The Lewis Family Trust and the Aunt Virginia death watch

Summer, 2015 (updated Nov 2017)

Growing up, I often heard my father talk about the family trust fund, of which he was a beneficiary. It had been set up by the bequests of “Grandpa Lewis” –as Aunt Virginia called him— when he died in 1927. Grandpa Lewis was a “mad hatter” in Washington DC. at the beginning of the 20th century. He made beaver hats for the gentlemen of our Capitol, including many members of Congress, my father told me.

According to my father, Grandpa Lewis was “mad” because in the process of making beaver fur into hats he used fulminate of mercury to soften the skin; and fulminate of mercury is a neurotoxin. This made Grandpa Lewis somewhat strange.

He lived like a miser, living in a rented room and spending his spare time collecting and saving string and newspapers. When he died, he left a trust fund valued at $250,000 (about $3 million in 2015 dollars).

The trust was administered by a bank in Washington (now called Crestar). It charged a high fee, made bad investment decisions, and distributed income to about seven people according to a formula set up by Grandpa Lewis. “Aunt Netty” (my grandmother’s sister) got a fixed amount, taken out of interest and dividends. Others got a percentage of the remaining interest and dividends every quarter. My father got 1/6th of that, as I recall.

The trust was designed to end and the principle distributed when Aunt Virginia died. But my father, thinking (correctly I believe) that the bank was making bad investment decisions and bleeding the trust dry with its fees, went to court to try to get them fired and the capital distributed.

He says that he got the judge to agree that he would break the will, if every one of the heirs agreed. They all did, except Aunt Virginia, who said, to quote my father’s squeaky- voiced imitation of an old woman: “Oh, no. That’s not what Grandpa Lewis wanted.”

It was at that time that my father started the Aunt Virginia death watch. Aunt Virginia was born in 1900. She was married to a retired Rear Admiral in the Navy, a guy named Ring whom I never met. She was only ten years older than my dad. But he was sure she’d be dying soon.

So the trust went on, and actually did some good. My grandfather Vinti accepted the money from the trust (whatever it was) as rent for our half of his two-family house (a bargain); and my father used Uncle Joe’s money to provide a place for him at the Pine Street Inn (he was a homeless alcoholic who panhandled for a living) as well as food at a cafeteria that wouldn’t let him use his meal tickets for anything but his food.

In the early 70s, Dad, thinking he would check on Aunt Virginia’s health, went to visit her in DC. She was in perfect health, and spent all her time talking to him about evangelical Christianity (Dad’s sister, Marie, who just turned 100, did the same thing with Christian Science and he avoided her as much as he could). Dad was so upset that he went to a phone booth and called my cousin May (Helen) in Maryland. He asked her to call him with a “family emergency” then come down and pick him up.

Dad died in 1980, at 70, of lymphoma. Aunt Virginia died in 2000, exactly 100 years after she was born, and twenty years after my father. After my father died, Dave and Bob (my brothers) and I each became the heir of one-third of one-sixth of the interest and dividends, about $400 a quarter as I recall.

As I was now involved, I looked into the management of the fund, and I think my father was right. Knowing that the trust was going to be around for many years, they had invested too much in bonds, and made bad stock decisions. Not only that, but they charged high management fees (2% as I recall). Then, while I was watching, they made the decision to put all the principal into high-fee mutual funds actively managed by their own bank.

So now we were paying them 2% to decide to invest in their own funds with a 1.25% management fee! At least when they owned stocks and bonds directly, there were no extra fees. I was incensed, and consulted an attorney who told me I would be wasting my time. The court would never do anything unless we all agreed, and Aunt Virginia was still alive.

I didn’t start an Aunt Virginia death-watch since it wasn’t enough money for me to care about. She lived 20 years longer than dad and when she died the balance in the trust had gone from $250,000 in 1927 to only $450,000 in 2000. It didn’t even double in 73 years!

As I recall, my brothers and I got about $20,000 of the final distribution. The rest went to my uncles Joe and Paul, and my aunt Marie. Of those three only Marie is still alive as of 2015 (She died in 2016 at or very near 100).

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