LEGAL LESSONS WE CAN LEARN FROM KNIVES OUT
The box office success of the 2019 murder mystery Knives Out led to its first sequel, Glass Onion, released in late 2022. The original Knives Out centered around the murder of a wealthy author and the surprising changes made to his will.
While Knives Out appealed to viewers because of its interesting characters and dramatic plot twists, the more mundane topic of estate planning is central to the movie. In Knives Out, there are several common estate planning issues that could trigger real-life family drama.
Estate Planning Issues in Knives Out
Knives Out begins with the death of Harlan Thrombey, a famous novelist. He had just celebrated his 85th birthday at his country mansion, surrounded by family. Detective Benoit Blanc has been anonymously hired to investigate the death, and several family members have a murder motive. His son-in-law, his son, his grandson, and the widow of his late son all have reasons for wanting him dead.
Later in the movie, we learn that Harlan’s death was a suicide. But, that is just one thread in a jumbled knot of family dysfunction. Drawn into the fray is Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s nurse and the sole beneficiary of his estate. The large inheritance is revealed at a dramatic will reading.
Although this story is fake, situations like this can happen in real life. Let's explore what we can learn from Knives Out.
Lesson 1: Never Assume That You'll Receive an Inheritance
Harlan is survived by two children (Linda and Walt), a widowed daughter-in-law (Joni), and three grandchildren (Ransom, Meg, and Jacob). Each of his presumptive heirs received financial support from him throughout their life. So, they assumed that this support would continue after his death in the form of an inheritance.
In one of the most intense scenes of the movie, the family gathers for a will reading with Harlan’s estate planning lawyer. At the meeting, the lawyer reveals that a week before his death, Harlan made changes to his will and disinherited the family. All of his money and property were left to his nurse, Marta.
This is the point at which, metaphorically speaking, the knives come out. The shocked family turns on Marta and insists that Harlan would never have left the family fortune to her.
The hard lesson here is that children and grandchildren aren't legally entitled to inherit anything from their family, at least not in Ohio. Even if you die without a will, the spouse inherits everything first. As long as you have a legally enforceable estate plan, you can leave your fortune to whomever you choose.
Lesson 2: A Will Contest Requires Proof
From the moment the Thrombey clan receives the bad news, they shift their focus to contesting the will.
Will contests are no mere dramatic device. In real life, it takes careful preparation, and evidence, to contest a will. They have become increasingly common as people live longer and are more prone to dementia and being taken advantage of.
The Thrombeys raise two arguments in an effort to overturn the will providing for Marta’s inheritance.
They first suggest that Harlan lacked testamentary capacity, meaning he wasn't of sound mind when he changed his will. However, the family eventually concedes that Harlan indeed was capable of making that decision.
Then, their focus shifts to undue influence by Marta. This is a legal concept that can come into play when someone pressures a vulnerable individual to change their estate plan against their will. But, as Harlan’s attorney states in the film, the family must have evidence to back this up. And there is none.
Knives Out correctly makes the point that successfully contesting a will requires proving the case in court. However, the movie doesn't mention that anyone with legal standing can challenge a will. This typically includes current named beneficiaries, previous beneficiaries who were disinherited, and individuals not named in the will but who have standing under state intestacy laws. For example, a spouse, child, grandchild, or sibling.
The cost of challenging a will falls on the contesting party. If the will contest is successful, all or part of the will could be invalidated. Then, the deceased person’s money and property can be distributed according to either the previous will, or if there was none, state succession laws.
Lesson 3: The Slayer Statute Prevents Murders from Inheriting
Once the Thrombeys realized that contesting Harlan’s will through conventional means would be fruitless, they turned to a lesser-known law, the Slayer Statute. Under this statute, a person is prohibited from inheriting from the deceased person if they killed them. In Ohio, this includes crimes of aggravated murder, murder, voluntary manslaughter, and/or complicity in the violation of any of the above crimes.
In Knives Out, this would leave the Thrombey family in a position to inherit what they believe is rightfully theirs. Unfortunately for them, Marta did not kill Harlan.
Spoiler Alert: Marta ends up keeping her inheritance. The movie ends with Marta sipping coffee from the balcony of the mansion that is now hers.
Avoid Real-Life Family Drama with a Strong Estate Plan
Knives Out is a dramatization of estate planning that provides some important real-world lessons. Harlan did what he thought was right when he gave his fortune away to his nurse. His last-minute change of heart was completely legal, but he probably erred when telling family members his plans to disinherit them. His demise might have been avoided if they had discovered that after his death.
Estate planning isn't just for the ultra-rich. Every adult with property should have a will at the very least. And they should regularly update that will. It is ultimately up to you whether you divulge these plans to your family or not.
Our experienced estate planning lawyers in Dublin, Ohio are available to discuss your situation. We want to help you create a customized plan that avoids unnecessary family conflict. For example, instead of completely disinheriting an irresponsible heir, you could hold money for them in a trust and thereby dictate how that money is spent.
Our experienced probate litigation attorneys in Dublin, Ohio are also here to help. If you believe a will doesn't reflect your loved one's true wishes, we can help you overturn that will through a will contest action.
We're here for you and your family though the good times at the bad. Give our office a call at 614-389-9711 to set up an appointment with an attorney.
Thinking about contesting a will but not sure where to start? Download our guide: Contesting a Will: Your Rights as an Heir here.