Estate Planning at The Oscars...Best Film (May contain spoilers)

With the Academy Awards nearly upon us, the Estate Planning group at Eckberg Lammers looks back at some notable estate planning issues that arise in the movies and with the actors and other talent in them. We’ll consider not only items that arose this year, but also a standout example from recent history.

Note: Our “Best” awards are not necessarily for good planning or good outcomes. Rather, we give the awards for those who provide good opportunities for further discussion.

Today, we consider the award for Best Film in 2019. And the award goes to…. Knives Out

This Agatha-Christie-style whodunit involves the murder of wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). After he’s found dead, Thrombey’s estate attorney holds a reading of the Will (something that rarely happens in actual practice) and the family learns that Thrombey recently signed a new Will, leaving his entire estate to his nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas).

Immediately, family members pull out their smartphones and start searching for ways to undermine the Will and force distribution of Thrombey’s estate to his heirs-at-law. The two theories they come up with are (1) undue influence, and (2) the slayer statute. The attorney, brilliantly played by Frank Oz, pours cold water on both arguments. Let’s consider them here, as well as other issues omitted from the movie.

Undue influence is widely recognized as a basis for setting aside a Will. In both Minnesota and Wisconsin, the burden of proof is on the party seeking to set aside the Will. We’ll focus here on Minnesota. Undue influence occurs when the Will in question reflects the intention of the influencer rather than the intention of the person making the Will. In re Estate of Torgerson, 711 N.W.2d 545, 550 (Minn. App. 2006).

Under this standard, we can see why Thrombey’s attorney was skeptical about undue influence as a basis for undoing the Will. Thrombey was an intelligent, strong-willed man who was in communication with all of his family members at the time he made out his Will. That his nurse was often in his company would not be enough to establish that she held undue influence over him.

The slayer statute (which in Minnesota is found at Minn. Stat. 524.2-803), reflects the widely-recognized principle that a murderer should not inherit from her victim. Minnesotans should be familiar with it because of the spectacular Congdon murder case in Duluth. See Matter of Congdon's Estate, 309 N.W.2d 261 (Minn. 1981). Marjorie Caldwell was charged with criminal conspiracy for the 1977 murder of her wealthy mother, Elizabeth Congdon. After Caldwell was acquitted, she claimed her share of her mother’s estate, arguing that her acquittal resolved the applicability of the statute. The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed. Not unlike the situation with O.J. Simpson, the court concluded that Caldwell’s criminal acquittal did not close the door on civil proceedings to determine her role in Congdon’s death and, in the process, Caldwell’s entitlement to the Congdon estate.

Thrombey’s attorney rolls his eyes when the slayer statute is raised. Part of the drama, however, is that he’s completely unaware of the evidence piling up against Nurse Marta.

Understandably – since it might destroy the plot – the movie leaves out important questions about the validity of Thrombey’s new Will: Did it validly revoke the prior Will? Did it include provisions to undermine claims by disinherited family members? And, was it properly executed? We’re told by Thrombey’s attorney that decedent wrote the new Will himself, on a single piece of paper sealed in an envelope with instructions for the attorney not to open it until after his death. This sounds like a recipe for disaster.

At Eckberg Lammers, we’ve seen numerous examples of self-written estate plans going horribly wrong. People often acquire wealth through thrift and intelligence, but those same attributes can lead a person to think he can skip the cost of good legal counsel and resort to an internet program to prepare his estate. The end result can be enormously expensive for surviving family members and not at all what the decedent wanted. So whatever your plans are, make sure not to underestimate the value of professional legal advice.

Contact us today if you have questions about this topic or if we can assist you with your Estate Planning needs. 

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