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Estate planning issues in recent Clooney film

Typically, one does not look to Hollywood for estate planning tips.

But as the author of recent Forbes articles highlights, The Descendents-a film starring George Clooney which was recently nominated for Oscars in a number of categories-contains a number of estate planning lessons. And, in fact, the legal issues in the film were carefully researched. Here we’ll take a brief look at some of these lessons.

One lesson brought out in the film is that wealth which isn’t earned can cause conflicts. This issue often arises in wealthy families, where parents pass on their wealth, creating easy money for their sons and daughters. Oftentimes, families who want to place restrictions on wealth will place it in a trust which conditions reception of the money on certain terms.

The film also shows that it is important to find some way to express one’s wishes with respect to end-of-life care. There are many reasons why this is important to do, especially in families where there is a tendency to disagreement. Filling out an advance directive is a good solution for these situations. Really, everybody should have their own advance directive, especially those with children.

The difficulties of joint ownership are another lesson that can be drawn from the film. In particular, tenancy in common can give rise to disagreements about what to do with a piece of property which is co-owned by multiple individuals.

A third lesson is that there may be limits on how long a trust can last. A related lesson in the film is that long-term trusts present difficulties. One example is deciding what the individual who established and funded the trust would want to do with the trust assets later on. Another is the problem of selecting successor trustees.

Yet another lesson of the film is that trustees must be objective. This is probably obvious, since their task is to manage trust assets for the benefit of others, not for their own benefit. Finding somebody trustworthy and objective, and who steers clear of all conflicts of interest, though, may not be an easy task.

Some of these lessons do not present ready-made solutions, though some have relatively straight forward ones. Obviously, it is important to work with an experienced estate planning attorney in order to ensure these matters, and any others, are adequately dealt with.

Source: Forbes, “‘The Descendants’ Buries Estate Planning Lessons in George Clooney Drama,” Deborah L. Jacobs, February 2, 2012.