***Spoiler Alert for Season 4, Episode 1***
If you, like me, are one of the many fans of PBS’s series “Downton Abbey,” you probably caught the season four premier last week. The show, which chronicles the intricate social fabrics of early twentieth-century England, revolves around an aristocratic family and the numerous staff running the grand manor that gives the show its name. While last season ended with a thud as recurring character Matthew Crawley died unexpectedly, the season opener highlighted some of the repercussions of his passing, including a few important estate planning lessons.
Matthew, who was young, healthy and rich, had just had his first child with new wife Mary. They looked to be on the road to upper-crust bliss when he was suddenly killed in an accident. Mired in mourning, the family has to hastily determine what, if any, estate planning he had done and how this would affect his young wife and child, not to mention the family estate. No will was found and so it looked as though England’s intestacy laws would effectively disinherit Mary, leaving all to his infant son. On top of all this, the taxman was looking for a hefty payout that could require the family to sell off important assets.
Eventually Matthew’s will is found leaving his estate to Mary, to the relief of the family aside from Mary’s father, who had hoped to manage the child’s inheritance himself. All in all, a lot of good TV drama but not a lot of fun in real life. What should Matthew have done to save his family from this emotional roller coaster?
1. CREATE A WILL. This one he got right, barely, but it is the most important. Failing to put your wishes in writing can have dire consequences. Instead of you choosing who would most benefit from your estate, the laws of intestacy decide who inherit without a will. This may not be according to your plans and could cause a lot of friction within the family.
2. Tell someone about it. Matthew had created his own hand-written will and stashed it away somewhere without telling anyone. That is not a good plan seeing as you won’t be around when your family needs to find your will. An estate planning attorney will typically keep your will on file should anyone ever need it but you should also let family members know that you have made a plan, even if you don’t share the details of that plan with them.
3. Name guardians and conservators for minors. Assuming Matthew’s infant had inherited his estate, someone would have to manage it for him until he was of age. But who? In today’s world the mother would have this control, but what if she weren’t around either? In the show, Mary’s father seemed all too eager to control the estate, perhaps to the detriment of Mary’s wishes. Setting down in writing who will be in charge can avoid this type of infighting.
4. Avoid the taxman! At some point taxes usually must be paid. However, with proper planning, you can avoid or seriously reduce the amount of estate taxes your family will pay and can even set up a method for funding any taxes due. Had Matthew done this, his heirs wouldn’t be scrambling to sell estate assets to meet their heavy debt obligations.
Sooner or later, everyone needs an estate plan. As demonstrated on Downton Abbey, failing to plan can have significant unintended consequences. Talk to an estate planning attorney today to get your plan started.