On-Screen Estate Plans – Is That How It Really Works?!

 In Tax, Trusts & Estates

As estate planning lawyers, one of our primary objectives is to help clients avoid any drama or intrigue related to a loved one’s death.  In the entertainment industry, however, drama and intrigue are precisely what is desired, and the plot of many a movie or television show centers around an estate plan and its consequences.  In this three-part blog, we review a few juicy estate planning plotlines and evaluate the underlying estate plan.  So fire up Netflix and get cozy… we’re about to geek out on estate law.

The Descendants (2012)


Plot Summary:  In this Academy-award nominated film, Matthew “Matt” King (George Clooney), an attorney in Hawaii, is coming to terms with the impending death of his wife, Elizabeth, after an unexpected boating accident leaves her comatose.  Simultaneously, Matt, as the sole trustee of a trust that owns 25,000 acres of pristine land on Kauai, is considering a sale of the property at the time the trust ends. The land is a family legacy, and its sale would benefit Matt and his cousins generously.

What We Like:

  • The Film’s Correct Use of Legal Concepts and Terminology.  In The Descendants, the family trust is ending due to the famous (infamous?) “rule against perpetuities”.  Although sometimes believed to have been invented to torture law students, in fact, the RAP came into the law in reaction to the practice of wealthy landowners restricting the succession of their estates by trust or entail. (See our discussion of Downton Abbey in Part Two of this blog series!) Because it was believed that indefinite restrictions on the transfer of property outside of a family was not good for the maximum productivity of the land, the RAP, which developed in British common law between the 17th and 19th centuries, limits the number of lives that can benefit from an estate before the trust or entail must terminate, and the property becomes “alienable” again.  This frees up the land to transfer to other owners for other uses.
  • Advance Directive Planning.  In the movie, Elizabeth has left a living will (sometimes called an advance directive or health care directive) indicating that she does not want to be kept alive on life support.  In difficult circumstances like those depicted in The Descendants, this type of advance planning provides clarity for family members faced with making end-of-life decisions for a loved one.  Indeed, although the King family is facing a good deal of drama, there is no conflict or confusion about what Elizabeth would have wanted.

Our Grade: A. 

The King family estate planning team has done well by their clients.  The family land in Kauai has been preserved as long as possible under the law for the benefit of Matt and his cousins.  Elizabeth has executed a living will that provides some clarity for her family after a tragic accident.

The Ultimate Gift (2006)

Plot Summary: When Howard “Red” Stevens (James Garner), a wealthy businessman, dies, his grandson, Jason (Drew Fuller), does not expect to inherit anything because the two have been estranged since Jason’s father’s death. In fact, Red leaves Jason a special inheritance — a set of twelve “lessons” that Jason must complete in order to receive “the ultimate gift.”  Red’s attorney and friend, Mr. Hamilton (Bill Cobbs), and his secretary, Ms. Hastings (Lee Meriwether), guide Jason through the process.

What We Like:

  • Video Recordings Sharing Deeply-Held Values. Red’s lessons for Jason are delivered via a series of videos Red recorded prior to his death.  While this is certainly not typical practice, we love the idea of leaving recorded messages for beneficiaries. Often the sight of your face and the sound of your voice will mean so much for those who are grieving your passing.  In addition, Red’s videos allow him to pass on some of his cherished values — hard work, friendship, charity — along with his wealth. 
  • The Lawyer. Throughout the movie, Red’s attorney and friend, Mr. Hamilton (Bill Cobbs), and his secretary, Ms. Hastings (Lee Meriwether), guide Jason through the twelve recordings and lessons. Mr. Hamilton’s character embodies the characteristics of a great lawyer and friend who truly cares about his client and the Stevens family.

What’s Not So Great:

  • The Filmmaking.  OK, so the movie is pretty schmaltzy and a little all over the place… we still think it’s worth a watch.
  • The Reading of the Will.  In the movie, there is an elaborate scene where Mr. Hamilton “reads the will” to all of the family members and their lawyers.  This never happens in real life.  Never. 

Our Grade: B+. 

Mr. Hamilton went above and beyond in documenting Red’s intentions and in making sure Red’s wishes were fulfilled.  He does the legal profession proud.

That’s it for this installment of our review of estate planning movies and shows. If you need help to begin making your estate plan, please contact us today! As they say in show business, stay tuned for our next episode…

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