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    A Codicil Too Far

    Paul Getty was not shy about letting the world know he was its richest man. He was also renown as a miser. In the Ebenezer Scrooge way. He reveled in the fact that the guest rooms in his English estate had payphones. When his grandson was kidnapped in Italy in the early 70’s Getty first refused to negotiate, then loaned the ransom money to his son to get the kid back – now minus an ear due to Getty’s insistence of ‘proof of life.’

    Not a great guy – a brilliant business man with the nerves of a cat burglar – but not pleasant or endearing. Forbes, the magazine that first crowned him ‘the world’s richest man’ in the 1950’s later 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, only 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. He threatened employees, friends, and family with being written out of the will and he threatened often. Never a man to make idle threats, he altered his will a little more than once a year, every year, until his death in 1976.

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    True to his overwhelming frugality he didn’t tear up the old will and execute a new one, he simply amended the original – in law that’s known as a codicil. In slightly less than eighteen years he executed twenty-one codicils. Twenty-one changes, some significant, some petty, in under eighteen years.

    Through them all, Getty was consistent – he abhorred professional ‘money managers’ and corporate trustees; he punished relatives who snubbed or irritated him; he cut out employees who left; he added and subtracted girlfriends. The clear, overwhelming intent of the will was never touched – the family was to control the oil company and museum.

    The Getty – the one happy beneficiary

    Consistent, that was, until the Twenty-first and final codicil, executed three months before his death. That codicil undid . . . everything. Getty’s children lost their seats – and all control – on the Getty Museum board. Pretty much the same thing happened with the oil company. Corporate trustees were appointed, employees who had recently quit were inexplicitly left in, loyal employees for decades were taken out.

    It was well-known that Getty’s physical and mental health had declined rapidly in the months leading to his death. None of the once-upon-a-time-heirs had had any contact with Getty around the time he executed the last codicil; his journals, still meticulously kept by staff, had no entry for a legal meeting on the day the codicil was executed.

    It was suspicious at the time – an extraordinarily wealthy man living hermit-like; changes utterly at odds with the wishes expressed so often over eighteen years; the loss of the only thing the client really cared for – family control.

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    There were challenges, they lasted years, none were successful – they failed mostly for technical reasons.

    Getty died in 1976 when the science around aging and dementia were in their nascent stages. Things would, I hope, be different today – Getty was in mental decline, the codicil was executed in secret, the changes were inconsistent and sloppy when compared to the other twenty codicils – all the hallmarks for an undue influence challenge were present. J.P. Getty would not have made this last changes if he had been aware, really aware, of what they would do.

    With our knowledge of dementia, and a much keener awareness of the monetary rewards of money and asset management – it’s estimated the 21st codicil cost the Getty family over $700 million, that’s a lot of fees for a lot of years – there’s hopefully a significantly less chance today that the codicil could have withstood a challenge.

    That, of course, is scant comfort to the family.


    About the author

    Erik J. Broel
    Founder & ceo

    Erik founded the firm in 2009. He sees it as his personal mission to demystify the process of handling an estate or trust, and to help people by making the complex estate process simple and accessible. He believes there is always a better way to do things, and loves finding new and innovative ways to deliver better, more effective service that solves the client’s key problem or issue, and improves the client’s life.

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