Estate Planning in History: Marie Curie, Radium and Estate Planning

I recently finished Jillian Cantor’s novel – “Half Life” – about Marie Curie. The “novel” is half biography and half historical fiction. The biography portion tells the life story of Marie Curie beginning with her decision to leave Poland to study physics at the Sorbonne. The historical fiction portion imagines a totally different fictional life in which Marie marries a Polish man at a young age, remains uneducated, and never pursues a career in science.

Marie Curie was the subject of many of my childhood book reports and science projects. I already knew much of the story of her real life – her discovery of radium, her Nobel prizes, her marriage to Pierre, and her trailblazing ability to balance her science career with raising 2 daughters.

But there is always something to learn from a book like this. And a great Estate Planning story embedded in Madame Curie’s amazing life! The Curie family’s most valuable asset was a gram of a radium, originally discovered as a unique element by Marie and Pierre, and then used for years of scientific study. That gram of radium was essential to Marie’s scientific career and success and was also financially valuable (perhaps worth as much as $1 million in today’s dollars).

When Marie’s oldest daughter Irene Curie – also a Nobel prize winning scientist – became engaged in 1926, Marie was concerned. She didn’t trust Irene’s fiancé, Frederic Joliot. She was concerned that the marriage would not last and that the family’s most valuable asset – the radium – might be at risk in a divorce.

Marie took 2 important steps to avoid that result. First, she required Irene and Frederic to sign a pre-nuptial agreement that stated that the Curie family’s radium would never become Frederic’s. In addition, she prepared a Will that left the radium on her death to the University of Paris with an important restriction – her daughter had a right to use it. Marie’s Will stated:

“The value of the element being too great to transfer to a personal heritage, I desire to will the gram of radium to the University of Paris on the condition that my daughter, Irene Curie, shall have … entire liberty to use this gram … according to the conditions under which her scientific research shall be pursued.”

Much about Marie Curie was unique. But her concern about her family’s most valuable asset ending up with an untrustworthy son-in-law was not. If you have concerns like Marie, you too can set up your Estate Plan to ensure your assets remain with your children and grandchildren. If you leave assets in trust – rather than outright – for a child who later divorces, those assets may be protected from division in a divorce. Reach out to your estate planning attorney to learn more.