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4 nonsense things we learn from Knives Out that are completely wrong and will cost you thousands

estate planning Dec 03, 2019

I saw Knives Out on Saturday. It was brilliant. I loved it. And don't worry. No spoilers here (but if you don't want to know anything about the movie until after you see it, you should stop reading now).

I was excited to see it because  the trailers feature what I have for some time referred to as the "dramatic reading of a will" scene. You know the one. The family's all there. The lawyer is there. And there is a dramatic reading of the will. Chaos ensues. Conflict. Drama. Delightful cinema. I wondered how this one would go.

I was not disappointed. It was spectacular. Meaning it was spectacular cinema. According to Rotten Tomatoes, I'm not alone. Critics and audience members alike find Rian Johnson's whodunnit a delightful romp. I'll go see it again. You should, too. It's fun.

But you should know that it's just cinema. Duh. But too many people think that the "dramatic reading of a will" is real. We "learn" things from that scene that too often people accept as true. And some of that misinformation can cost you thousands of dollars in real life. 

Here are just 4 examples of elements from the Knives Out "dramatic reading of a will" scene that are completely wrong:

1. The SCENE: The lawyer comes to the family home for the "reading of the will." He shows up with a couple of boxes and announces that it will take him about 10 minutes to get set up. What's in the boxes? What does he have to set up? It triggers curiosity for the family and the audience. Fantastic!

The TRUTH: It's a will. A document. Usually multiple pages. Usually full of very boring stuff. There is nothing to set up. In fact, there is no private reading. I've never done a private reading. I've never known anyone else to do it, either. When you have a will, it means that your family is going to file the will with the court and start a probate action after you die. That leads to the next part of the scene.

2. The SCENE: The lawyer is sitting at the table with a single envelope in front of him. (So what did he have to set up that took him 10 minutes?) He tells the family that his client, the dead patriarch, changed his will just a week before. The lawyer explains, "He sealed it in this envelope and asked that I not file it with probate until after his death." Such intrigue. Again, fantastic! 

The TRUTH: It sounds lawyerly and makes you think that something unusual has happened, but it's totally misleading. People change their wills all the time. And no one EVER files their will with probate until AFTER their death. Indeed, there can't be a probate case unless and until someone dies. Some states have a will repository where a person can file an original will for safe-keeping, but it's just a repository. It's not a probate case. If you tried to file a will and start a probate case before someone had died, the case would be dismissed. There is nothing to do. There is no case. But wait, it gets better.

3. The SCENE: The sealed, changed will is, to the surprise of the lawyer, only a single, typewritten page, and it was written entirely by the dead patriarch, who apparently did not involve his lawyer in drafting it. Intrigue!

The TRUTH: A handwritten will, called a holographic will, is valid in some states, but not in others. In Washington, for example, holographic wills are generally not valid because Washington requires two witnesses who sign in front of a notary to be valid. Utah accepts holographic wills, but they generally cannot be typewritten; the "material portions" of the will have to be handwritten. Holographic wills are valid in California (and some other states) if they meet certain criteria. But the will in this scene—a single-page, typewritten will, signed (maybe, it's not clear) with no witnesses or notary—would likely not pass muster as a holographic will or meet the requirements of a "normal" will. Thus, it would likely be invalid, leaving the dead patriarch's wishes ignored.

4. The SCENE: As mentioned above, no one knows what the will says. It is a surprise for everyone. (And for you. Go see the movie if you want to find out what it says.) And of course, chaos and conflict erupt after the reading. Glorious!

The TRUTH: I still run into people who's parents tell them, "I've taken care of everything in my will. Don't worry about it." Then they die, and the family is surprised at what's in there. This is a horrible practice and should be avoided unless your actual goal is to create a dramatic, cinematic event at your passing. "Surprise" is something you should yell at a birthday party, not at a death event. Indeed, "surprise" when someone dies and leaves a pot of money, or a house, or that single heirloom silver plate, is the number one catalyst for chaos, conflict, and family discord. Unmet expectations will drive a dramatic, even cinematic, experience for your family and loved ones if you're not careful. And the only people who benefit from dramatic, cinematic experiences in legal matters are the lawyers.

This misinformation can cost you thousands in real life. 

How? So many ways. Here are a few:

Privacy. People think that private readings happen because we see them so often in cinema. They don't happen. Wills are public documents that are made a part of public record.

Just google your favorite famous dead people. Seriously. Try it. Google "last will and testament of _____" and insert someone you'd like to see. Probably available online. So many of these.

And so, anyone in the world can see that you left your kids $1 million. Someone who wants to take advantage of your kids now has the information available to them.

Simplicity. People think that it's easy to write or change a will. Based on cinema generally, and this movie in particular, all you have to do is write something down and put it into an envelope for safe-keeping. Wrong.

In real life, when a will isn't done properly, it's invalid. Then it costs the family a lot more time, money, and hassle to get through a probate case. And sometimes, the will isn't followed at all at that point. That leads to conflict. And conflict leads to expense (and a whole lot of other problems you don't need or want).

Requirement. People think everyone has to have a will. Indeed, a will is all we ever hear about in cinema. And more often than not, people come to me saying, "I need a will."

In real life, some people are very well served by a will. But many people would be better served by other methods of estate planning. There are a lot of considerations for estate planning—your family situation and dynamic, the age and life status of your children, grandchildren, and/or other heirs, the size of your estate, the type of property you have, your potential to have to pay estate taxes, issues and concerns you have, your goals and desires, whether you want or need to protect assets from creditors, bankruptcy, lawsuits, judgments, crazy relatives, or others, and so many more. 

Maybe you need a will. Or maybe (often) a will would cost your family substantially more than some of the other options. But no one knows that.

Probate. People think, because of the "dramatic reading of a will" scene, that there is no court involved when you have a will. "I can avoid all that nonsense I heard about with my friend's family." Nope. 

In real life, when you plan using a will, you are necessarily going to have a probate case. For most people, probate is the most expensive part of the process after someone dies. Did you know that you can avoid probate altogether? No court. No lawyers. No fees. No waiting for money. No frozen accounts. No hassles. No delays.

But you've never seen anything about that in the movies. Because that's not very dramatic. Conflict and chaos and intrigue and trouble drive cinema. You don't want conflict and chaos and intrigue and trouble in your family when you die.

These are just a few of the problems.

There's a better way. Contact us to learn more.

Now, go see the movie. Because even though Knives Out is completely wrong, it really is completely brilliant. And so much fun.