What lessons can a novel about gold miners in 19th-century New Zealand teach about estate planning? Quite a few. In The Luminaries, which was awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2013, author Eleanor Catton sets her story in a rough-and-tumble frontier town in the midst of a gold rush, spinning a complex yarn of dead bodies discovered under decidedly
suspicious circumstances, prominent citizens disappearing without a trace, and a large and colorful cast of characters.
A reviewer in the New York Times described the book as “not even a novel in the normal sense, but rather a mass confabulation that evaporates in front of us, an astrological divination waning like the moon, the first section 360 pages long (or are those degrees?), the last a mere sliver. But it’s a sliver that delivers.” How many estate planning books carry that level of praise?
The tale unfolds after the body of Crosbie Wells, a hermit, is found in his cottage in a remote area upriver from town. Love, death, and deception play monumental roles in the narrative, but so do the laws of intestate succession, property, and contract. Wells died without a will and, because he was a hermit with no known family to inherit his claim, his property was quickly sold. Weeks after his body is discovered, however, his widow Lydia sails into town (literally – the town is primarily accessible to the outside world by sea) and reveals her claim on the estate as Crosbie’s spouse. Meanwhile, a fortune in gold is discovered in the hermit’s cottage, along with an unsigned deed transferring a sum of money equal to the fortune from Emery Staines, a wealthy prospector, to one of the town’s members of the oldest profession. A complex cast of characters attempts to unravel the mystery.
There wouldn’t have been much of a story had the characters consulted an attorney instead of creating such a delightful mess for the reader, but for those who prefer their drama to be in fiction, here are a few estate planning lessons from the book:
- Make a will. The plot in The Luminaries grows out of a man dying without a will. His property is sold and, had his wife not appeared, the proceeds would likely have escheated to the state.
- Don’t ignore your spouse. The book reveals it was unlikely that Crosbie Wells would have wanted his estranged wife to inherit anything from him, but instead she was in line to inherit his entire estate. Under Washington law, when a will fails to provide for a spouse, the spouse is entitled to at least as great a share of the estate as the spouse would have received had the person died without a will.
- Have a durable power of attorney. Emery Stains disappears at the beginning of the book’s narrative and his whereabouts are unknown for weeks, during which his business interests and mining claims are in limbo. The state eventually sells off his claims. If he’d had a durable power of attorney, an attorney-in-fact would have had the legal authority to continue his business transactions in his place until he could be located.
The Luminaries is a fantastic book, an old-fashioned page-turner so engrossing you probably won’t even realize you’re reading about estate planning.
This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.