The Season 4 premiere of Downton Abbey aired in the U.S. this week on PBS. (The series is produced in England and Season 4 aired in the U.K. in 2013.) Downton Abbey is a series about a fictional aristocratic family living on an estate in the Yorkshire countryside. The heir to the estate of Downton Abbey and the title of Lord Grantham is Matthew Crawley, the distant cousin of Robert Crawley, the current Lord Grantham. Matthew is the husband of Robert’s daughter, Mary. Matthew and Mary have a son, George. That’s enough background information on the setting for this blog. For more information go to the Downton Abbey website.
At the end of Season 3, Mary and Matthew give birth to their son, George, and then Matthew dies in a car accident. As the Season 4 premiere begins, we are led to believe that Matthew died intestate. Apparently, under the law in the U.K. at that time, intestacy would only provide a life estate in a small portion of the deceased spouse’s property with the remainder going to the infant son. Several times, the characters bemoan the lack of estate planning. There are several conversations about the mess of the situation and doubt about who will control Matthew’s assets. It raises both doubt and intra-family squabbles.
Finally, a letter from Matthew to Mary is discovered among his personal effects. It leaves everything to his wife, Mary. Since it was witnessed by two clients, it is portrayed as valid as a testamentary device.
Of course, back on this side of the Atlantic, the state of residence determines the validity of a testamentary vehicle. In most states a writing subscribed by the deceased and witnessed by two people would suffice as a will. At least one state would require three witnesses. Some states allow “holographic wills” which are entirely in the decedent’s own handwriting and signed by the decedent. The letter from Matthew would seem to qualify as a holographic will, as well.
Clients who saw the two-hour Season 4 premiere will understand the importance of estate planning, even if they do not understand the intricacies of trusts and estates law. Reference to the premiere of Season 4 of this popular series may be a good conversation-starter with clients and prospects.
Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M.
Associate Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (800) 846-1555