By Chris Hanson

Estate planning is frequently an uncomfortable process and, if it involves a blended family, things could get a little scary. And worse, if that blended family doesn’t get along, well, then the process may involve some blood-curdling screams; New England’s storied history has an internationally notorious example of estate planning gone horribly awry.

Recall this schoolyard rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks. And when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.” Well, let’s delve into this horror story.

Back in 1892, prominent Fall River businessman Andrew Borden was living in a cramped house with his second wife, his two unmarried adult daughters and an Irish maid. Known for his Yankee parsimony (that’s a sophisticated way of calling him cheap), Andrew would not buy a larger house. He had plenty of money yet he would not pay for indoor plumbing, and his daughters Lizzie and Emma resented living under such circumstances; They wanted to live in the more fashionable neighborhood called The Hill where their wealthier cousins lived. Andrew refused their costly request because he was spending money on their stepmother’s family, which simply incensed the daughters as they suspected that Andrew was going to leave her all his money. These strained family dynamics may have had spine-chilling consequences.

Cue the eerie Halloween music… 

On August 4th of that year the Irish maid, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, was taking a late morning nap. Her slumber was disbursed by Lizzie’s frantic call, “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.”

Upon the authorities’ arrival, his fresh head wounds were still bleeding and his wife Abby was found similarly bludgeoned in the guest room. Police quickly determined the Bordens were hacked to death with a hatchet. Abby was the first to die, so she could not inherit Andrew’s property upon his death. The only plausible suspect was Lizzie, a retiring Sunday school teacher and one of Andrew’s remaining heirs. 

The crime and resulting trial garnered unrelenting attention from the international press. Long before crime TV, there was a quarterly newsletter about Lizzie and the murder that was published for decades. A 1980s Boston punk rock band, LIzzie Borden and the Axes, paid homage to outwardly demure Lizzie. The Borden House was even turned into a bed and breakfast.

About 20 years ago The Wicked Smart investor visited the rooms where the bodies were found and later viewed the bloodstained bedspread at the historical society. But let me make one thing completely clear: While Lizzie was acquitted at trial, I can only allege she committed these murders. 

Maybe these murders could have been prevented with proper estate planning. Assuming the trust and estate laws were the same as today, a QTIP trust could have prevented the unspeakable crimes. I know what you’re thinking, but no, a QTIP trust has nothing to do with cleaning your ears. Rather, it is a Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust. Created upon death of the first spouse, the trust allows the remaining spouse a lifetime right to income of the trust then the remainder to individuals named by the trust’s creator. So, Andrew could have created the trust leaving a lifetime income to Abby, then upon her death, remaining assets would go to his daughters. As long as the sisters, especially the alleged hatchet girl, knew of this arrangement, maybe the tension in the family would be reduced and Andy and Abby would have lived to a ripe old age.

Maybe such a trust would make sense for your estate. If you work with a qualified financial planner, they may ask you to consider such a trust. Be aware that unless the financial planner is an attorney, he or she cannot prepare trust documents; That would be an unauthorized practice of law. Also, estate planning is a much more comprehensive process than creating trust. Ask your planner to recommend a reputable estate planning attorney. It will cost you some money in legal fees but don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Maybe that was Andrew’s fatal mistake.

After Lizzie was acquitted of the murder, she purchased the Maplecroft mansion on The Hill in Fall River. For the rest of her life, she was ostracized by society. I think it is safe to assume no one asked to borrow a cup of sugar from her!