A tontine/tɒntin/ is an investment plan for raising capital, devised in the 17th century and relatively widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries. It combines features of a group annuity and a lottery. Each subscriber pays an agreed sum into the fund, and thereafter receives an annuity. As members die, their shares devolve to the other participants, and so the value of each annuity increases. On the death of the last member, the scheme is wound up. In a variant, which has provided the plot device for most fictional versions, upon the death of the penultimate member the capital passes to the last survivor.
The investment plan is named after Neapolitan banker Lorenzo de Tonti, who is credited with inventing it in France in 1653, although it has been suggested that he merely modified existing Italian investment schemes. Tonti put his proposal to the French royal government, but after consideration it was rejected by the Parlement de Paris. The first true tontine was therefore organised in the city of Kampen in the Netherlands in 1670. The French finally established a state tontine in 1689 (though it was not described by that name because Tonti had died in disgrace, about five years earlier). The English government organised a tontine in 1693. Nine further government tontines were organised in France down to 1759; four more in Britain down to 1789; and others in the Netherlands and some of the German states. Those in Britain were not fully subscribed, and in general the British schemes tended to be less popular and successful than their continental counterparts.
By the end of the 18th century, the tontine had fallen out of favour as a revenue-raising instrument with governments, but smaller-scale and less formal tontines continued to be arranged between individuals or to raise funds for specific projects throughout the 19th century, and, in modified form, to the present day.
Each investor pays a sum into the tontine. Each investor then receives annual dividends on his capital. As each investor dies, his or her share is reallocated among the surviving investors. This process continues until only one investor survives. Each subscriber receives only dividends; the capital is never paid back.
There are strictly speaking four different roles in the transaction: (1) the government or corporate body which organizes the scheme, receives the loans and manages the capital; (2) the subscribers who provide the capital; (3) the shareholders who receive the annual dividends; and (4) the nominees on whose lives the contracts are contingent. In most 18th and 19th-century schemes, parties 2-4 were the same individuals; but in a significant minority of schemes each initial subscriber-shareholder was permitted to invest in the name of another party (generally one of his or her own children), who would inherit that share on the subscriber's death.
Sometimes the names in (4) were famous people such as kings and queens. This eased the problem of death-verification and also reduced the risk of murder etc. to improve one's chances.
Because younger nominees clearly had a longer life expectancy, the 17th and 18th-century tontines were normally divided into several "classes" by age (typically in bands of 5, 7 or 10 years): each class was effectively a separate tontine, with the shares of deceased members devolving to fellow-nominees within the same class.
In a later variation, the capital devolves upon the last survivor, so dissolving the trust and usually making the survivor very wealthy. It is this version that has often been the plot device for mysteries and detective stories.
First page of Dousset 1792 French patent for a tontine
Louis XIV first made use of tontines in 1689 to fund military operations when he could not otherwise raise the money. The initial subscribers each put in 300 livres, and, unlike most later schemes, this one was run honestly; the last survivor, a widow named Charlotte Barbier, who died in 1726 at the age of 96, received 73,000 livres in her last payment. The British government first issued tontines in 1693 to fund a war against France, part of the Nine Years' War.
Tontines soon caused problems for their issuing governments, as the organisers tended to underestimate the longevity of the population. At first, tontine holders included men and women of all ages. However, by the mid-18th century, investors were beginning to understand how to game the system, and it became increasingly common to buy tontines for young children, especially for girls around the age of 5 (since girls lived longer than boys, and by which age they were less at risk of infant mortality). This created the possibility of significant returns for the shareholders, but significant losses for the governments. As a result, tontine schemes were eventually abandoned, and by the mid-1850s tontines had been replaced by other investment vehicles, such as "penny policies", a predecessor of the 20th-century pension scheme.
A property development tontine, The Victoria Park Company, was at the heart of the notable case of Foss v Harbottle in mid-19th century England.
While once very popular in France, Britain, and the United States, tontines have been banned in Britain, pursuant to the British Life Assurance Act 1774, 14 Geo. 3, c. 48, and as amended, and in the United States. See, e.g., Warnock v. Davis, 104 U.S. 775, 779 (1881). Such financial instruments are illegal primarily because they create beneficiaries who lack a legal insurable interest in the life of another person, and because many of these schemes were little more than swindles that encourage mischief against the life of the insured. Geneva, in Switzerland, was known for its active market in tontines in the 17th and 18th centuries. The First Life Directive of the European Union specified tontines as a class of insurance business to be underwritten by authorised and regulated companies, but that part of the regulations was not enacted in the United Kingdom.
The proceeds of the subscription were often used to fund private or public works projects. These sometimes contained the word "tontine" in their name.
Tontine Hotel sign, Ironbridge, UK
The Tontine Hotel in Ironbridge, Shropshire, stands prominently at one end of the Iron Bridge from which the town takes its name: it was built in 1780-84 by the proprietors of the bridge to accommodate tourists who came to view this wonder of the industrial age.
Fortune's Tontine Tavern on Princes Street, Edinburgh, Scotland, was built in 1796, and was Edinburgh's first proper hotel. Matthew Fortune's father John had previously run Fortune's Tavern in Old Stamp Office Close in the High Street in the Old Town, a favourite of the upper classes. The tontine which owned this moved the business to the newly created and fashionable New Town. The five star Balmoral Hotel, built in 1902, stands on the site today.
The first Freemasons' Hall, London. Subscribers were able to nominate someone other than themselves as the person on whose life the share was staked. On the subscriber's death they could leave their share to that person, or to anyone else. The scheme raised £5,000, but cost £21,750 in interest over its 87 year life.
Broader uses of the term
In Francophone cultures, particularly in developing countries, the meaning of the term "tontine" has broadened to encompass a wider range of semi-formal group savings and microcredit schemes. The crucial difference between these and tontines in the traditional sense is that benefits do not depend on the deaths of other members.
As a type of rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA), tontines are well established as a savings instrument in central Africa, and in this case function as savings clubs in which each member makes regular payments and is lent the kitty in turn. They are wound up after each cycle of loans.
Informal group savings and loan associations are also traditional in many east Asian societies, and under the name of tontines are found in Cambodia, and among emigrant Cambodian communities.
Tontines have been featured in:
La Tontine (1708), a comic play by Alain-René Lesage. A physician hoping to raise the funds to give his daughter a dowry buys a tontine on the life of an elderly peasant, whom he then strives to keep alive.
The Wrong Box (1889), a comic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne. The plot revolves around a tontine originally taken out for some wealthy English children, and the shenanigans resulting as younger family members of the two final survivors vie to secure the final payout. The book was adapted as a film (produced and directed by Bryan Forbes) in 1966.
The Tontine (1955), a novel by Thomas B. Costain. Set in nineteenth-century England, the story centres around the fictional "Waterloo" tontine, established to benefit veterans of the Napoleonic wars. Among other plot twists, shareholders hire an actor to impersonate a dead nominee, and conspire to murder another member.
In 4.50 from Paddington (1957), a Miss Marple murder mystery by Agatha Christie, the plot revolves around the will of a wealthy industrialist, which establishes a settlement under which his estate is divided in trust among his grandchildren, the final survivor to inherit the whole. The settlement is described, inaccurately, as a tontine.
In the U.S. television series The Wild Wild West, Episode 16 of Season Two (1966–67) — "The Night of the Tottering Tontine" — finds James West and Artemus Gordon protecting a man who is a member of a tontine whose members are being murdered one by one.
In the Archer episode "The Double Deuce" (2011), it's revealed Archer's butler Woodhouse is one of three final survivors of a group of World War I Royal Flying Corps squadron mates who each put £50 into an interest-bearing account which is worth nearly a million dollars at present. The office workers at ISIS HQ, realizing that a new tontine could capitalize on the high mortality rate of field agents, began persuading people to join while remaining safely behind a desk.
The 2001 comedy film Tomcats features a variation on a tontine where the last investor to get married gets the full amount of the invested funds
In the science fiction novel Taylor's Ark, the title character rescues a little girl from a colony planet that has been ravaged by a disease that has killed off all of the other colonists except her. The bank that owns the colony worlds wishes to sell them to the highest bidder, and is using the virus to kill off the colonists on said worlds. Unfortunately, the colonists on the planet where the girl was found anticipated this and set up their estate plan in the form of a tontine, making the girl a multi-millionaire.
In the webcomicBasic Instructions (comic) issue "How to Make a Solemn Pact with a Good Friend" (2014), Scott ultimately receives gloating rights for still being alive and a pile of useless items.