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

 In Business Succession Planning, Tax, Trusts & Estates

Last month, we posted the first blog in a three-part series on estate planning plot lines in movies and TV shows.  As we noted there, estate planning lawyers strive 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.  In this second installment, we pick up where we left off and give you our take on two more estate planning dramas.  Who knew screen time could be so educational?

This is Where I Leave You (2014)

Plot Summary: This is Where I Leave You tells the story of four adult children who return to their childhood home to sit shiva upon the death of their father, Mort Altman.  During the seven-day period, family secrets and tensions are revealed.  In one heated scene, a discussion over the disposition of the father’s business leads to a fist fight.

What We Like:

  • The All-Star Cast.  The dramedy features Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and Adam Driver as three of the four Altman children. It is fun to watch these talented actors portray close, but tense, siblings.
  • There is a Plan.  Clearly, Mort had worked with an estate planning attorney to provide for his family after his death.  A 2019 poll by Caring.com revealed that a stunning sixty percent of surveyed adults had no estate plan, despite ninety percent of survey respondents saying they wanted to make their deaths as easy on their families as possible. Luckily for his family, Mort was one of the responsible forty percent that actually make an estate plan.

What’s Not So Great:

  • The Business Succession Plan.  Mort’s estate plan leaves the family sporting goods business one-half to the eldest brother, Paul (Corey Stoll), who had participated in the business, and one-sixth to each of the other three siblings, who had not been actively involved in the business.  While every family and business are unique, we don’t love this plan.  Paul, who has experience and knowledge of the business and the industry, is now faced with having to include his siblings in business decisions.  Indeed, in the fist fight scene, Paul fights with Phillip (Adam Driver), the youngest brother who has grand ideas about bringing “venture capital” to what appears to be a fairly typical sporting goods store.  One arrangement that may have worked better would have been to give Paul the business and offset the value to the other siblings with other assets.  Alternatively, the business could have been put in a trust or LLC with Paul managing the business as Trustee or Manager, which would have allowed Paul to run the business and his siblings to receive economic value without involvement in the day-to-day running of the store.
  • The Filmmaking.  We agree with Rotten Tomatoes, which says, “This Is Where I Leave You has its moments, but given the amount of talent assembled onscreen, the rather pedestrian results can’t help but feel like a letdown.”

Our Grade: B-.

Mort Altman gets an “A” for effort, but his business succession plan causes discord among the siblings.

Downton Abbey (PBS Masterpiece Classic 2010-2015)

via GIFER

Plot Summary: In the opening of the series, Robert Crawley, the fictional Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), discovers that the heir to his estate, Downton Abbey, has died in the sinking of the Titanic.  Robert has three daughters, and the law of the land — primogeniture — requires that Robert pass Downton to a male relative.  Thus, Robert is faced with the choice of passing his wealth to a male he barely knows or marrying his eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery), to a distant relative to secure the estate for his family.   Over the next three seasons, much of the series’ plot centers around the entail of Downton Abbey and securing the well-being of the Earl’s three daughters.

What We Like:

The Entire Show! The critically acclaimed show’s initial seasons depict the arrival of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a distant relative who is now the presumptive heir of Downton Abbey, whose working-class tendencies initially fluster the Crawleys. As Matthew and Mary get to know one another, they fall in love, solving the inheritance problem.  The show is beautifully made and the intriguing story lines follow the family members and their servants as they navigate a changing historical and political landscape.

What’s Not So Great:

Outdated Property Laws. To understand the legal ramifications of Downton Abbey’s plot, we need to understand the development of real property law in England beginning in the middle ages.  In those times, up and through the time of Downton Abbey, land was not only home, it was also a status symbol that made the owner a member of the aristocracy and produced a steady income that freed the owner and his family from having to work to earn a living.  Thus, land was and had been far and away the most important form of wealth for centuries in pre-World War England.  It is no surprise, then, that real property laws of the time, enacted largely by male members of the landed class, developed mechanisms to preserve and centralize land ownership among their own kind.

One such legal mechanism was the system of primogeniture, the default law of the land.  In England in the Downton Abbey days, primogeniture provided that, absent a valid will (see the section on fee simple ownership below) a landowner’s entire estate passed to the first-born legitimate male child of the landowner, and if he had none, then the entire estate must pass to the next eligible male heir.  This mechanism kept large estates from losing value by being divided among many children over several generations.  It also was part of a larger legal system that usually prevented women from owning property.  Blackstone’s commentaries written in the 1760s stated: “By marriage, the husband and the wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband…”  (Ummm… what??)  The two doctrines reinforce one another; a woman’s property would become that of her husband upon marriage, so it made no sense to leave real estate to a daughter.  

A third legal construct, called “entail”, further protected real estate from being lost to the creditors of a spendthrift heir.  An entail was a legal way that an ancestor could maintain control over the estate from the grave.  If a landowner left his estate to his heir “in fee simple” then the heir would be the outright owner of the estate.  He or she would be free to sell or otherwise use the estate to meet his or her obligations, and could write a will to transfer the estate to whomever he or she pleased.  In the entail system, however, instead of outright ownership, the heir receives only a “life estate” meaning that the heir has full use of the property during his life, and at his death, the property passes to whomever the ancestor designates — usually, the closest male heir.

We note that all three of these systems worked together to keep an estate intact and under the control of the male head of the family in each generation.  Indeed, much of the Downton Abbey plot is driven by how these three legal doctrines affect the Crawley family.  The primogeniture system, which has been implemented through an entail, prevents Robert from being able to leave the estate to any of his three daughters.  At the same time, the fortune of his American wife, Cora, has been subsumed into his legal person and tied to the estate, ensuring that the money must stay with the land.  The family is thus faced with the possibility that Cora and her daughters will lose their wealth and status upon Robert’s death… clearly, this is the making of a riveting PBS period drama!  

Our Grade: A decidedly average C. 

While we are huge Downton Abbey fans in general, the estate plan of Robert’s ancestor illustrates the way the English legal system was designed to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of male landowners.  We just can’t get behind that!  (Interestingly, many of the features of English real property law, including the concept of the legal unity of husband and wife and the concept of entail, came to America along with the English colonists.)

And….. Cut! That’s it for this installment of our review of estate planning movies and shows… Part Three will “debut” later this Spring.

If you need help to begin making your estate plan, please contact us today!

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