Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of seeing the movie Knives Out in the theater. Knives Out is about an elderly author who dies shortly after a family gathering, and the subsequent inheritance of his multi-million-dollar estate. The plot slowly reveals that the author’s death and his relationships with his family members and employees may not all be as they first seem. Naturally, I was curious to see the extent of artistic license taken versus my “real world” perspective as an estate planning attorney and probate administration attorney with regard to the inheritance and dealing with large estates. Here are a few do’s and don’ts of estate planning according to the movie Knives Out in comparison to the actual practice of estate planning and administration (warning – spoilers ahead).
Do Update Your Estate Plan Regularly to Reflect Your Wishes. In the movie, the author updates his Last Will and Testament shortly before his death and drastically changes who will inherit his estate from his family to an employee, thereby cutting off his family members from receiving any portion of his estate.
Practically, his family members could contest his Last Will and Testament in court for several different reasons in an effort to invalidate the Will and inherit the estate instead. To combat an anticipated challenge to the Will, a so-called “no contest” provision (also known as an “in terrorem” or “poison pen” provision) may be included in a Will. The no contest provision basically states that if any person who stands to inherit a portion of your estate challenges the Will he or she will receive nothing. Such a provision is most effective when a person has something to lose in the event of a contest and it is clear that the Will creator intended to include the provision. Not all states recognize these provisions as valid but Massachusetts does. Incidentally, part of Knives Out was filmed in Massachusetts at the Ames Mansion in Borderland State Park located in the towns of Easton and Sharon.
Don’t Tell Your Family Members That They Are Disinherited Otherwise It May Result in Your Untimely Demise If You Are A Rich Author. The author tells some of his family members that they are disinherited from his estate and will no longer receive financial support from him while he is alive. This leads to the author’s demise, which is investigated by an eccentric and cunning southern gentleman detective to determine if the author was, in fact, murdered, and by whom. The detective’s quest to discover the murderer leads him to the employee who is named to inherit the estate, which brings us to the last avenue by which the family could inherit the author’s estate: the so-called “slayer statute”. Under the slayer statute, if the person who stands to inherit from an estate is convicted of the deceased’s first-degree murder, second-degree murder or manslaughter, he or she is prohibited from receiving the inheritance (G.L.c. 265, §46).
In reality, it is your decision as to the information you wish to share with your family members about your estate plan. If it is important to you to be transparent about your wishes and you are comfortable sharing that information, you may wish to speak with each family member alone or hold a family meeting or simply provide copies of your estate plan. At the very least, provide your family members with your estate planning attorney’s contact information so they know who to call for guidance after your death.
Do Share Information About The Inheritance After The Person’s Death If You Are The Personal Representative. The Personal Representative (Executor) of the deceased’s estate must administer the estate according to the deceased’s Will or the state intestacy laws. One of the Personal Representative’s administrative duties is to inform those who will be receiving inheritances from the estate. The Personal Representative should work closely with an attorney to administer the estate properly, including filing probate pleadings, to ensure he or she completes all the necessary tasks according to certain deadlines to reduce the risk of liability.
Don’t Expect A Reading of The Will To Learn About Your Inheritance. The reading of the author’s Will is a pivotal and dramatic moment in Knives Out. In reality, readings of Wills rarely take place after the deceased’s death. Instead, copies of the Will are provided to the recipients of the estate by the Personal Representative. Additionally, the original Will is filed with the probate court along with the pleadings and becomes public record.
If you have some free time and enjoy movies with well-crafted dialogue delivered by a talented multigenerational cast, surprising plot twists and turns, and filmed in Massachusetts, I suggest you see Knives Out. It is not only entertaining but also highlights the importance of having an up-to-date estate plan in place.
Attorney Abigail V. Poole is an associate attorney with the Dedham firm of Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC which focuses on advising its clients in the areas of estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters such as long-term care planning. She is an active member of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). This article is not intended to provide legal advice or create or imply an attorney-client relationship. No information contained herein is a substitute for a personal consultation with an attorney. For more information visit www.ssbllc.com or call 781/461-1020.
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