Why the Knives May Come Out at Death from Austin Estate Planning Attorney Liz Nielsen


Long time readers of this blog know of our love of the 2019 murder mystery film Knives Out, for shining a Hollywood sized spotlight on the world of estate planning. With the release of the sequel, Glass Onion in 2022, now is a great time for a refresher into the world of estate planning and the real-life  family drama that it can trigger.

Estate Planning Issues in Knives Out

Knives Out begins with the death of Harlan Thrombey, an internationally famous novelist who has just celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday at his country mansion, surrounded by family. Detective Benoit Blanc has been anonymously hired to investigate the death, and several family members have a murder motive, including his son-in-law, his son, his grandson, and the widow of his late son. It turns out that Harlan’s death was a suicide, but that is just one thread in a jumbled knot of family dysfunction. Drawn into the fray is Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s nurse and the sole beneficiary of his vast estate. The large inheritance is revealed at a dramatic will reading that, although used as a dramatic device, nonetheless raises real-world estate planning lessons.

Lesson 1: Do Not Assume That You Will Receive an Inheritance When Your Family Member Dies

Harlan is survived by two living children (Linda and Walt), a widowed daughter-in-law (Joni), and three grandchildren (Ransom; Joni’s daughter, Meg; and Walt’s son, Jacob). Each of his presumptive heirs received financial support from him to some extent. And they assumed that this support would continue after his death in the form of an inheritance. In one of the most intense scenes of the movie, the family gathers for a will reading with Harlan’s estate planning lawyer. At the meeting, the lawyer reveals that a week prior to his death, Harlan made changes to his will and disinherited the family. All of his money, property and business interests were left to his nurse, Marta. This is the point at which, metaphorically speaking, the knives come out.

The shocked family turns their ire on Marta and insists that Harlan could not have intended to leave the family fortune to her. The hard lesson here is that adult children and grandchildren are not legally entitled to inherit anything from a parent or grandparent. State law may give rights to adult children when a parent dies intestate (i.e., without a will), and there may also be a requirement to support minor children. But in most instances, an individual can leave everything they have to anyone they choose—so long as they do so in a legally enforceable estate plan.

Lesson 2: A Will Contest Requires Proof

From the moment the Thrombey clan receives the news that they will inherit nothing, they shift their focus to contesting the will. Will contests are no mere dramatic device. They have become increasingly common as people live longer and are more prone to incapacity and vulnerable to being taken advantage of. The Thrombeys raise two arguments in an effort to overturn the will providing for Marta’s inheritance. They first suggest that Harlan lacked testamentary capacity, or was not of sound mind when he changed his will. However, the family eventually concedes that Harlan was in full possession of his mental faculties and did have testamentary capacity. Their second argument is undue influence by Marta. This is a legal concept that can come into play when someone exerts pressure to convince a vulnerable individual to change their estate plan against their will. But Harlan’s attorney states that the family must prove undue influence, and there is no evidence that Marta did anything of the sort.

Knives Out correctly makes the point that successfully contesting a will requires proving the case in court. The movie does not mention that anyone with legal standing can challenge a will. Typically, current named beneficiaries, previous beneficiaries who were disinherited, and individuals not named in the will but who have standing under state intestacy laws have the requisite legal standing. One thing to consider, is the cost of challenging a will falls on the contesting party. If the will contest is successful, all or part of the will could be invalidated, and the deceased person’s money and property could be distributed according to state succession laws.

Lesson 3: The Slayer Statute Prevents a Wrongdoer from Benefiting

Once the Thrombeys realize that contesting Harlan’s will on the grounds of testamentary capacity or undue influence would be fruitless, they at last turn to a lesser-known law, the so-called slayer statute. Long time readers will remember, a person is prohibited from inheriting from the deceased person if they killed the deceased. In Texas, the law states that if a person is found responsible for being the principal actor or an accomplice in willfully bringing about the death of their benefactor, they are barred from profiting from their unlawful act. Some states, including Texas, allow the slayer’s heirs to receive the slayer’s inheritance, while others cut off the slayer’s entire line. In Knives Out, the family is apparently in a state that would cut off Marta’s family if she were convicted of murdering Harlan. This would leave the Thrombey family in a position to inherit what they believe is rightfully theirs. Unfortunately for them, Marta did not murder Harlan. Spoiler alert: Marta ends up keeping her inheritance. The movie ends with Marta sipping coffee from the balcony of the mansion that is now indisputably her legal property, looking down on the Thrombeys gathered in the driveway. She has vowed to take care of them because they have treated her well over the years. But she could hardly be blamed for going back on her word after the family turned the knives on her. Exactly who gets what from Marta is a mystery that Knives Out leaves amusingly unresolved.

Avoid Real-Life Family Drama with a Strong Estate Plan

Knives Out is a dramatization of estate planning that provides some important real-world lessons. Harlan did what he thought was in the best interest of his family when he gave his fortune away to someone other than a family member. His last-minute change of heart was legally ironclad, but he probably erred when telling family members his plans to disinherit them. His demise might have been avoided if they had discovered that after his death.

While most blog readers may not have the same level of fictional wealth or the same amount of family turmoil of the Thrombeys, leaving loved ones in the dark till after your death can lead to confusion, hurt and challenges to your estate plan. Having a well-thought-out estate plan, regularly updated is a great first step to avoiding the Knives Out level of drama. But the best remedy against estate plan challenges is being transparent with your loved ones about your wishes.

Our estate planning lawyers are available to discuss your situation and help you create a customized plan that avoids unnecessary family conflict. Instead of disinheriting an irresponsible heir, for example, you could hold money for them in a discretionary trust. Or you could do the opposite of what Harlan Thrombey did and set up a family trust that will provide for multiple generations. We can also offer advice if you are interested in contesting a will that you think does not accurately reflect a loved one’s wishes. Nielsen Law PLLC provides family focused estate planning in the Austin, Round Rock, Cedar Park, and the Central Texas area. For more information and to learn about our firm, please contact us. We look forward to hearing from you.