Gerald Willits died at the age of 76 years old, in Orange County. Mr. Willits, a plumber, lived a life of solitude, estranged from his daughter and so detached from others that it was several days before anyone discovered his remains.
The rooms in Mr. Willits’ one-story house were piled high with paper, fast-food wrappers and other trash, and were infested with rats. And bees. And lord knows what else. The rodents and other non-human squatters had eaten away at the piles of papers and garbage, as well as at the furniture, and had been carefree with their own waste. The environment was so toxic that Orange County workers had to wear masks while clearing the house.
But Mr. Willits’ estate was comprised of more than merely refuse and rodents; on his property vintage cars were found - sixty nine of them. Among the surprising collection was a 1924 Model T pickup, a 1949 Ford convertible, vintage Mercedes, Volkswagen bugs and buses, and at least one car with wooden wheels, estimated to be over a hundred years old. Among the automobiles were tucked other vintage items: tractors, Ditch Witches and a small experimental airplane (found under a pile of trash). The vehicles had been left in the yard for no one knows how long, completely exposed to the elements and pests. By the time Mr. Willits died, rats and squirrels had claimed dominion, having eaten the seats down to the springs and made nests in hoods and trunks. All in all, his estate, which also included three rental houses, has been estimated to be worth around $2 million.
So who is set to inherit this strange treasure trove? That’s the (two-ish) million dollar question. Mr. Willits executed, and retained, at least two wills (one stored in the trunk of the Model A, and one in a toolbox): a 1996 will leaving everything to his parents, long dead, and; a 2002 will leaving everything to Long Beach Scottish Rite, a Freemason related group. The 2002 will is only a copy of the original, however. But both wills disinherit his daughter, who contends she is the lawful heir. One of the tenants in Mr. Willits’ rental properties claims Willits told him he would receive the rental property at his death. His other tenants said the same, and related similar stories: Willits, in the mid-2000s asked them to sign blank pieces of paper, promising he would leave them the property in which they resided when he died. It’s noteworthy that Mr. Willits frequently did not cash rent checks, and did not increase the rent.
For legal reasons – perhaps because Mr. Willits’ wills did not name an executor, or because no will has been declared valid by the Orange County probate court – a public administrator is currently overseeing the probate of Willits’ estate, rather than a named executor of Mr. Willits’ choosing. The ultimate disposition of the estate will be determined in litigation: Willits’ daughter is contending that the 1996 will was revoked, the 2002 will is invalid, and that as his intestate heir, she should inherit; Willits has a first and second cousin who contend the daughter was validly disinherited, and are therefore the lawful intestate heirs, and; Willits’ tenants, whose mysterious signed, blank documents giving them their residences were never located, contend they should receive the properties.
Whatever the result, it’s unlikely that Mr. Willits’ estate - meticulously and painstakingly acquired, if not cared for – will be distributed per his last wishes. It would appear that he did make steps toward giving his properties to his tenants, but failed to complete them. And his desire for Scottish Rite to inherit his property is in doubt; since only a copy was found, it may be that he destroyed the original will, yet failed to execute a new one. If only Mr. Willits had been as prolific with notating his last wishes as with his car purchases; a handwritten will, signed by the decedent, even if not notarized or dated, may be admitted as a valid will. A post-it note has been found to represent the valid testamentary wishes of a decedent (though it’s strongly recommended that a formal will be properly drafted and dated). A few post-it notes may have saved a lot of time and resources for Mr. Willits’ intended heirs.