Christmas is here, and whether you celebrate the holiday or not there is one message of the season that everyone can agree on. Be kind and loving, and your life (and the world) will be a better place. It is such a simple message but one that I am reminded of every year when my wife and I sit down for an annual Christmas tradition, watching one of our favorite movies Love Actually (what can I say I’m a big mush at Christmas!). For those who haven’t seen it, it’s streaming on Netflix this month and is quite frankly a perfect romantic movie for what the cool kids are calling a “Netflix and Chill” night (as you can tell if I ever actually was a cool kid, those days are LONG gone!). If you have a soul you will enjoy it- trust me. Love Actually may be the greatest holiday sap-fest ever—in the best way. You have multiple intertwined stories of love (10, to be exact), between parents and children, friends, family, and of course, just generally attractive people. It’s impossible to get bored with so many stories bouncing around, all of which tie together blissfully at a Christmas concert.
Having seen the movie at least ten times, on my last viewing I began to think of the character relationships in terms of Estate Planning. Why this happened I have no idea but I’ve learned that sometimes it’s best to just go where this mind of mine takes me and enjoy the ride. If you haven’t seen the movie be forewarned that reading past here is going to spoil a lot of the movie for you, which I wouldn’t recommend. (SPOILER ALERT!- another cool kid saying – I’m on a roll!)
For purposes of this fun exercise I’m going to assume that rather than jolly old London that the characters actually exist in New York City.
Juliet (Keira Knightley) and her husband Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor)
Near the beginning of the movie, we witness the wonderfully adorable wedding of Juliet and Peter in a chapel filled with musical surprises. As a young married couple there is no better time for them to think about some basic Estate Planning. Following my general philosophy on younger newly married couples, their concern shouldn’t be on any complicated asset protection or medicaid planning strategies but instead should just be on memorializing their wishes through some very basic estate planning documents. As a legal aside and not related to Estate Planning in any way, I do think they may want to strongly consider getting some kind of restraining order on Peter’s creepy friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln– now featured on the Walking Dead). I mean seriously I know his story line is supposed to be endearing but from a criminal law standpoint I’d argue that he is really toeing the line on some serious offenses, namely Eavesdropping, Menacing, Stalking and Voyeurism (a real crime- enacted in 2003).
Daniel (Liam Neeson) and his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) and Carol (Claudia Schiffer)
This is an interesting relationship and one that might be the most important of all in terms of the need for Estate Planning. Early in the film we learn that Daniel’s wife has passed away and that he is now left to care for Sam, who is his step-son. While it is clear that Daniel and Sam share a special father/son bond that probably doesn’t exist in many blood relative situations, we never learn if Daniel has actually gone through the legal process of adopting Sam. My guess would be that he has not, as the entire movie clearly takes place within a short period of time and there was likely no need for Daniel to legally adopt Sam while his wife was alive. In terms of Estate Planning, assuming that something catastrophic happened to Daniel before he had the chance to either prepare an estate plan OR adopt Sam, under the New York laws of intestacy (rules for those who die without a will), Sam would be entitled to NONE of Daniel’s Estate. That swanky multiple bedroom house? NOT SAM’S! That sweet Land Rover that they speed to the airport in at the end of the movie? NOT SAM’S! Daniel is one of the few characters in the movie who doesn’t have any family connections explored, so if we assume that Daniel has no brothers or sisters and his parents are deceased we are talking about all of his estate passing to either some distant relative OR to New York State, leaving Sam with no parent, no direction on a proper guardian to be appointed and no inheritance, basically making him a penniless orphan. Further, if you extrapolate the ending of the movie and assume that Daniel begins a romantic relationship with Carol (Claudia Schiffer), if they were to become serious and Daniel were to die without naming her in any estate planning document she would also be left out in the cold (NY intestacy law does NOT provide for girlfriends or other non-married partners).
Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) and his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher)
This is the first relationship that we are introduced to as the opening credits roll. Billy is an aging rock star looking for one last hurrah and Joe is his lifelong manager. The two of them realize through the course of the movie that they are far more than business associates, and that a real true lifelong friendship exists between them. We are led to believe that neither of the two men are particularly close with any family and both are actually somewhat of loners outside of their life in the music business. We also learn that Billy had led life to the fullest, indulging in the stereotypical rock star life of booze, drugs of women. In the context of Estate Planning, I think that Joe would be a wonderful choice as a Health Care Proxy for Billy. Joe is Billy’s most trusted confidante and should there need to be a health care decision made for Billy while he incapacitated I believe that he would want Joe act in that capacity. Under the NY Healthcare law, if an important decision needed to be made about Billy’s care, the provider would first look to an appointed guardian, a spouse, an adult child, a parent or a sibling before it even considered allowing Joe to make any decision on Billy’s behalf. A Health Care Proxy could solve this issue if Billy does really believe that he trusts Joe above all to make his health care decisions.
Sarah (Laura Linney) and her brother Michael (Michael Fitzgerald)
This is probably the most heart wrenching relationship in the movie. Michael is a special needs individual who is receiving institutionalized care at a facility near where Sarah lives and works. As the movie progresses we learn that Sarah sacrifices her own happiness to support her brother at all costs, which creates a tragic situation for all involved. This relationship requires some slightly more complex estate planning. If we assume that Michael is receiving treatment under the Medicaid program (administered by the state for those who are unable to support or provide for themselves and do not have available resources to pay for their own care), then it is IMPERATIVE for Sarah to do some Estate Planning or she will risk losing her estate should she pass on before her brother. The typical way we would do this is through a Special Needs Trust. I’m going to do a separate blog post soon talking about Special Needs Trusts in depth but the concept is that by using the trust we can preserve Michael’s government benefits while still permitting him to receive some inheritance from Sarah should she predecease him. Now in this specific situation where Michael seems to be institutionalized with little chance for recovery it may be wiser and more cost effective for Sarah to simply execute some basic estate planning documents leaving her estate to someone else (perhaps Jamie – who we see during Juliet and Peter’s wedding is a friend of hers in some capacity). By disinheriting her brother Sarah can ensure that he retains his government benefits. If Sarah does no estate planning whatsoever, upon her death, her estate will pass to her brother, and the state would immediately scoop up those assets to pay for her brother’s past and future care.
Karen (Emma Thompson), her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) and their children
At the end of the movie, we are led to believe that Karen and Harry are at least in a manageable place with their marriage and with respect to Harry’s extramarital dalliances (or lack thereof- my wife and I argue about whether Harry did actually have an affair or not every year). For purposes of Estate Planning, let’s consider that they will continue on into marital bliss and raise their children together as a family. Karen and Harry are in their late 40’s or Early 50’s so their concerns for Estate Planning are slightly different than a newly married couple with no children such as Peter and Juliet. First, both Karen and Harry should have a term life insurance policy to ensure that if something catastrophic happened to either or both of them that the family would be able to survive financially, maintain their standard of living, and that their children would be provided for until they reach adulthood. As Caren and Harry enter their 50’s and 60’s, they are going to want to strongly consider some asset protection and Medicaid Planning. We see from the film that they have a beautiful home. If one or both of them became sick and needed to receive nursing home care would the nursing home be able to take their home and sell it to pay for their care? Do they have other unprotected assets that would be available to a nursing facility in such a situation? Karen and Harry are right in the sweet spot of being able to do some planning now when they are healthy to retain and access their assets to enjoy while they are alive and also to protect them should something catastrophic occur. Their main concern is rightfully so going to be the welfare of their children and this can all be addressed in the context of a well drafted estate plan. Then again, Karen’s brother IS the prime minister of Britain, so somehow I do think that no matter what happens to their family everything will likely be OK financially.
Jamie (Colin Firth) and his fiance Aurelia (Lucia Moniz)
Jamie and Aurelia meet after he retreats to the French countryside to finish a novel he is writing. They fall in love and after a dramatic march through a charming Portuguese town to find her, Jamie romantically proposes in broken Portuguese while Aurelia accepts in broken English. This is one of the many fascinating climaxes of the movie, and we learn at the end of the movie that Jamie has taken Aurelia back to marry and live with him in blissful eternity. Allow me to posit the following scenario. Jamie and Aurelia set a wedding date a year from the end of the movie so that Aurelia can assimilate to a new country and settle in before they get married. A week before the wedding, Jamie is involved in a serious accident which unfortunately he does not survive from. Under those same NY Intestacy laws that I discussed above in the portion of this post about Daniel and Sam, Aurelia would then be alone and penniless in a foreign country with no family or friends. She will also probably be facing hefty bills to pay for the wedding which now will obviously never occur. NY Intestacy law does NOT contain a provision for engaged couples, so in this situation ALL of Jamie’s estate would pass to his brother; that’s right- the same brother who he caught in bed with his girlfriend at the beginning of the movie. Some basic Estate Planning could alleviate this situation. I WOULD however caution Jamie to be absolutely sure that he wants to leave his estate to a woman he has only met recently. Believe or not there are predatory people who prey on men AND women for the sole purpose of entitling them to a distribution upon the death of said man or woman. This is also a topic that I will address soon in depth in a future blog post.
There are some other relationships that could potentially hit on some common Estate Planning pitfalls, but I think the ones listed above are the big ones.
As for some Quick Trivia here are a few nuggets that I have read over the years.
- As amazing as Joanna’s rendition of “All I want for Christmas is you” at the Christmas concert actually is, the producers actually had to tell her to sing it a little bit WORSE than she had been doing. Her original version was so good the producers deemed it to be too “unbelievable” so they made her re-record it to sound more standard.
- Hugh Grant (David) HATED the idea of dancing around the Prime Minister residence and begged the producers and director to cut the scene before filming. Once he began filming it he apparently got very into it though and had a wonderful time with the experience.
- The cast was originally envisioned as being filled with only British actors. The director kept seeking a character for Sarah that he described as a “Laura Linney type.” Eventually it was suggested to him that he should just reach out to Laura Linney, which he did, and that is how an American actress wound up in this wonderfully British movie.
Do you have any other ideas on some that I might have missed or questions about something in this post? Leave a comment!
Credit to Anneke Jong at annekejong.com for the awesome image used at the top of this post.