Law Exam Questions Come to Life: The term "Robber Baron" can be traced to medieval German lords who charged enormous tolls on ships travelling the Rhine River. Eventually, the moniker would be used to describe powerful 19th century American industrialists. It was a gilded age of monocle wearing captains of industry seeking family fortunes in oil, lumber, steel and rail. The glory days of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Astors, and Mellons are gone. The Vanderbilts no longer occupy their stately Newport summer mansions. Corneluis Vanderbilt's great great great grandson Anderson Cooper has been regulated to less stately digs in the Hamptons. How utterly ghastly.
Among these fabulous robber Barons was the aptly named Wellington R. Burt. He would find his wealth in lumber and iron. When he died in 1919 at age 87, Wellington decided he was not ready to part with his hard earned fortune. Apparently Wellington had a beef with his family. For reasons not indicated in his will, he decided he would give up the dough twenty one years after his last surviving grandchild kicked the bucket. No one knows what ticked him off enough to snub a few generations of his family. My guess is someone had used the wrong fork at a luncheon. When the Saginaw City Assessor raised Wellington's personal property Assessment from $400,000 to a million, Wellington cut some sizable bequests to the city as well. According to the Saginaw News, he wasn't a complete curmudgeon. He did leave his kids $1000-$5000 annually. The brown noser son got $30,000 a year. His daughter got cut off when old Wellington disapproved of her divorce. Some of his employees fared better. Through a trust, his secretary received $4000 a year while the coachman, chauffeur and maid each received an annual sum of $1000.
So why twenty one years. I can assume Wellington's lawyer wanted to see if there really was a rule against perpetuities. For our law school readers, Black's Law Dictionary defines it as "[t]he common-law rule prohibiting a grant of an estate unless the interest must vest, if at all, no later than 21 years (plus a period of gestation to cover a posthumous birth) after the death of some person alive when the interest was created." Got that? Fast forward to 2011. Wellington's 12 descendants will now split a fortune estimated at around $110 million dollars. The trust must be distributed by May 21st.