Legal Reality v. Movie Fiction: Shelly Joyner, Associate Attorney

Legal Reality v. Movie Fiction: Shelly Joyner, Associate Attorney

The law finds its way into a lot of movies. I might be so bold to say that law finds its way into MOST movies. Sometimes the law is an essential plot point of the movie. One recent example is Knives Out. As I watched this movie my lawyer senses started tingling, and I thought it might be good to bring some legal reality to the movie fiction.

**** SPOILER ALERT!!! **** Don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the movie!!!

  1. Does a will have to be read publicly?

Legal Reality: I’ve seen a lot of movie scenes where the whole family is called to the lawyer’s expansive, mahogany trimmed office so that the lawyer can read the contents of the will, followed by the family’s collective, dramatic gasp. While it makes for a great scene in movies, the lawyer in Knives Out correctly addressed the fact that the reading of the will is not a legal necessity. (It’s also worth mentioning that another common movie scene is one in which grandpa leaves a video will that cuts off the bratty grandkids? This type of action is not legally valid. In Texas, a will has to be in writing.)

2. Can I write a memo referenced in the will, but separate from the will, to explain why I wrote my bratty family out of the will? 

Legal Regality: In the movie, grandpa gives everything away, very simply, in his will, but then asks his lawyer to read a separate memo as to why. This is not only legal, but advisable in certain circumstances. For example, when Crain & Wooley crafts a will or trust plan, there are a few instances where memos are referenced in the official documents, but are executed separately: memorandums for personal property, specific instructions for memorial services, charity designations, and, sometimes, personal notes to family. One reason to include these types of documents is because they can be more easily edited without having to go through the formalities of executing an entirely new will or trust.

3. Can lack of capacity and undue influence invalidate a will? 

Legal Reality: In the movie, the family starts Googling and screaming about “lack of capacity” and “undue influence” at the lawyer. “Lack of capacity” means that the person who wrote the will (the “Testator”) didn’t really know what he/she was doing when the will was written. Lack of capacity is usually due to some sort of sickness or mentally incapacity, be it temporary or permanent. “Undue influence” means that someone with some sort of power (real or perceived) convinces the Testator to do something that he/she wouldn’t have done without that extra influence. In the movie, that seemed like a good Google conclusion for the family to jump to. However, to prove either of those two things, the family would have had to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the otherwise correctly executed will is invalid. Preponderance of the evidence is a pretty high burden in a civil case. We’ll come back to this at the end . . .

4. Can a person who is responsible for the death of someone inherit from the deceased? 

Legal reality. The Knives Out family also Googled their way to the “Slayer Rule.” Most jurisdictions specifically have laws that, in one way or another, prevent the person who is responsible for the death of someone from being able to receive any benefits from their death. This seems like a “duh” kind of law, but some states have specifically codified it. Texas’s is a bit grey, but it’s there.

5. If lack of capacity, undue influence, or The Slayer Rule are proven to have occurred, what happens? 

Legal reality (probably). If a will is found to be invalid (for any of a variety of reasons), then the decedent’s estate would pass “intestate.” Intestate is the term used when someone dies without a will. Intestate means that the laws of the state in which the decedent passed away would dictate how and to whom an estate would pass. 

6. A valid will can be one page long? 

Ehhh . . . . TECHNICALLY, a one-page will can be valid. However, when I saw the movie lawyer pull out a one-page will for a contested estate (meaning no one agreed with anything), I started wriggling in my comfy chair, and I wanted to throw my popcorn at the screen. While grandpa COULD have written provisions into his will to help prevent any possible contests from his bratty family, he clearly chose not to. Therefore, I will estimate that the bratty movie family absolutely DID contest that will, trying to claim undue influence and/or lack of testamentary capacity. I could write a sequel called Knives Out 2: The Never-Ending Probate that chronicles how the bratty family spends every dime of their own money on litigation while the grandpa’s estate dwindles down to nothing from court costs and lawyer’s fees in defending the one-page will. 

Knives Out is truly a “feel bad movie” for estate planning attorneys.

Don’t let urban legends, movie half-truths and “what happened with your mother’s will 50 years ago” color how you handle planning for your estate. Working with Crain & Wooley to craft a will or trust makes sure that your estate benefits from expert planning services provided by estate planning specialists. 

Photo of Knives Out via Mongrel Media

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