A will contest can create hurt feelings, and not a small amount of frustration for a family. If you’ve seen the new mysteries “Knives Out” and its sequel, “Glass Onion,” you can easily see the drama involved in a will contestation. In this blog post, we’ll look at how you can avoid unnecessary family conflict by creating a solid estate plan that leaves no reasons to contest a will!
Why the “Knives” May Come Out at Death
No one wants to think about a will contest, but the fact is that they do happen. Disinherited family often feel left out and then look for reasons to contest a will! If you have assets and loved ones who might stand to gain from your death, there’s a chance that someone might try to contest your will. This can be a very stressful event for your family.
Family members often contest a loved one’s will for legal reasons. However, reasons to contest a will need legal grounds! With accurate and legal estate planning documents, you thwart their plan to contest your will!
A testator is the legal name for the will-maker. The testator’s intentions in their last will and testament clearly come through in a valid will. (And many contested wills come from the professional negligence of online will-maker sites.)
The box office success of the 2019 murder mystery Knives Out led to Glass Onion, the first sequel, released in late 2022. Knives Out featured whodunit intrigue surrounding the murder of a wealthy author and surprise changes to his will.
While Knives Out endeared itself to fans because of its engaging characters and dramatic plot twists, several common estate planning issues are evident in the drama!
In fact, your own real-life drama could be the theme of a new Hollywood movie if you don’t consider proper estate planning!
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, anonymously hired to investigate the death, is on the scene. Several family members have a murder motive, including his son-in-law, his son, his grandson, and the widow of his late son.
Drawn into the fray is Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s nurse and the sole beneficiary of his estate. A dramatic will reading reveals the large inheritance!
The nurse’s inheritance as the sole beneficiary raises real-world estate planning lessons, not the least of which is that sometimes an unexpected person or organization inherits everything!
Family Should Never Assume They Will Receive an Inheritance When a Family Member Dies
Harlan is survived by:
- Two living children (Linda and Walt)
- A widowed daughter-in-law (Joni)
- Three grandchildren (Ransom; Joni’s daughter, Meg; and Walt’s son, Jacob)
Each of his presumptive heirs received financial support from him before his death. And every family member assumed that this support would continue after his death in the form of an inheritance.
Last Minute Changes to a Will Can Be Valid
In one of the movie’s most intense scenes, the family gathers for a will reading with Harlan’s estate planning lawyer.
At the meeting, the lawyer reveals that Harlan made changes to his previous will a week before his death. He created a new will and disinherited the family. He made known his final wishes that all his money, property, and entire estate go to his nurse, Marta.
At this point, metaphorically speaking, the “knives” come out. The shocked family turns their ire onto 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 without a will (called “dying intestate.” And there may also be a requirement to support minor children when someone dies without a will.
But in most instances, an individual can leave everything they own to anyone they choose—so long as they have a legally enforceable estate plan. With a legally binding estate plan, you leave no reasons to contest a will!
Grounds for Contesting: Reasons to Contest a Will
There are only certain reasons to contest a will from a legal perspective. However, from the moment the Thrombey clan receives the news that they will inherit nothing, they shift their focus to contesting the will.
Will contests have become increasingly common as people live longer and are more prone to dementia. Greedy family members may try to take advantage of a mental illness diagnosis.
The Thrombey family raises two arguments in an effort to overturn the will providing for Marta’s inheritance.
Lack of Testamentary Capacity
The family first suggests that Harlan lacked testamentary capacity. In other words, they accused him of not being of sound mind or not having mental capacity when he changed his will.
A successful challenge involves the person challenging possessing proof. With proof of his lack of mental capacity, such a claim may have given the family a shot at overturning the will.
However, the family eventually concedes that Harlan did not lack capacity, was in full possession of his mental faculties, and had testamentary capacity.
Their focus then shifts to the idea of undue influence by Marta, his nurse who inherited everything.
Undue influence is a legal concept that can come into play when someone exerts pressure to convince a vulnerable individual to change their prior will against their will.
In such cases, if the family can prove that a person attempted to take advantage of the testator’s mental state, the circumstances could prove a will contestation to be valid.
However, Harlan’s attorney states that the family must prove undue influence, and there is no evidence that Marta had actual undue influence over her employer.
Knives Out correctly states that a successful claim to contest a will requires proving the case in court. There must be legal standing for a will contestation.
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. With an invalidated will, the deceased person’s money and property distributes according to state intestate succession laws.
“Slayer Statute” Prevents a Wrongdoer from Benefiting
Once the Thrombey family realizes that contesting Harlan’s will on the grounds of testamentary capacity or undue influence would be fruitless, they turn to a lesser-known law, the so-called slayer statute.
Under the slayer statute, a person is prohibited from inheriting from the deceased person if they killed the them. The slayer statute in North Carolina includes someone guilty by a preponderance of the evidence in a civil action brought within two years after the decedent’s death to have willfully and unlawfully killed the decedent or procured the killing of the decedent. (1)
In Knives Out, the family wants to cut off Marta if she faces a conviction for murdering Harlan. Then, the Thrombey family would inherit what they believe is rightfully theirs.
Unfortunately for them, Marta did not murder Harlan.
Spoiler Alert: What Happens to the Substantial Gift of the Entire Estate?
It turns out that Harlan’s death was a suicide, but that is just one thread in a messy knot of family dysfunction.
Marta ends up keeping her inheritance. The movie ends with Marta sipping coffee from the mansion’s balcony, now indisputably her legal property. She stands, looking down on the Thrombey family gathered in the driveway.
She had vowed to care for them because they treated her well over the years. But it’s left up in the air whether she will go back on her word. After all, the family turned the knives on her.
Exactly who she will give anything to 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 essential real-world lessons.
Harlan did what he thought was in the best interest of his family when he gave his fortune away to someone who was not 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. He might have avoided his demise if they had discovered his plan to disinherit them after his death.
You are probably not a wealthy, world-famous author living in a stately rural mansion. But you should still regularly update a well-thought-out estate plan. You may want to be transparent with your family about your wishes, but ultimately, it is up to you.
One way to help avoid a will contestation is by working with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a trust. Trust disputes rarely happen. Most claims for will fraud or suspicious circumstances happen when there is no trust fund in a person’s estate plan.
Issues generally occur in contentious probate processes. However, assets never go through the probate process when a trust exists.
No one wants a family fight, but when there’s money involved, things can quickly get heated. If you pass away without leaving a clear and concise estate plan, your loved ones may end up in court fighting over your assets. This is why having an estate plan that discourages will contestations is crucial.
We Can Help
At Vail Gardner Law, our estate planning lawyers can discuss your situation and help you create a customized plan that avoids unnecessary family conflict. For example, instead of disinheriting an irresponsible heir, 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 does not accurately reflect a loved one’s wishes. Call or contact us to schedule an appointment and get started making your plans!