Friday, June 14, 2013

Estate Planning and W.C. Fields

One of the hardest things to do for yourself is prepare for your death. As we get older we have to start considering this. Preparing a will or having a lawyer prepare a trust is part of that. But, and I cannot stress this enough, you also need to keep good records.

W.C. Fields (real name:William Claude Dunkenfield) was a comic actor who performed in movies in the 30’s and 40’s. He was extremely popular; a superstar by current standards. Surprisingly, after his death, almost half of W.C. Fields estate could never be located. To ensure his privacy and his access to funds wherever he traveled in Vaudeville, Fields opened hundreds of different bank accounts under assumed names. He did not maintain any records of the deposits or banks, so his executors were probably lucky to locate as many as 48 of the secret accounts. The remaining deposits, estimated to be approx. $600k, were never found. Allowing for inflation, that is $6.7 million in today’s dollars!

As a young vaudeville performer, Fields barely eked out a living. Many years of poverty and near starvation left him with a recurring nightmare: he was alone in a strange city with not a penny to his name and being chased by police. He would awake from these dreams in a cold sweat. This upsetting vision preyed on Fields’ mind, and he began a series of eccentric encounters with banks all over the world.

Terrified of being broke, he would open a bank account under a fictitious name wherever he happened to be. These accounts varied from small sums to as much as $50,000. Fields favored whimsical pseudonyms for his bank books such as Figley E. Whitesides, Sneed Hearn, Ludovic Fishpond, Aristotle Hoop, Dr. Otis Guelpe, and Cholmonley Frampton-Blythe. In time, he began waking up from his nightmares saying to himself. “Forget it, you probably have a bank account in that town.”

Because Fields neglected to keep track of his accounts, only 48 of them were found and closed after he died on Christmas Day, 1946. He had told a friend that he recalled opening at least 700 such accounts.

As an adult, W.C. found fame and fortune, but held on to a lifelong fear that he would go broke. I know that many of us have that same fear. Unfortunately for W.C. Fields, his plan did not work out well for his family. Most of his fortune was likely escheated (taken as abandoned property) by the states where the accounts were held after the legal time period passed where no one claimed the funds. Of course, when he used fictitious names like Aloysius Mergatroid-Hamms, it is not surprising the majority of his estate was never located!

The lesson for us is rather obvious. Proper record keeping and estate planning can be a tremendous comfort to your loved ones. There are many ways to avoid probate and other fees when doing your estate planning. Using a revocable living trust can pass your assets to your family with a minimum of hassle and probate costs. These are also known as Family Trusts. It is important to note that when one establishes one of these types of trusts, they must go to all their financial institutions and change the title of their accounts to the trust with the owners or “trustees” as the signers. The same is true for any properties the family may own. How much can this save you in relation to probate fees and estate taxes? You would need to address this with your attorney. You can set these up online, but you should consult with an attorney to gain a full understanding of the type of trust you need before diving in.

Setting up your savings and checking accounts as Totten Trusts by establishing beneficiaries as part of the opening process is a good idea. A Totten Trust, or payable on death (POD) trust, avoids probate as the beneficiaries are predetermined. When the account holder or holders die, the funds are given to the beneficiaries upon presentation of the official death certificate. If you have money set aside for a special person, child, or grandchild, the Totten Trust is a good vehicle for preserving those funds. Your local credit union can help you establish these types of accounts.

And above all, keep good records. Have them all in one place. Make it easy for your family when you pass away. Set a good example for those following in your footsteps.
*   *   *

"Auto Financing 101" will be presented at our Main Office on Wednesday, June 19th at 6:30pm. Auto Finance 101 shares the basics of shopping for a car, financing a car, making your deal with the salesman, and how to save money on additional services like extended warranties.

The class takes place at our Main Office at 5615 Chesbro Ave, San Jose CA 95125
Please RSVP with Greg Meyer at

No comments:

Post a Comment