LOCHDOWN FLICKS: ESTATE PLANNING MOVIES THAT MIGHT COUNT AS CPD (BUT PROBABLY WON’T) – PART 1

Christian Chenu

Lockdown.

It means nothing if it doesn’t mean watching a lot of movies. And working from home. But mostly movies.

“Trust me, I’m a lawyer”

At Loch Legal, we’ve decided to see if the two can be combined. Over the coming weeks we’re going to explore our favourite movies as the means to illuminate important legal concepts and dispense some legal pro-tips.

Rest assured that this is not some shameless attempt to generate clicks. We hope that our approach will make learning fun, but we acknowledge the very real risk that by introducing legal teachings we may simply end up ruining the movie for everybody. Either way, it’s a risk we’re willing to take.

Of course, we’d love to take suggestions for movies going forward, but please note that our goal is to avoid John Grisham films at least until the new year.

Film: Grand Budapest Hotel – Specific Bequests and Why Codicils are Evil

We’ll start this week by looking at director Wes Anderson’s best movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The plot concerns a hotel concierge, Monsieur Gustave H, a man of unflappable charm which he uses to ease his way into the hearts of his elderly guests.

One such client, the wealthy dowager Madame D, makes a specific bequest to Monsieur Gustave – the priceless painting ‘Boy with Apple’. Of course, Madame D soon meets with foul play. Her likely murderer is her nephew Dmitri, who believes ‘Boy with Apple’ to be his rightful inheritance.

[As a side note, apart from the estate planning issues discussed below, these facts also raise what is sometimes known as the ‘Slayer Rule’, but we’ll save that for when we study Knives Out.]

How does this relate to Estate Planning?

Pound for pound, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s will-reading scene contains more estate planning terminology than any other movie I can recall. According to the executor of Madame D’s estate, her last will and testament consists of “a general tontine in combination with 635 separate amendments, notations, corrections, letters of wishes and codicils.”

The movie also includes other unforgiveable estate planning faux pas such as keeping a secret, hidden will, and a separate will-maker signing an unwitnessed testamentary document, written in pencil and transcribed by the sole beneficiary. This isn’t coherent estate planning; it’s a shambles.

If it’s important enough for a codicil, it’s important enough for a will

As with all good legal fights, much bloodshed occurs before the dispute over ‘Boy with Apple’ is finally resolved.

The specific bequest of the painting – the gift that caused all the trouble – was contained in a codicil. A codicil is a separate document that modifies an original will by making an amendment or an addition to the terms of the will. They are sometimes thought to be a quick and easy solution that allows a testator to make small changes to their wishes. In practice, however, a codicil provides no significant advantage over preparing an entirely new will. The signing requirements of both documents are the same and the costs are likely to be similar. Further, the prospects of procedural defects or disputes in general are unacceptably high.

Madame D would have been well advised to bypass entirely her final codicil, and indeed her 635 other amendments, notations, corrections and letters of wishes, by making a new will. This document would have revoked all of her previous testamentary documents, and provided a simple and definitive last will and testament.

In other words, if an issue is important enough to prompt a client to ask for a codicil, it’s important enough to justify a new will.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is now streaming on Disney+.

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