By W. T Butler
On May 10, 2011, author Robert Frank of the Wall Street Journal introduced the story of a rich timber baron from Saginaw, Michigan. The story shows how wealthy individuals do not always use their good fortune in ways that benefit others—not even family. Rather than share his wealth at his death, Mr. Wellington R. Burt devised an estate that avoided any distribution to his children and grandchildren intentionally.
There must have been good reason for Mr. Burt to punish his family for more than two generations. Think about it for a moment. Mr. Burt, one of America’s richest millionaires when he died in 1919, could just as easily have squandered away or arranged to give his estate over to charity rather than design an estate that would offend even anger his relatives. This is a principal point. Is there any reasonable explanation for someone to preserve their good fortune but not share it with others?
There are probably specific details that can be obtained through relatives, ancestors of Mr. Burt’s business associates and legal documents his lawyers developed to record his decision that might shed light on his rationale. What none of these may show, however, is the true mindset and—what I call his–money-manager personality, things that influenced this man to rob his own relatives—and others—from enjoying the fruit of his estate, something that should be celebrated and not shrouded by controversy.
Billionaire heiress Leona Helmsley is another example of someone who chose to taint her legacy by leaving almost all of her estate to “the care for dogs” rather than bequeath the majority of her estate to her relatives. Out of billions that will eventually flow through the foundation she established, very little would have been used in any way other than to provide for the care of dogs—which included a special provision ensuring that her Maltese named “Trouble” should be cared for by a family member for life. In both cases I ask again, is it ever right that someone should intentionally punish their “so-called” loved ones by omitting them from their inheritance?
Proverbs 19:14 says, “House[s] and wealth are an inheritance from fathers…” (NAS) Other more modern Bible translations substitute fathers with the word parents as the actual grantors admonished to leave an estate to their children. Then there is the most compelling of all verses which I believe has significance in examining the decisions of people like Wellington Burt and Leona Helmsley. It is found in Proverbs 13:22 and says that, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children..” (NAS)
Now, let’s look at the Biblical implication of their actions. Proverbs 13:22 makes plain that an estate designed to provide inheritance to grandchildren is wise and prudent planning. In fact, there are a multitude of reasons why this is the greatest thing that can happen to a family on an inter-generational basis. Besides the obvious benefits that wealth affords almost anyone, just think about the decision-making process in the lives of those who have nothing. Many spend their entire lives just striving to live a meaningful life.
To be clear, each of the aforementioned verses encourage—even decree—that parents should pass on an inheritance to their children, and grandchildren. This is not stated merely as a recommendation but as a matter of principled and social mandate. Why? Because wealth and riches were never meant to remain idle. They are designed to be facilitative tools that foster exchange, the transfer of possessions and the circulating of currencies so that many benefit from its uninterrupted flow.
It’s what powers communities, cities and even nations to thrive and produce even more for themselves and the well-being of others. Even when money is temporarily parked in financial institutions there is no shortage of lending, investing or anticipated yielding of profits that are then shared among many different groups, including those managing it. Just where would the world be if every monarchy established had to start over every time the ruler died? It is not even fathomable.
Finally, there is a far more compelling reason, I believe, that diminishes any argument in favor of stopping the flow of wealth to one’s progeny, to charity or to others who have need. It is found in Psalm 24:1 which says that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and all that dwell therein.”And this—in my view—gets to the heart of the problem. Both Wellington Burt and Leona Helmsley—and many others like them—believe first and foremost that what they have amassed belongs to them. And whatever you own—they would assert—they alone should decide how it will be used, or so they think. But Psalm 24:1 says that it all belongs to the Lord, which means they own nothing, even that which they take credit for producing.
A decision, therefore, to cut family off from sharing in your good fortune should not be a unilateral decision. Clearly, for those who do not believe in God nor believe they have a duty to confer with Him before determining how to spend their huge estates will obviously not agree with this thinking. Nevertheless, not believing in God does not negate or void out His Sovereignty. Afterall, if He owns it, then He has the right to determine who gets to share in it. Isn’t this what we do with banks and financial advisors?
More importantly, God is less interested in your day-to-day money-management decisions and more concerned with your heart motivations. Specifically, are you wielding your wealth like a weapon, threatening to cut-off those who displease you or who fail to obey you? Remember that “unto he/she who much is given, much is required.”
In other words, do not underestimate the responsibility that comes with wealth and riches. Your good fortune comes at a price. While you are the recipient of God’s grace and provision, you are still an earthly steward who must learn to yield to God’s plan for the management and redistribution of your possessions, a.k.a. your wealth. Jesus demonstrated this all too well during His earthly term. Should we believe that God would expect any less of our stewardly role and responsiveness to His will?