The Erskine family has provided estate planning and trust administration services for over 130 years. This multigenerational company has, not surprisingly, collected a plethora of stories over the years—many of which show how estate laws and taxation practices have changed and how family dynamics can necessitate these changes.
The following excerpt from the Erskine Family Memoirs was provided by Matthew Erskine’s father, Linwood Mandeville Erskine Jr. He was born in Worcester in 1923 and attended Worcester’s Bancroft School, Phillips Exeter Academy, and Harvard University. In 1942, during his first year at Harvard, Erskine was drafted as a staff sergeant to the 10th Mountain Division. After serving, he obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School and then joined his father’s law practice.
The Sherman Family, Rooted in the Past
At one time, Worcester was a major center for the production of mailing envelopes. Up until World War II, the United States Envelope Company manufactured envelopes in several large buildings north of Lincoln Square. One of these buildings was the Sherman Envelope Division.
I believe the Sherman Envelope Division was started by a man whose son was one of my father’s clients. The client, J. Edward Sherman, lived with his wife in West Boylston, MA. Despite his father’s envelope company, J. Edward was more of a sportsman than a manufacturer, and he passed away before getting too involved in the industry. He and his wife, Emma, had no children, and when she died, she left all of her assets to J. Edward’s cousin, Margaret Sherman.
Prior to receiving the assets, Margaret Sherman was a retired schoolteacher who was accustomed to counting her pennies to put food on the table. Her father had also been a schoolteacher and had built Margaret’s Northborough home himself. After receiving the assets, Margaret’s situation significantly improved; she soon became very financially comfortable.
Passing Responsibility Between Trustees
Miss Sherman had a stock broker by the name of John Coolidge who lived in Hudson, Massachusetts. Margaret was one of his principal clients. I never fully agreed with Mr. Coolidge on much of anything, but, as he had known Margaret Sherman for many years, he was in primary control of her investments until his death.
In those days, the IRS permitted split-interest trusts. Miss Sherman chose to create a trust (for her own benefit) that would name several relatives as beneficiaries upon her death and would then continue on as a charitable entity. The trust still exists today. Mr. Coolidge and I were the first trustees to that trust, and I continued as the sole trustee after Coolidge passed away. My son, Matthew Erskine, is now the sole trustee.
Elder Care via Trust Funds
Although the trust mentions education and medical beneficiaries, Miss Sherman’s real interest was in historical matters, including the Northborough Historical Society. Consequently, as a trustee of the Sherman Trust, I tended to favor historical beneficiaries over the number of other charitable beneficiaries suggested to me. When receiving a request from a charity, I would ask myself, “What would Margaret Sherman do?”
While serving as a trustee, I watched Miss Sherman’s health deteriorate over the years. I kept encouraging her to hire some help in the house, but, being naturally independent, she would only go so far as to have a friend live with her during the winter months. Usually, she would choose some friend whose health was worse than her own, and would end up taking care of the friend rather than having the friend take care of her.
Miss Sherman developed heart problems and gave up sleeping in her upstairs bedroom. She started sleeping on an old daybed on the first floor. The daybed had a real sag in it and I kept telling Miss Sherman that she should buy something better, but she didn’t think it was the best use of her time or money and took no action. Finally, I called up the Denholm & McKay Store in Worcester, (which was then a full department store), and had a bed delivered to Miss Sherman to replace the daybed. I paid for the bed out of the Sherman Trust.
Eventually, we reached a point where Miss Sherman’s health absolutely required household help. To make the house more habitable, we installed a radiator in the kitchen of the house. When the house was built, the family spent no more time than was absolutely necessary in the kitchen and had no source of heat other than a cast-iron cooking stove. By the time I was involved, the cast-iron stove was still in the kitchen but was never used. Miss Sherman had an electric stove, which wasn’t very useful in keeping the kitchen warm. She said she could live with a cold kitchen, but her helpers and I felt that this was very inappropriate, especially since she had plenty of money to live more comfortably.
Making Donations from a Family Trust Fund
On one project, I was able to persuade Miss Sherman to spend some of the money she had inherited. As her family had originated in Brimfield, Massachusetts, she had a particular interest in that town. She also knew the town had a quantity of historical papers and records with no place to store them. I persuaded Miss Sherman to provide the funds to build a one-room addition to the town library to house the historical papers. My recollection is that the construction and furnishing of this room cost a little over $20,000, but that Miss Sherman paid a little over $30,000 to provide an endowment for maintaining the room. Due to inflation, a similar project could cost five times as much today.
After the room, which still exists and is known as The Sherman Room, was completed, Miss Sherman was invited to its dedication. She was asked to make a few remarks and she reminisced about the early days of Brimfield. Her reminiscing was a bit long-winded, and the audience became noticeably fidgety. Luckily, one of Miss Sherman’s practical nurses, Priscilla Perkins, was sitting in a chair just behind where Miss Sherman was standing. When Miss Sherman paused, Priscilla pushed the chair under her and Miss Sherman dropped into it, much to the relief of everyone in the room. I think everyone felt that Miss Sherman was allowed to speak for awhile, as she was the one who had provided the money for the room, but there was a limit to the length of time they were willing to listen.
LME Jr. January 2009