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.

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