In an earlier blog, I wrote how the BBC / PBS series Downton Abbey featured interesting storylines concerning estate planning. Recently, I watched the Grand Budapest Hotel. In this film, estate planning features prominently in the storyline.
The offbeat film, set in central Europe in the early 20th century, stars Saoirse Ronan, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray, and Jude Law, with appearances by several other familiar faces. Gustav H., the concierge at a legendary hotel in the Alps, is quite popular with older wealthy women who seek him out for special services. One of these women, “Madame D.” is murdered, leaving a will which had been amended 635 times since her husband’s death. The whirlwind ensues when there is a classic “reading of the will” scene, in which Gustav is revealed as the beneficiary of a valuable painting, Boy with an Apple. Of course, the widow’s heirs are not pleased with this turn of events and begin scheming to eliminate the bequest, or Gustav himself. I will spare you further details (because you can read them in a multitude of reviews and I do not wish to provide any spoilers). I encourage you to see the film.
Grand Budapest Hotel demonstrates that surprise is rarely, if ever, a good thing in estate planning. If Madame D. had shared her plans with beneficiaries, it is likely she would not have been murdered.
The film also demonstrates the ridiculousness of multiple amendments. While I have never seen a client with 635 amendments, there are some attorneys who draft amendment after amendment for substantive changes. A new will or restatement of the trust is much preferable to a codicil or amendment when multiple substantive changes are made, especially on several occasions. This eliminates confusion.
Otherwise, trying to figure out how the provisions of the multiple documents interconnect can be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I have encountered situations with more than a dozen amendments. In order to determine how the provisions interrelated, I made spare copies of all the documents and then cut out the various amended provisions from subsequent amendments and paste them where they belonged on the spare original “template” document. I never thought that determining dispositive provisions could be like an arts and crafts project!
A new will or restatement of trust is a simple solution that is as elegant as Madame D. and avoids the necessity for the arts and crafts project. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a delightful farce with an intriguing estate planning twist.
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