Happy 4th and Unhappy Relatives

Happy July 4th Week!  Many are on vacation this week or at least taking it easier with a mid-week 4th of July.  The Blog decided to kick back a little as well with reflections on the Silver Screen – Estate Planning Edition.  OK.  Very few, if any, movies follow that ever-exciting plot device of estate planning: “Ooh, will they choose a Will or Revocable Living Trust — or maybe even a Domestic Asset Protection Trust.  Oh, boy!”  Instead, the dynamic conflict and drama flows more naturally after someone dies with all left to fight for the spoils of the deceased.

With focus on the post-death battles for the riches, then, what can Hollywood teach us about estate planning and ourselves?

Secrets, Secrets, Secrets

Charlie Babbit spent life as an only child, rather spoiled, and growing more distant from his parents each year until they passed.  Expecting an oversized inheritance to match his oversized ego, Charlie instead learned through his parents’ trust that he had a brother; the brother had autism; the parents institutionalized his brother; AND everything except a vintage car was left in trust exclusively for the benefit of his brother — Raymond Babbit or Rain Man.

Charlie’s frustrations in not securing the expected death windfall from the estate is taken out in the form of anger directed against the trustee who refuses Charlie’s demands for money.  The trustee simply fulfills his duties to protect Rain Man.  Charlie’s ire should be focused on his parents who refused and failed to even mention the special needs sibling. The parents took their secret to their graves.

Of course, after kidnapping Rain Man and a cross-country adventure worthy of Thelma and Louise, Charlie slowly discovers brotherly love and a desire to provide and care for his long lost brother.  Charlie decides not to use Rain Man as bait for ransom payments.

The saddest part of Rain Man remains the parents’ secret which denied Charlie and Rain Man the opportunity of a lifelong relationship.  Perhaps Charlie would have steadfastly continued in his self-centered existence even if he knew of Rain Man.  We do not know.

Quite often, clients question whether they should disclose details of their estate plan to their children.  I counsel that, at a minimum, the children should be made aware that an estate plan exists with the plan containing directions and wishes of the parents.  I further encourage some level of discussion among family members especially if ultimate distributions and perceived expectations of the children may not align.  If an unknown sibling exists whose identity will become known only after death and that sibling stands to inherit everything, I can only suggest a different type of family counseling requiring advanced degrees beyond my law degree.

Words Are Important

I try my best to avoid crafting any part of a Will or Trust leaving anything to the “closest relative”.  My practice became validated in A Series of Unfortunate Events.  These novelettes, combined to form the basis for the movie, follow the misfortunes of the orphaned Baudelaire children; Violet, Klaus and Sunny.  The dastardly Count Olaf continues to plot the orphans’ demise in an on-going effort to gain their fortune.  The insane plots and crazy characters are not of interest here although they abound in the movie.  Instead, the origins triggering this series of misfortunes matter.

The Baudelaire tragedy begins with a day at the beach for the three children interrupted by the family banker and trustee, Mr. Poe.  Mr. Poe delivers the horrible news that the Baudelaire parents just perished in a fire which consumed the family mansion.  Rather than grieving the loss or addressing the myriad of emotions the children must be confronting, Mr. Poe swoops up the children to deliver them to their new legal guardian, care taker, and very distant relative, Count Olaf.  

However, Violet, Klaus and Sunny had never even heard the name of Count Olaf mentioned in their family and do not know him.  The children protest that their parents surely would have selected others as guardians such as closer relatives well-known to the children.  Aunts and uncles who were part of the fabric of the lives of the children could serve as guardians for the newly minted orphans.

Yet, Mr. Poe will not hear of such protests as the parents’ trust clearly states that the “closest” relative of the Baudelaire parents becomes guardian if one is ever needed.  Mr. Poe conducted extensive research to determine that the previously unknown Count Olaf resided merely cross-town from the Baudelaire family while all other relatives resided farther away.  Accordingly, Count Olaf, although a very distant and heretofore unknown relative of the Baudelaire orphans, indeed, constituted the geographically “closest” relative.  To Mr. Poe, the trust language could not be more clear with the orphans placed with the evil Count Olaf.  Let the fun begin!

The parents’ use of ambiguous language set in motion the Series of Unfortunate Events for the Baudelaire children.  Avoid your own Mr. Poe interpreting your Will or Trust after you are gone.  Provide specific and clear direction and instruction.  At times, descriptions in a Will or Trust may appear complex or cumbersome.  I can live with that approach if it ensures that the Count Olafs are avoided.

The Slayer Rule Has Been Slain

The recent hit film, Knives Out, combines a classic tale of greedy relatives fighting over the bounty with a “whodunit” murder mystery.  Successful novelist and ultra-wealthy head of the family, Harlan Trombey, is discovered murdered on his palatial estate.  As the movie unfolds, each character lays claim to the riches providing the rationale and basis for the position superior to the other seekers of the riches.  Certain characters form alliances to bolster their claims and undercut the efforts of the others.  Everyone believes themselves fully entitled to the inheritance.

This pit of vipers truly has their Knives Out prepared to stab each other in the back in order to advance.  And yet, each character possesses motive and opportunity to have murdered Ol’ Trombey.  Every character is flawed and equally unlikeable.  The plot twists and misdirections are classic.

Overlooked with all the drama in Knives Out is the Slayer Rule.  If you meet your demise at the hands, or due to the actions, of another, those who caused your death cannot gain from your death.  The Slayer cannot benefit in the slaying and cannot collect any inheritance.  Well-drafted Wills and Trusts expressly disinherit the Slayer.  Many states have now enacted their own statutory version of the Slayer Rule.

The entire storyline for Knives Out will not be revealed here nor will it reveal “whodunit”. The plot makes for an enjoyable movie even if the writers slew the Slayer Rule.

Blinded By Greed

Courtesy of the streaming services. The Estate hit the Little Screen in 2022.  The wealthy spinster aunt, played by a curmudgeonly Kathleen Turner, confronts her final battles with illness as her misogynistic, self-centered nieces and nephews appear out of nowhere seeking to position themselves to inherit the aunt’s fortunes.  Each niece and nephew believe a few acts of kindness at death’s door will place them in the best stead after a lifetime of neglect of the aunt.  Alliances are made and disregarded.  Backstabbing is the norm.

One niece convinces her husband to seduce the failing aunt in an effort to court favor.  The creepy nephew keeps attempting to seduce his cousin including directions to internet sites which encourage “love” among cousins.  Yuck!  Each niece and nephew is throughly unlikeable.  You either root for the least unlikeable niece or root for “none of the above”.

Even if these characters would otherwise be normal and act with some degree of moral propriety, the greed and potential to inherit everything drives each cousin to act without regard for their aunt, for each other, or for anyone else in their lives.  Of course, the surprise ending leaves the cousins with nothing except the ugly painting cast off to the ugly niece at the reading of the Will.  A final plot twist after the reading of the Will helps, but these characters remain fatally flawed.  

Unfortunately, in estate administration, such characters or their characteristics come to life all too often.  In planning out your estate, you may not be able to determine who may cause disruption and chaos among your family and loved ones.  In some instances, when clients are candid, such characters can be identified.  In those instances, the Will or Trust can include guardrails and protections to better ensure that wishes are followed and some level of peace remains among those left behind.

So, enjoy your own July 4th Week and even take in a movie if you wish.  Perhaps the cinema could replay a classic movie where the action is more civil and more polite than these rabid families bent on destroying one another.  You know, a movie like Jaws.

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