Archive for Movies Relating to Estate Planning
MOVIES ABOUT ESTATE PLANNING: THE DESCENDANTS
The movie “The Descendants”, which was nominated for five Academy Awards and won the award for best writing-adapted screenplay, is one of the best movies to tackle estate planning issues in quite some time. The movie contains a thorough discussion of advance healthcare directives, living wills, and their real life application. The movie’s lead character, Matt King, played by George Clooney, is the trustee of a trust which will soon come to an end because of an arcane rule of law known as “The Rule Against Perpetuities.” The movie generally is about the fracturing and healing which takes place within families. What is interesting to us is that the plot is wrapped around actual estate planning issues. [Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen the film, you may to want to read the rest of the newsletter later.]
The movie begins with a boating accident, after which Matt King’s wife lies in an irreversible coma in a Honolulu hospital. She is being kept alive by artificial means. It turns out that she previously had executed advance healthcare directives which mandated that her spouse and physicians remove her from artificial means of life support, if there was no chance of her recovery. The existence of the healthcare advance directives relieved Matt of one of the many difficult decisions he faced in the film. How the rest of the family is informed and says goodbye to his wife is one of the subplots throughout the movie.
Matt also is the trustee of a century old trust which owns 25,000 acres of pristine land on the island of Kauai. Matt’s cousins, the beneficiaries of the trust, want him to sell the land to developers in order to reap a financial bonanza for themselves. He is torn between deciding to accept one of the offers and finding a way to maintain the land for use by his family and for the people of Kauai. This conflict is a frequent dilemma for trustees. At one point, his cousins even threaten to sue him if he doesn’t sell.
A decision concerning the land is made imminent because of “The Rule Against Perpetuities”. This complicated legal concept essentially means that no trust is permitted to exist indefinitely. Every trust must have a specific ending date. Florida has adopted the Uniform Statutory Rule Against Perpetuities in Section 689.225 of the Florida Statutes. In Florida, a carefully drafted trust may be able to exist up to 360 years under certain circumstances. Under other circumstances, it may be required to terminate no later than 21 years after the death of an individual then alive. The real life application of the rule is evident in the movie because the land trust is set to expire within 7 years, compressing the time for decision-making.
Final Verdict: The Descendants deals with the estate planning issues accurately, while entertaining and enlightening the viewer.
MOVIE REVIEW TITLED “DADDY’S DYIN’…WHO’S GOT THE WILL (1990)
In our never ending search to find good estate planning related cinema, we watched Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got the Will, a 1990 comedy featuring a good cast, including Beau Bridges, Beverly D’Angelo, Tess Harper and Judge Reinhold. In this dark comedy, bickering siblings are reunited at their deep in the heart of Texas home as their father lies on his deathbed. The siblings tear apart the house looking for the Will to see who is “in” and who is “out”. They fight, argue, joke and occasionally sing. Not a great film, but some amusing moments. When the Will is finally found, no additional drama is created. This family would be dysfunctional under any circumstances, but the fact that their father did not share his estate plan with them only added to the dysfunction.
MOVIE REVIEW: SUMMER HOURS (L’heure d’été)(A Family Philanthropy Opportunity Missed)
Summer Hours is a French film available with English sub-titles. Although it is a very French film, the estate planning issues which play out are universal.
The family which is the subject of this film is comprised of Helene, the family matriarch, and her adult children, two sons and a daughter. Juliette Binoche plays the daughter and is the most recognizable name in this fine ensemble cast. Helene lives in a beautiful, large home in a small village outside Paris. She has devoted her life to preserving the legacy of her uncle, a famous artist. The home is filled with valuable paintings, antiques and other works of art. The movie title refers to the times the family spends together on summer vacations at Helene’s villa.
On the occasion of her 75th birthday, the children and grandchildren all gather at the estate to celebrate. Helene has recently published a well-received book of her uncle’s work. The family gets along in a genial, but superficial manner. Helene takes a few minutes to talk with her eldest son about her testamentary wishes although she refuses to visit a lawyer to prepare a formal estate plan. The other children are not involved in this discussion.
After Helene’s death, the children meet to discuss disposition of the family wealth. The eldest son wishes to preserve the ancestral home and its treasures for family visits and for future generations of the family to enjoy. He lives in Paris and can look after the estate. However, his brother is moving to China and his sister lives in New York. Their goals are not the same and they vote (2-1) to sell everything. At that point, a lawyer does become involved and advises about the heavy taxes which will be due. Accordingly, some of the treasures are donated to the Musee d’Orsay. The film ends on a wistful note as the children go their separate ways and the eldest son and his wife view their mother’s desk and chair in a sterile setting in the museum. Although sad, the film is not depressing. It is beautifully done, with fine acting, gorgeous scenery and a universal theme – the conflict between preserving the past, the cultural heritage and memories of a family, and the relentless pull of the present and future.
What stands out for me is what wasn’t done. And I am not just talking about Helene’s failure to consult a lawyer to do comprehensive estate planning. As the film ends and the siblings go off in their different directions, the viewer senses that there will be no more “summer hours” for this family. However, if the family had ever sat down together to talk about family values and philanthropy and to make philanthropy an important family business, they may have been able to continue to spend quality family time together into the foreseeable future. The interaction in this family is the typical, surface interaction of many families today. There is a reluctance to discuss deeply held values or to develop a common family mission, which leads to a lack of authentic trust among the family members.
If instead Helene had started a family foundation, perhaps requiring all heirs to participate in a family council which would decide foundation business, the family may have agreed upon a common mission that would keep them strong and together well into the future. Perhaps a fund could have been established to pay for the family travel expenses to attend foundation meetings, so that every family member could attend regardless of their location or circumstances. Then, no matter whether or not this particular home was sold, preserving the family’s legacy and developing a common philanthropic mission could have set the stage for this family to spend many more “summer hours” together. This opportunity would not have been missed if the family had spent time with a legacy oriented estate planning attorney.
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!