Along with baseball and apple pie, passing down extreme wealth from one generation to the next is a cherished American tradition. To many, it's not so much a sign of affection as a parental obligation. So when the occasional high-profile beneficiary is left out in the cold, the public is naturally eager for details.
For the best in disinheritance drama, there is no better place to look than Hollywood. Certainly no story involves more Tinseltown twists and turns than Joan Crawford's.
This Academy Award winning actress cut her two oldest adopted children, Christina and Christopher, out of her will and left her other two adopted children a paltry $77,500 each. What on earth could the excluded pair have done to deserve such a slap in the face? When asked, Crawford only cryptically offered that the two would-be heirs were left out "for reasons which should be well known to them."
Yet Christina may have gotten the last laugh when she published a scathing memoir chronicling her mother's abusive treatment. The best selling book - "Mommie Dearest" - was later made into a film by the same name. But, perhaps the greatest revenge is that this famous moniker has become a synonym for wicked mothers.
Go to the Mattresses kids...
Another Hollywood star with conspicuously missing heirs is Marlon Brando. When "The Godfather" died earlier this year, he left behind a $30 million estate. This was good news for most of Brando's children, aged 10 to 46. Unfortunately, a couple family members were left on the outside looking in. Tuki Brando, the son of Brando's deceased daughter, Cheyenne, was cut from the will; and so was Petra Brando-Corval, the daughter of Brando's longtime personal assistant, Caroline Barrett.
Brando's will did not explain why these children were excluded. But the background of these relationships is interesting to say the least. Tuki was just six years old when his mother committed suicide in 1995 after her brother Christian shot and killed her abusive fiancé, Tuki's father. Petra Brando-Corval's mother only settled her legal battles with Brando a week before his death.
The Iceman Cometh
Not all tales of disinheritance are shrouded in mystery, however. Oona O'Neill Chaplin's cold-shouldering by her father, playwright Eugene O'Neill, is famous. The celebrated dramatist abandoned his family when Oona was just two years old. He reappeared in time for Oona's eighteenth birthday to disinherit his only daughter.
O'Neill always disapproved of Oona's actions and rejected his daughter's many attempts to establish a relationship with him. The playwright always believed his daughter was trying to capitalize on his fame. He coldly told her: "All the publicity you have had is the wrong kind, unless your ambition is to be a second-rate movie actress of the floozie variety."
The final severance came when Oona married Charlie Chaplin. At the wedding, Chaplin was 56 years old and Oona just 17. According to all accounts, their marriage was a smashing success despite the age difference. O'Neill's feelings never changed however. He cut off all communications with her, deleting her name and the names of all of his children from his estate plan.
Lest you think only Hollywood heirs are in danger, disinheritances happen among the "everyday" wealthy as well. The saga of financier Claus von BŸlow and his wife Martha ("Sunny") is well-known. Their relationship was made famous by the 1990 film "Reversal of Fortune." Martha lapsed into a mysterious coma in 1981. Her husband was charged with attempted murder, convicted, and sentenced to 30 years. This conviction was overturned in a 1995 appeal when Claus' attorney got much of the evidence against his client excluded.
A lesser known aspect of the von BŸlow drama is the potential inheritance-related consequences for von BŸlow's daughter, Cosima. She had supported her father's innocence during the trial. Cosima's grandmother showed her disapproval by writing her granddaughter out of her will. Claus came to her rescue, though. He renounced his claims to Sunny's fortune in exchange for Cosima's reinstatement as an heiress.
Throughout their lives, celebrities live under a microscope. So it's no surprise their wills receive the same treatment. So long as expected beneficiaries are left out, the public will be interested in hearing the reasons why.
After all, it assures us that money can't always buy happiness—or happy families.