The Rich Bachelor

A long tradition in bar exams is the “rich bachelor” question: identify the rightful heir(s) to the estate of a wealthy man who never married, had no children, and did not leave a will. Today’s story time today is based on just such a premise, is entirely true, and features a key player from the history of Notre Dame Law School. Read to the end for the big reveal.

The Bachelor (in top hat)

The man was a lawyer. Before entering practice he had been involved in the publishing business; later in life he owned a 200-acre estate near Annapolis, Maryland, which served as a summer retreat. At the time of his death, however, most of his assets were in the form of securities, which were valued at $150,000 – roughly $2.5 million today.  Although he should have known better, he did not leave a will.

Who got the money? The answer took eight years of litigation to untangle, during which the estate lost nearly 90% of its value. Here’s how it played out:

Margaret’s residence today

The man had a sister-in-law, Margaret, who survived. They had been close for years; he kept his securities at her residence in Chicago, and she was at his hospital bedside when he died.

Margaret had also been close with the man’s extended family in his hometown, which at one time included several cousins on his father’s side. Only one of those cousins – Ellen – survived. In keeping with a common “story time” theme, she had been declared insane and had lived in a lunatic asylum for decades. Nonetheless, Ellen was the man’s closest blood relative.

Ellen (through her representatives) opened a probate claim, and she did so in Chicago. Once the matter was opened in Illinois, Margaret claimed that she, not Ellen, was the rightful heir because the man had promised his entire estate to her – he simply had not reduced that promise to writing. (Margaret also filed a successful claim against the estate for the value ofhousekeeping services rendered.)

The ostensible reason that Ellen chose Chicago, rather than South Bend, was that the assets were in Chicago. The real reason was … follow the money.

For cases like this in 1933, Illinois and Indiana took very different approaches.

  • In Illinois the entire estate went to the closest surviving relative (in this case, Ellen). 
  • In Indiana the estate was split in two halves
    • one half was provided to the closest surviving relative on the father’s side (Ellen)
    • the other half went to the closest relative(s) on the mother’s side (persons yet unknown).

So the difference between Illinois and Indiana was the difference between Ellen keeping the entire $2.5 million estate or having to share half that amount. Illinois was worth a try.

Because the man had died in Indiana, probate was also opened in St. Joseph Superior Court. Due to the complexity of the issues and the size of the estate, the court appointed Notre Dame Law School Professor Clarence Manion to serve as the administrator of the estate in Indiana. Manion’ s first task was to help the Illinois court sort out whether the estate would be settled in Illinois or Indiana.

After two years of litigation, including appeals, the Illinois courts decided that Indiana was the appropriate forum. The upshot was that the size of the estate had been considerably reduced by legal fees, Ellen would receive half of the (smaller) estate, and now the task was to figure out who would receive the other half. Who were the man’s closest relatives on his mother’s side?

All of this occurred during the Great Depression, and the lure of free money brought out a wide variety of characters. At least 35 claimants, many living in Ireland and Australia, petitioned the court for a share of the estate as second cousins. (Refresher: cousins share a common grandparent; second cousins share a common great-grandparent.)

The court needed to determine whether the man had any relatives on his mother’s side who were more closely related than second cousins. How? Through the radio program “Skelly’s Court of Missing Heirs,” of course. Each week the program reenacted scenes from the life of someone who had died without a will, or who had left money to someone who couldn’t be located, and encouraged listeners to phone in with tips about people who may have an inheritance awaiting. The fantasy of inheriting millions from a long-lost relative, especially during the Depression, made the program a success for several years. 

Skelly Court of Missing Heirs Bulletin
Feb. 20, 1938 edition

The man had grown up in Wisconsin near his father’s family; it turns out that his mother had a sister in Iowa who he never knew. And for good reason: the sister died the year he was born. She had a son, however, who was the man’s cousin. His name was Michael. Bad news: Michael died long before the bachelor. Good news: Michael had several children who remained alive in 1933. Those children – the bachelor’s first cousins once-removed – were the closest living relatives on the mother’s side. They inherited half of the estate.

To recap:

  • A wealthy bachelor lawyer died without a will
  • The person for whom he had the most affection (sister-in-law Margaret) inherited nothing (but was compensated for housekeeping)
  • The person who inherited on his father’s side of the family was insane (and died during the litigation; her nephews received her share)
  • The people who inherited on his mother’s side were complete strangers to the man
  • The inheritance battle caused the value of the estate to drop by nearly 90%
  • The dispute -and loss of money – was entirely preventable, if only the man had left a will. 

Now, the answer to the question on your minds: Who was this man? None other than “Colonel” William Hoynes, the first dean of Notre Dame Law School and, at the time of his death, the longest-serving professor on campus.

How could he have made such an error? Probably from a lack of education. You see, Dean Hoynes taught at Notre Dame – but he received his law degree from the University of Michigan. I blame the Wolverines.

Until next time,


For sources and additional reading see p. 2

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