The Fictional Wealth Disputes That We Took In and Learned From in 2020
Like many of you, in 2020 we turned to a range of media to soothe our moods and pass the time while in quarantine. The lawyers in our Wealth Planning, Administration, and Disputes Group went so far as to build our annual CLE around representations of the legal profession in film, books, and movies. It was a lot of fun and gave participants a chance to connect around some favorites.
As we enter 2021 and the final stretch – hopefully - of the pandemic, we wanted to share some of what we viewed for the CLE, and a few extras. To that end, here are a few of our favorite succession and wealth planning movies to help you get through.
After a tragic accident leaves his wife in a coma, Matt King struggles with the stipulation in his wife’s will that she be allowed to die with dignity, as well as his relatives who are pressuring him to sell the family’s large land trust. The story evokes themes related to the inherent conflict created when fiduciary and beneficiary are the same person, the importance of selecting the right fiduciaries, and planning considerations related to the specific nature and value of different types of property.
“GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”
M. Gustave is the concierge of a high-class hotel where he befriends many wealthy guests. One such guest, who was also Gustave’s sometimes lover, dies suddenly. She leaves a valuable painting to Gustave, but her family is suspicious and goes to great lengths (including murder and ski chases) to reacquire the painting from Gustave. Present throughout the film are themes relevant to all practitioners, including: 1) how planners deal with a client – particularly with varied assets – who makes numerous estate plan changes; 2) whether Gustave was the sympathetic character portrayed, or an outsider who took advantage of the countess for financial gain, as perceived by the family; and 3) an extraordinary example of personal conflict and bad behavior in family disputes.
A classic murder mystery involving family members with competing possible motives for killing the family patriarch, a famous murder mystery author. [Spoiler alert] “Knives Out” has a key plot twist when the decedent leaves all of his possessions to a non-family member. This decision leads to a salient scene in which all of the family members nervously sit around and discuss the ways one can contest a will. Central to the discussion are issues of lack of capacity and undue influence, as well as the necessity of a strong case if a will contest is to succeed. Additionally, discussion of the slayer rule ensues as the disgruntled family speculates that the sole beneficiary’s potential involvement in the patriarch’s death may allow them to recover their stake in the family fortune.
For those intimidated by the length of the book, the many film and TV adaptations of this classic Charles Dickens novel are a great option. The plot focuses on the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which, as the story opens, has already gone on for generations and has “become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means.” The story explores the impact that the courts have on individuals caught in its grip; at the same time, it provides a critique of some lawyerly (or not so lawyerly) practices, as well as a view into how the promise of wealth can end in various degrees of tragedy. The Spotlight has also discovered an outstanding audio version of the book if that’s more your style.
“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”
While no doubt considered a classic love story, the original Jane Austen novel and its various film adaptations also highlight the influence and affluence land ownership brought to families in 19th century England. Mr. Bennet, the father of protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, had a life interest in his family’s home, and as the property was entailed, he had no power to sell or gift it through his will to his wife or his five daughters. The family’s matriarch, Mrs. Bennet, is motivated to arrange good marriages for her daughters to ensure their financial security. While men could inherit land and property from their fathers to build wealth, women relied on marriage for such security. Entails, like the one at issue in the film, were abolished in 1925, but the story shows the consequence of wealth and land to a family’s well-being and the long history of gender bias in inheritance laws.
Walt Kowalski is an elderly Korean War veteran living in Detroit’s inner city. He helps a teenage neighbor in need escape gang violence and, over time, becomes his mentor. At the end of the movie, there is a reading of Walt’s will, and [Spoiler Alert] he leaves the teenager a special gift and his family nothing. The film evokes a common scenario practitioners face: clients who want to include special gifts of personal property to specific persons in their wills. When such gifts are of sentimental value and are directed to non-family members, it is important to be specific about who receives such items, as disagreements may well ensue
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