Charles Vance Millar: The Man Who Laughed From Beyond the Grave

#practicaljokes #wills #estateplanning #lawyers

To be a good practical joker, you need to have patience. Timing of a joke is everything. By that measure, Charles Vance Millar had all the makings of being one of the best practical jokers in history. His biggest pranks were planned so elaborately that they would not be fully played out until long after his death.

Millar was a Toronto, Canada attorney. He wrote his will on June 7, 1921. Since he was a bachelor and had no immediate family, he decided to use the occasion of his estate planning to have a little fun. It would be five years before his planning went into practice, but when it did, it created hilarity and chaos for many.

Millar died of a heart attack at the age of 73 October 31, 1926. His executor filed the will with the Ontario Surrogate’s Court.

The opening words of the will set the stage for the rest of it:

“This will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependants or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death, and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime”.

The will had several unusual bequests:

  • Three men who were known to despise each other, T. P. Galt, J. D. Montgomery, and James Haverson, were granted joint lifetime tenancy in Millar’s vacation home in Jamaica. As it turned out, Millar had already sold this home by the time of his death, so we did not get to see how this bequest would have played out.
  • He left a share of O’Keefe Brewery Company stock to each practicing Protestant minister and every Orange Lodge in Toronto, on the condition that each of them participate in the management of the business and draw on its dividends. The brewery was a Catholic business, and many of the recipients were opposed to social drinking.
  • Two anti-horse-racing advocates, William Raney, and Samuel Chown, and a man who detested the Ontario Jockey Club, Abe Orpen, were to receive a share of Ontario Jockey Club stock, provided they remain as shareholders in three years. Raney’s and Chown’s share were eventually given to charity, while Orpen accepted his.
  • Each duly ordained Christian minister in Walkerville, Sandwich, and Windsor, “except Spracklin, who shot a hotelkeeper” was to receive a share of the Kenilworth Racetrack, located just outside Windsor, Ontario.

The bequest to the Protestant ministers of O’Keefe stock created a bit of a problem. The company was structured in such a way that Millar’s share was not easily divided up. Millar’s ownership was actually in the holding company that owned O’Keefe. In the end, 99 ministers and 103 Orange Lodges who accepted the bequest, did so only after O’Keefe was sold in 1928. In an agreement with the executors, each of the legatees received $56.38.

In October 1928, five Windsor pastors claimed the bequest of the shares of the racetrack. This, too, was difficult to settle, since the racetrack was not a publicly-traded company. One estimation put the value of the shares at less than one cent. The racetrack closed within ten years, anyway, so it was all a moot point.

Most of the rest of the will was pretty routine, paying off certain debts and leaving some money for Millar’s housekeeper. Millar was not done with his pranks, however. After these matters were resolved, his will addressed an even more unusual provision:

“9. All the rest and residue of my property wheresoever situate, I give, devise and bequeath unto my Executors and Trustees named below in Trust to convert into money as they deem advisable and invest all the money until the expiration of nine years from my death and then call in and convert it all into money and at the expiration of ten years from my death to give it and its accumulations to the mother who has since my death given birth in Toronto to the greatest number of children as shown by the registrations under the Vital Statistics Act. If one or more mothers have equal highest number of registrations under the said Act to divide the said moneys and accumulations equally between them.”

Newspapers dubbed this provision “The Stork Derby.” For the next ten years, Toronto had a distraction from the dire straights of the Great Depression. The balance of the estate was put away to be invested and distributed on the tenth anniversary of Millar’s death to the woman or women who would prove themselves to be the winners.

Although it would be ten years before the winner of the Stork Derby could be announced, all was not quiet on the estate side. Millar’s next-of-kin filed challenges to the will, claiming it was outrageous and contrary to public policy. Attorneys filed challenges to the will, arguing that it would “… encourage and cause mothers to have children in rapid succession, and that it is common knowledge among sociologists and social workers that the infant mortality rate is increased by this.”

On November 20, 1936, Judge Middleton ruled in favor of the will. The petitioners filed appeals all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court, but at each step of the way, the provisions of the will were upheld. All that remained was to figure out who should receive the bequest set aside for the winner of the Stork Derby.

In February 1938, eight different mothers argued that they had won the stork derby. Four of them had nine children, each, and were clearly contenders. Two were dismissed as claimants. One of these claimed ten children, but only five of them were born within a marriage relationship. Another claimed nine children, but she was unable to prove the parentage of two of them.

That left the more controversial claims of Pauline Clarke and Lillian Kenny. Ms. Clarke said that she had brought 10 children into the world in the preceding ten years. The will said the births had to occur in Toronto, and the court had to decide whether the Beresford Avenue in York, was “Toronto” enough. The court concluded that although York was adjacent to Toronto, it was distinct from it. There was also insufficient evidence of the parentage of all of Ms. Clarke’s children, so the judge ruled her to be out of contention.

Ms. Kenny claimed to have birthed 11 children in the required time. The problem was that four of her children were stillborn. After considering the evidence, the judge wrote,

“I think that a child is live-born when it proceeds entirely from the mother and becomes a separate living person. This generally is evidenced by the child establishing an independent blood circulation and its ability to breathe. A child born dead is not in truth a child. It was that which might have been a child.

One cannot but recall the utterances of the witches in Macbeth who assured Macbeth that he need fear none of woman born, and Macbeth’s disappointment when he found that they lied to the sense while ‘keeping” promise to the ear’, and he faced Macduff who was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.”

That left four women, each of whom was the mother of nine legitimate children within the required ten-year period, as the winners of the Stork Derby. The amount they ended up dividing was $570,000 Canadian ($9,748,461.54 Canadian in 2019 values/ $7.3 million USD)

Read more interesting provisions in wills.

Read more fun facts about laws and lawyers.

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