Not a great guy – a brilliant business man with the nerves of a cat burglar but not pleasant or endearing in any way. Forbes, the magazine that first crowned him ‘the world’s richest man’ in the 1950’s wrote, “Getty himself seems to have done everything possible to earn his reputation as a mean, arrogant, cheapskate.”

Getty executed a will in 1958. It was simple, seventeen typed pages, and concise. His vast art collection was left to the Getty Museum. The rest of the will was designed to keep his children in control of the oil company’s stock and to always have a seat (and salary) on the board of the museum. He left gifts of various sizes to employees, servants, and his women ‘friends’, of which he had a great many during, between, and after his five marriages.

That should have been it, but, of course, it wasn’t.

Getty being Getty, he could not help but use the promise of his money as a club. His greatest threat to household employees, friends, and family was to write them out of the will. There was a great scene in Trust last week where Getty is skeet shooting in his front yard (its quite the front yard) when he’s told that one of his live-in girlfriends has been seeing another man. A RAF war hero, no less. Part of the response, “She’s out of the will. She gets nothing . . . Wait . . . No, she gets one dollar. Make it so.” What he does after you really need to see for yourselves.

J. Paul Getty’s threats were never idle. Between 1958 and his death in 1976 he altered his will a little more than once a year, every year. As the very definition of the term ‘miser,’ he couldn’t bring himself to tear up the old will and start over, he simply amended the original – in law that’s known as adding a codicil. In slightly less than eighteen years he executed twenty-one codicils. Twenty-one changes, some significant, some petty, in under eighteen years.

Getty hated lawyers, a hatred that rose up to bite him and the company many, many times. The only thing he hated more than lawyers was paying lawyers for their services. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that Getty didn’t exactly get the kind of legal advice most billionaires do.

The codicils, then, were never coordinated. When Getty cut someone out or added the newest girlfriend or elevated a grandchild to favored status, the new codicil was hastily drawn up – Getty was a stickler for getting things done at once – and executed. No one reviewed the estate, no one looked at the overall effect of the codicils.

The twenty-first codicil to the 1958 will was executed three months before Getty’s death.

When probate courts poured through the mess that was the will and attachments, it became clear to everyone, especially his horrified family, that somewhere along the line (we’ll write about this at a later date) the Getty Museum was the big winner while children, grandchildren, and loyal employees of decades long service were very much the losers.

Everyone sued. The estate was wrapped in litigation for decades, the last Getty estate suit made it well into the 21st Century. It’s estimated that the Getty heirs lost $750 million.

The confusion, the litigation, a generation of legal, court, and broker fees, family stress, and lives and business being put on hold pending an outcome … all that and more could have, would have, been saved had Getty had a competent lawyer review his will in light of every codicil while coordinating the changes.

We can't say it often enough: do things the right way: Whether you're a billionaire with a relationship status of "it's complicated" or you're happily married, and you just want to make sure your IRA doesn't go to waste, we encourage you to make good decisions and work with a qualified attorney to implement your decisions.

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