The recent popular murder mystery movie “Knives Out” delves into several key estate planning topics (such as Will contests and undue influence) during this whodunnit thriller.

In the movie, a wealthy man changes his Will shortly before he was murdered. Since his family members feel jilted, a Will contest is considered. In the “real world”, it is not unusual for a family member who doesn’t feel like they are getting their “fair share”  to contest a Will – especially if they receive nothing. As a result, sometimes estate planning attorneys suggest bequeathing a dollar amount (not just $1) that is thought sufficient to discourage or deter a contest – even if there is a no-contest clause (which is enforceable under Texas law). The “no-contest” is intended to force a party to choose between accepting the gift in the Will or Trust or risk getting nothing. Although no-contest clauses are enforceable in Texas, courts have allowed actions such as a suit to remove an executor, challenging an inventory or demanding an accounting to not be considered as a Will contest. If a contestant acts in good faith and has a probable cause for bringing the action, forfeiture is avoided. The courts look at several issues to determine if an action is in good faith including proximity of the signing of the Will to death and if the disposition in the contested Will is to a caregiver or if there is some other unnatural disposition. In the movie, the family patriarch makes his caregiver his sole beneficiary immediately prior to his murder. Thus, it is likely that a Will contest could proceed in Texas, even if there was a no-contest provision in the Will. Furthermore, as Americans are living longer and are more likely to have dementia, it is anticipated that Will contests will increase.

The movie further addresses the equitable argument of “undue influence”. Undue influence is often argued when someone is persuaded to change their estate planning documents when they are weak or vulnerable to use their independence in planning. The caregiver in the movie is accused of undue influence. Since it is not natural to give your entire estate to a caregiver, it would not be surprising that this would be alleged, in Texas if the facts of the movie were true. It is advisable to suggest that a potential Will beneficiary not be in the room when the Will is signed or possibly even take the testator (the one who signs the Will) to the office of the attorney to reduce the risk of an undue influence claim.

Finally, nearly all states (including Texas) have a “slayer statute” so that one convicted of murder or perhaps even manslaughter shall not be entitled to benefit from their criminal act. Thus, in the movie, the jilted relatives would desire the caregiver be convicted of murder of the deceased so that the caregiver would not be a beneficiary.

Common concerns about Will contests and undue influence should be considered when doing any estate planning (see our December 2019 article about a Transfer on Death Deed being overturned due to undue influence).

If interested in learning more, consider attending our next free “Estate Planning Essentials” workshop by calling us at (214) 720-0102 or sign up by clicking here.

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