It’s no secret that people love to watch dramatizations of their legal system in action. Nearly every law school student can point to fond memories of watching Perry Mason, Matlock, or Law & Order as their representation of legal work in action. Part of the ongoing nostalgia is revisiting those earlier favorite shows and films. In fact, certain lawyers have turned this habit of revisiting these old favorites into businesses of their own, by legal movie review on YouTube. Many people are familiar with YouTubers such as Devon Stone’s Legal Eagle channel, where he breaks down the legal realism in such shows and movies as Suits, Law & Order, Liar Liar and others.
In keeping with this trend, Nielsen Law would like to share their pick of movies touching on Estate Planning and Probate, and discuss the legal concepts you can find in each of them:
The Aristocats –
Summary: This Disney animated feature involves a family of very lucky housecats. Their owner (a retired opera singer) has changed her will to leave her vast fortune them, and then to her butler, Edgar. The cats find themselves abandoned in the countryside by Edgar, to ensure the cats don’t inherit. The furry foursome must make their way back their owner with help from friends along the way.
Legal Question: Can you leave the entirety of your estate to your pets?
Answer: Yes…sort of. While you can’t actually leave the money directly to your beloved pet, but you can set up what’s known as a pet trust.
A pet trust works by naming your pet or pets as the initial beneficiary of this trust, and a trustee. Like most other trusts, the trustee pays out money for the health, maintenance, and support of your pet for its lifetime. At the death of the pet or pets named as the beneficiary, the remainder of the trust assets would pass to the secondary beneficiary (in the case of the Aristocats, to Edgar).
Pet trusts are used more often than people might think, with the most famous being the one Leona Helmsley created for her dog, Trouble.
The Bachelor –
Summary: In order to receive an extraordinary inheritance, our young hero must comply with a series of demands left in his grandfather’s will. These being: to marry before the close of the business day on his 30th birthday (which is of course the next day), to produce a child within the first five years of the marriage, and to not be apart from his wife longer than a week for the first ten years of the marriage. What follows is a comedy of errors as the hero struggles to save his business and to properly propose to the love of his life.
Legal Question: Can a will require you to meet certain conditions (like marrying) in order to receive an inheritance?
Answer: Controversially, the answer to this question is yes. This topic was tackled by the court in 1974, in Shapira v. Union National Bank.
In that case, in order for a young man to receive his inheritance, his father’s will required him to marry a Jewish woman, who had two Jewish parents, within seven years of the date of his father’s death. Otherwise his inheritance would be gifted to a charitable cause instead. Shapira argued that this type of requirement violated his constitutional right to marry anyone he chose. Unfortunately for Mr. Shapira, the court determined that while he had a right to marry anyone of his choice, he didn’t have a right to receive his inheritance. And he would have to comply with the requirements laid out by his father if he wanted to inherit.
What this means is that so long as the requirements laid out in a will or trust (like marrying by a certain age) aren’t illegal or against public policy, then you have to comply with them.
Knives Out –
Summary: A wealthy author is found dead in his home after his 85th birthday celebration. While it would seem he committed suicide, there’s a suspicion he was murdered. Everyone around him has a motive, everyone except his caretaker. The tension only mounts when the family finds out he’s left his fortune, his company, and his mansion to her instead of them. The family tries a variety of methods challenge the will (lack of capacity, undue influence, slayer statute) and ensure they inherit instead.
Legal Question: Can you leave your entire estate to someone other than your relatives? Can they challenge your decision to do so?
Answer: While the full answer is always more complicated, the short answer is yes, on both counts. As discussed in the movie, while your loved ones may not like that you’ve left them nothing, so long as you have the legal capacity to make the gift, there’s no law against you disinheriting them.
The first method the family discusses is a lack of capacity with the family lawyer explaining that so long as the deceased was of sound mind when the changes were made, then the changes are valid. He even goes onto explain that just because a person thinks the action were “insane” that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of legal capacity.
The family next argues the deceased was unduly influenced by his caretaker. But again, the lawyer points out you need a strong case to win with this argument. And that mere opportunity to influence or being personally endearing aren’t usually enough to persuade a court to invalidate a will.
Lastly the family looks to what’s called the slayer statute. In Texas, the law states that if you held responsible of being a principal or an accomplice in willfully bringing about the death of your benefactor, then you can’t profit by your unlawful act.
Body Heat –
Summary: A seedy lawyer in Florida conspires with his married lover to kill her husband, and learns that she has used both him and the legal system to inherit her husband’s entire estate and get away with murder.
Legal Question: Can the Rule Against Perpetuities be used to deprive your loved ones of their inheritance against your wishes, and what does dying intestate really mean?
Answer: Ask any first year law student about the Rule Against Perpetuities (RAP) and be prepared for lots of groaning. Up until 2021, Texas RAP rules were some of the most constraining and confusing in the country. While there has been some improvement to the constraint of the laws, the concept itself can be confusing. But, in its simplest form, the goal of RAP is to prevent your will or trust from trying to control the gifts you’ve made forever (or in perpetuity). You have to let go at some point.
While it’s true that violating RAP can have consequences on a will, the film is incorrect that it will invalidate the whole thing. Here in Texas, when there’s a clause that violates RAP, the court is empowered to reform or change the document so that it’s legally in-line with the true interest of the gift. Meaning that in Texas, a court would be able to interpret from the will the victim’s desire to provide for his niece and wife, and make any changes needed to make accomplish the victim’s goals.
Additionally, as discussed above, the slayer statute would prevent the wife from profiting from her husband’s death. Meaning, that if she was found to be materially responsible, then she would not be able to inherit from her husband.
While estate planning or probate may not hold the glamor of a crime drama, as you can see there’s more than enough material for a good plot. Perhaps even a few of these films have given you ideas about your own estate plan. So whether you’ve drafted a plan that could do with a Hollywood face lift or if you’ve never drafted one before, call us today to ensure there’s not a lot of drama surrounding your estate plan.
Nielsen Law PLLC provides family focused estate planning to individuals and families in Austin, Round Rock, Cedar Park, and the Central Texas area. For more information and to learn about our firm, please contact us.