Archive for 2009
Making a Horror Film Out of “The Reading of the Will”
“The Cat and the Canary”, initially done as a silent film in 1927 and then remade as a “talkie” in 1978, brings the subject of estate planning squarely into the horror film genre. On a dark and stormy night, several relatives gather in an old mansion to hear the reading of the Will of Cyrus West, their very wealthy ancestor. When the Will is read by his attorney, the old man reveals how much he despised his worthless next of kin. As a result, his Will is structured in such a way as to inspire conflict among his potential heirs to see who will collect his fortune. The heirs are locked into the mansion for the night during which strange, creepy people are roaming the halls. Stay in your rooms and lock the doors!!
For most people, the purpose of proper estate planning is to avoid conflict among your loved ones. If Cyrus West came to me and said that his primary estate planning goal was to incite his heirs to plot to kill each other, I would politely send him on his way. However, it does make for an entertaining, if unrealistic, movie.
BRING ME A PEN AND PAPER!
Writing a Will on one’s death bed is often featured in the movies, but is a bad idea in real life. In “Power of the Press”, a 1943 film written by Samuel Fuller, the publisher of a New York newspaper, is stricken with remorse after a long time friend’s editorial lambasts the muckraking journalism of his newspaper. He decides to force out the managing editor who is leading the newspaper astray. However, the managing editor has the publisher assassinated as he begins a major speech to outline the new change in policy.
While the publisher is lying on his deathbed, he summons his trusted secretary to bring him a piece of paper and a pen and he writes out a Will leaving his controlling interest in the newspaper to his old friend who had criticized him. That old friend was running a small town weekly newspaper in Nebraska. The intrepid secretary tracks him down and brings him back to New York to confront the ruthless editor. They show the editor the handwritten Will. At first, he permits the reformist to have the illusion of control, but as real changes are attempted, he obtains a court injunction declaring the handwritten Will to be void. The small town newspaper man and the secretary do not have the funds to fight this injunction, so other tactics are required.
This movie is more well known for its somewhat preachy (remember this was war time) defense of freedom of the press. The estate planning lesson is that in the movies, as in real life, a deathbed Will is not the best planning tool.
MOVIE REVIEW: “EMMA” AND SECOND MARRIAGE PLANNING
We previously reviewed the Frank Capra film “You Can’t Take It With You”. Another movie with estate planning overtones is the 1932 classic “Emma”, starring Marie Dressler in an Oscar-nominated role. Emma is the story of an elderly housekeeper who cares for a motherless family, actually raising the youngest, Ronnie, when his mother dies in childbirth. The entire family is very dependent upon her. The father, Frederick Smith, becomes very wealthy. The children grow up in wealth and, with the exception of Ronnie, become spoiled brats.
When Emma leaves for her first vacation ever, Mr. Smith accompanies her to the train station, buys an extra ticket for Niagara Falls and proposes. The two have a short period of happiness before Mr. Smith’s heart gives out and he dies. In his Will, Mr. Smith leaves all of his money to Emma with the understanding that she take care of the children, whom he believed would squander every cent if left unsupervised. The children assume Emma is going to take all of the money for herself. In order to break the Will, they accuse her of murdering their father and Emma actually is put on trial for murder. Ronnie is away hunting in the wilds of Canada and doesn’t learn what is going on until after the trial is underway.
Frederick Smith incorrectly assumed that because Emma was like a member of the family, the children would readily accept her. Even with a “pretty good for the movies” lawyer, Mr. Smith was unable to avoid a family tragedy with his estate planning. Instead of leaving his entire fortune to Emma, perhaps if he had left his assets to the children in individual, lifetime protected trusts, he could have avoided their resentment. He could have named Emma as either a trustee or co-trustee and still accomplished his main objective of protecting the children from their spendthrift ways. The tragedy that ensues exemplifies the need for extra special care in estate planning when there are blended families and second marriages involved.
Unfortunately, Emma is not presently available on DVD. Try to catch it when it next plays on TCM. The movie is extremely well-acted, genuinely touching and not at all outdated. You don’t have to be an estate planning attorney to enjoy it!