The Spendthrift Clause

I just finished a lengthy assignment to locate an ancestor that moved around so frequently that he was difficult to trace. The paper trail was scarce because he didn’t stay in any one place too long to establish one. Still, I was able to trace the ancestor – whom I’ll call Jake – into a northern Michigan town where he was involved in the mining industry.

The year he arrived his wife fell sick and died. Now I don’t know about you but I can empathize with what Jake went through. When not busy mining he had the responsibility of caring for five children. He had already lost one at a previous location. Apparently Jake turned to drinking.

Now what was unusual was that I was able to locate a probate record for Jake in that town, but not because he was deceased. Rather, Jake was a spendthrift.

There’s a term we don’t use any more. What is a spendthrift?

According to “The Legal Genealogist” a spendthrift is an individual who spent more than they earned placing their family at risk of poverty and placing their community at risk. How so? Because the family might become a burden on society due to poverty, and that society would then have to pick up the tab to care for the indigent family.

How did this happen? In Jake’s case it seems he had a drinking problem. He worked, earned money, but spent it loosely on the bottle.

Now why would there be a probate record for Jake and his drinking problem. According to Michigan Law the county poor farm overseer had the responsibility of keeping tabs on local residents before they became a problem. If he witnessed what he believed to be a problem, he brought charges up in probate court against that individual. And this is precisely what happened to poor Jake.

Yes, this is putting a lot of faith and power in one individual where he can drag a man into court based on his own personal testimony. Sadly, this wasn’t the end of the matter for Jake.

Jake had lost a young daughter and had just lost his wife! And now he was being dragged into probate court on charges of his being a spendthrift. The court ordered an inventory to be taken of Jake’s possessions. He had in his possession mining stock and a great deal of cash reserve… all which he mysteriously lost when all was said and done.

A guardian was placed over Jake to monitor every dollar he spent. He couldn’t do anything with his own money – not without someone else’s say so. But that wasn’t the end to Jake’s strife. The court deemed it necessary to remove Jake’s children and place them with other families. Can you imagine how Jake must have felt?

He lost it all. His wife, his children, and all his earthly possessions. He never recovered from this. It would eat at him for the remainder of his days. And yes, poor Jake did end up at a poor house which is where we believed he died. How sad.

This has got to be one of the saddest family history cases I have ever taken on. Jake lived for another 30 years, often alone. And he died alone. His children likely didn’t know him after being removed from the family. This is an example of governmental authorities overstepping their boundaries and doing what they believed to be best, but in hindsight…it’s obvious their judgment was at fault.

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