Never Trust a Yalie: The Estate of Elihu Yale

yale-university-1604158_960_720Elihu Yale was a colonial era merchant who amassed considerable wealth at the end of the 17th century as President of the East India Company’s post in Madras, India.  He was one of the earliest benefactors of the Collegiate College in New Haven, Connecticut, now Yale University and named for him.  The story behind the naming of the University involves an interesting quirk in the administration of Yale’s estate.

In 1717, the founders of Collegiate College sought a gift from Yale to establish a college in Connecticut.   The founders approached Yale not only because of his fortune, but also because he had no descendants to inherit his wealth and he had familial ties to Connecticut.  Yale agreed, and soon thereafter, he donated to the College a box of books, a picture of King George, and English goods valued at 200 British pounds sterling, all valued at 800 colonial pounds.  It was a large gift, although not enough to establish an endowment.  Yale also promised the College “a succession of solid and lasting benefits”, including a gift at his death.  As a result, in 1718, Collegiate College became Yale College.

Yale sent one more gift to the College in June 1721, one month before his death.  But the big gift the College expected from Yale’s estate never came.  The reason?  At the time of his death Yale’s Will – which left a gift to the College – remained unsigned.   Yale’s widow was named Executor of his estate, and the entirety of his estate – less debts – passed to her.  Yale College objected in probate court but was unsuccessful.  The College’s founders advocated for receipt of a portion of the estate for over two years following Yale’s death, but his widow, the daughters from her first marriage, and their husbands – all wealthy as well – refused to settle or agree to make any gifts.  In the end, no part of the estate passed to the College.

Take it from this Harvardian – don’t make the same mistake as Elihu Yale.  Have in place a quality estate plan that sets forth your wishes before your death.  And be sure to sign it.

(I give credit for this interesting history to my friend and colleague, Megan Lenzi, who learned a “cleaned up” version of this story while touring Yale with her son this summer.  Apparently, in traditional Ivy League fashion, the school has chosen to gloss over this history.)

The facts in this post came from Hiram Bingham’s article “Elihu Yale” published by the American Antiquarian Society in 1937. 

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