Wills, Trusts, Estates


"It Ain't Over 'Til . . ."

Here's a common Wills, Trust, Estates question: "How long does probate stay open?" The lawyerish answer is: "as long as it takes, but we know how to move it along and will be staying on top of it ..." Charles Dickens' answer is Bleak House’s Jarndyce v Jarndyce, a probate case that lasted ‘generations.’ Which, at 1,036 pages (the Penguin Edition) is almost as long as it takes to read it.

The Estate of Henry Danger is somewhere in between. Henry’s been in the news lately despite the fact he died in 1973. That is not a typo, Henry Darger died in 1973 and, yes, his estate is still open, there is an active probate case in Chicago as we write this.

A bit of background: Henry Darger was a hospital janitor and dishwasher who lived a reclusive life. He spent most of his time at work or in his two-room apartment. When he was forced to retire in 1963 because of a work injury, he spent almost all his time in his apartment with a few forays out for food and to regale kids with fantasy stories he seemingly conjured out of the air.

Mostly, though, he was a hoarder and a hermit. When he had to move to a nursing home in 1972, he left an apartment buried under old newspapers, books, magazines, and Pepto-Bismol bottles. The landlord and a neighbor cleaned it, it took two full truck loads to haul away the trash.

Trash cleared, the reason why Henry was able to regale kids with great stories was gradually revealed - over the years, unseen, Henry drew, painted, and wrote a 15,000 page illustrated fantasy novel. His real life's work was 850 drawings and paintings, the novel, much, much more. Thankfully, Henry’s landlord was an artist himself. He immediately recognized what the art world was about to discover - Henry Darger was a genius.

Too late for Henry, he died and was buried in a pauper's grave in Chicago. Needless to say, he did not leave a will. The landlord and his wife salvaged it all, then copyrighted everything. They turned Henry’s studio apartment into a studio museum. Over the years, they “went on to loan and sell Darger’s pieces to museums, galleries and collectors . . .” One piece went for $800,000.

To be clear, the world would never have known of Henry Darger’s talent without the landlords salvaging it – especially in a Chicago which, like many large cities, allows landlords to evict dead tenants for non-payment of rent and put their belongings on the sidewalk.

In 2019, the managing editor of the Northwestern Journal of Technology & Intellectual Property wrote an article questioning the landlords’ actions under Illinois Probate Law. A photographer and artist copyright advocate read the article and used HeirSearch to find Henry's [very] distant relatives. She tipped them off about the writings and art.

As we write this, they are in probate court trying to get control of the art. It’s a mess.