In 1958 J. Paul Getty was the richest man in the world. He even had his own listing verifying it in the Guinness Book of World Records. He was from wealth, his father was a successful wildcat oilman, J. Paul took over the old man’s business and expanded it to heights no one could have dreamt of when the depression started.
Getty was on an extended stay in Italy in 1958 when he finally got around to executing a will. It was simple, came in at seventeen neatly type pages. In it, he left his vast art collection – well, everything that ‘was marketable’ – to the J. Paul Getty museum. Basically, the rest of the will was designed to keep his children in control of the oil company’s stock and always have a seat (and salary) on the board of the museum.
He left bequests of varying sizes to some of the people who worked for him and his women ‘friends.’ Getty had a lot of woman friends.
Fairly simple, then. Add to it the fact that he was the trustee of his mother’s trust, The Sarah C. Getty Trust. That was pushing the billion-dollar mark by the ‘60s and was designed to provide income to Getty’s kids and grandkids. The fact that his children would get the principal of the trust on J. Paul’s death greatly influenced his disbursement of his estate
Simple, straightforward and certainly – apart from the personality of Getty and the numbers involved – a non-story.
Except for the fact that J. Paul Getty was not a particularly nice human being. A fact his family certainly knew. To call him an indifferent father is to insult indifferent fathers everywhere. He didn’t inspire warmth and loyalty from his children and he knew it, so he used his money as a cudgel to insure they attended to him – all the while remaining cold, distant, critical.
To top it off, he was a miser of legendary standing. It was a well-known and much commented upon fact, in our modern day late-night TV commentary way, that Getty had pay phones installed in his homes for guests to use. Pay phones.
Put these two facts together and the result was perhaps inevitable. Getty used the will as a weapon. A family member snubbed him – out of the will; an employee of long standing and good service left – out; women friends – in or out depending on their behavior after the breakup.
Getty, it must be noted, was a brilliant business man and had the nerves of a cat burglar. This is, after all, a man who mortgaged everything he had after WWII to buy land in Saudi Arabia he had not only never surveyed, but had never even seen.
Smart, certainly, with a steel trap, analytic mind and amazing memory. But there was that incredible frugality. So it came to pass that instead of executing a new will every few years (and disavowing the old ones), he simply added addendums to the original – codicils, in legal terms.
Between September 1958 and his death in 1976 he executed twenty-one – 21! – codicils. Twenty-one changes, all of them
significant, in slightly less than eighteen years. I don’t think it’s much of a reach to think that with his intellect he was sure he could keep track of it all, just as it’s not much of a reach to think he did not factor in the effects of aging on his marvelous intellect.
The results, of course, were an unmitigated disaster – for his original wishes and his family. Changes resulted in Getty’s children losing their seats – and all control – on the Getty Museum board. Pretty much the same thing happened with the oil company. Family members were left out, present employees ignored while loyal servants for decades were left out. Not a single beneficiary aside a few girlfriends from the Fifties inexplicably put back in somewhere along the way and, of course, the museum was happy.
A jumbled mess that took decades to sort out.
Of course, it was sorted out in the courts. The one thing that did go right after Getty’s death was that his children finally received their funds from the Sarah C. Getty Trust. The first thing they did with their new found wealth was hire lawyers.
Getty’s death and his Twenty-one Codicils was a red letter day in the history of American Trust and Estate practice. Lawyers sued the estate, lawyers defended the estate, lawyers administered the estate through the litigation. It’s estimated that attorneys were paid tens of millions of dollars through the years of litigation. Tens of millions (estimates vary from $15 to $40 million and more) that should have gone to Getty’s family.
Codicils have their, limited, place in planning but it pays to draft from scratch. Ask any Getty.