I love it when estate planning features prominently as a plot device in movies. The Netflix summer popcorn movie “Murder Mystery” (starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston) is an old-fashioned estate planning whodunit. The plot kicks into gear when billionaire Malcolm Quince makes a grand entrance aboard his yacht and abruptly announces to the family members, protégés, and hangers-on he has gathered together that he is about to change his Will and disinherit everyone except his much-younger fiancée. Quince then waves a wad of paper in the air that is be presumed to be the new Will, sets it down on a table, and pulls out a pen to sign. Suddenly, the room is plunged into darkness and a series of screams and scuffles ensue (with a debt to the greatest whodunit farce of all time, Clue). When the lights flicker on, Quince is dead. (Cue dramatic music.)
While there is a lot wrong with this scene, I am going to focus on what went wrong from an estate planning perspective.
- Failure to consult an attorney. Did Quince consult his attorney to update his Will? We don’t know, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say probably not. It seems unlikely that, had he consulted his estate planning attorney about the changes he wanted to make to his Will, he would have helicoptered onto a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean with an unsigned copy and plans for a dramatic description of its contents. At the very least, the attorney likely would have encouraged him to sign the Will before his trip. In addition, an attorney would have discussed estate tax implications of the proposed plan, recommended some type of prenuptial agreement with his fiancée that includes basic requirements for testamentary gifts, and perhaps suggested testamentary trusts for his son and others dependent upon his largesse.
- Failure to pay attention to execution requirements. Washington law, for example, imposes very specific execution requirements in order for a Will to be valid. RCW 11.12.020 provides that a testator must sign a Will in the presence of two competent witnesses who themselves sign an attestation clause that meets requirements set forth in a different section of RCW Title 11. It is unclear whether Quince paid any heed to execution requirements for the Will, or even whether he knew which jurisdictional requirements applied. In addition, a person executing a Will must have the capacity to do so for the Will to be valid. Did Quince lack capacity to sign a Will? We don’t know, but it is likely that his family could have made a viable argument that he lacked capacity, considering the questionable circumstances of the Will’s execution.
- Failure to pay attention to jurisdictional requirements. Jurisdictional requirements matter in probate and trust law. Different provisions may be included in a Will depending upon the state or country in which you reside and where you own property. When you throw in variations in execution requirements for Wills in different countries, the matter becomes even more complex. Quince was ostensibly a British citizen, signing a Will in the Mediterranean en route to Monaco. Was his intent to execute the Will under the laws of Great Britain? Monaco? Another country where he owns property? These are questions he – or his advisors – should have considered. (Interestingly, one character does mention that his plan would have been foiled had he been French and prohibited by law from disinheriting his son.)
Quince undoubtedly wanted to cause a stir by staging a surprise signing for his Will, and his flair for drama resulted in his demise. Had he lived long enough to sign that Will, it is questionable whether that Will would have been valid, and likely that it would have led to prolonged litigation among the beneficiaries. “Murder Mystery” is a fun summer farce, and Quince must die to move the plot forward. While it is not advisable to take anything involving Adam Sandler too seriously, the movie does provide a dramatic – and comic – example of what can go wrong with a “gotcha” DIY Will.