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Estate Planning As Seen On TV

  • By: Christopher Benson
  • Published: March 18, 2014

Fans of the show Downton Abbey know what an impact estate planning, inheritance and legacy have on the show’s plot. But some of the plot twists driven by estate planning decisions couldn’t happen in the real world.

In the first episode of this season (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it) we see the ramifications of not having a will, trust, power of attorney and other estate planning tools. When one of the lead characters, Matthew, dies his widow and father are left fighting over the estate. This happens because at the time, wives in England had few inheritance rights, so everything would go to Matthew’s son and caretakers, his father. But during the course of the episode, a letter is discovered revealing his intent to leave everything to his wife.

So that brings up the question: What constitutes a legal will? Could a letter such as this have an impact on probate? Wills come in a few different forms, and the one Matthew left behind is one of them. There are actually 11 different types of Wills, However, not all types are recognized in all States. Here are a few that are relevant to the question at hand:

  • Attested Will: A will that is signed by the owner and two disinterested witnesses.
  • Holographic Will: A holographic will is a will that his handwritten by the owner and not witnessed. * These are not recognized in all States *
  • Nuncupative Will: An oral will that is spoken and not written down. * Once again, not recognized in all States *

In the episode, Matthew’s will is a holographic will. Many states and countries do not recognize these since there are no witnesses. So if this situation had happened today there would be no question, and therefore no drama. Matthew’s will is invalid and his son/father gets everything. His wife would be left out.

The same holds true if a will names someone as a beneficiary of something, such as life insurance, a trust, or a retirement account. The named beneficiary on that account is what matters. It trumps the will. That’s why it’s so important to review your beneficiaries often and keep them current.

Over the past 22 years, the Law Offices of Christopher A. Benson has helped more than 800 clients prepare and utilize simple and effective planning techniques to protect them and their families in order to avoid probate, save estate taxes, save money and save added emotional burden that comes from long term illness and/or death of a family member. Give us a call to schedule a free consultation to find out how we can help you and your family.

Christopher Benson

About the Author Chris served on the Board of Directors for Habitat for Humanity
Seattle/S. King County for 10 years and served as Vice President
of the organization during part of that time. Read More