Movie Plots, the Disinherited, and the Rule Against Perpetuities

605-3We deal with probating poorly written wills and trusts fairly often; we deal with disinherited heirs even more. It’s interesting, rewarding work, but it never occurred to us that it was interesting enough for a movie plot. Until someone reminded us of this:

Ned Racine was a nice guy, very much laid back, handsome, funny, but possibly not the brightest man to ever graduate law school and pass the Florida Bar.

He was a very good criminal defense attorney. Empathetic, non-judgmental, he had excellent relationships with the District Attorney, Peter Lowenstein, and his investigator, Oscar Grace.

A few years before we meet him, Ned’s practice was not doing well and he desperately needed a retainer. He took a hefty one to draft wills and trusts for a new client . . . and completely, utterly botched it. To the point where he was brought before the Bar’s disciplinary committee and the case gained a local notoriety.

Ned, you may have already remembered, is William Hurt’s character in the iconic 1980’s film-noir, Body Heat. He falls for Kathleen Turner’s Matty Walker, things get out of hand, people die, and the entire plot then revolves around . . . the Rule Against Perpetuities.

That’s right, Body Heat was a good movie, on a lot of top twenty lists for the Eighties, but is undoubtedly the single greatest movie ever made about the archaic Rule Against Perpetuities (George Clooney’s The Descendants is a distant second).

The rule dates from 1680 and is the stuff of nightmares for generations of law students. Briefly (be thankful) it stops trusts from lasting forever. It is not written or interpreted that simply. It is so complex that the California Supreme Court made a ruling in the early Nineties that it is not malpractice if a California attorney misinterprets it.

I was reminded of the movie recently and it struck me how it fits some of our cases. Not the ‘Matty Walker using Ned’s reputation to forge a trust that purposely violates that Rule Against Perpetuities so she can get her late, unlamented husband’s entire estate’ plot line – though that would be fascinating.

No, I’m thinking about the criminal defense attorney dipping into trust and estate law to pay his office overhead and . . . well, missing things. Inadvertent mistakes from inexperience that cost deserving heirs their inheritances.

This is what we see a lot of – small mistakes that cast a completely out of proportion effect on the distribution of an estate. There are so many, many things that can go wrong with a will or a trust. Some have no effect, some are devastating. Some are caught right away, some not for years.

They’re not done on purpose, they’re not as dramatic as undue influence or intestate cases or ignored heirs, broken promises,223232323 and a dozen other issues that will never serve as a movie plot, but they have the same effect: they hurt rightful heirs, they become disinherited.

Body Heat wrapped a film-noir plot around an estate planning mistake. In the scene where an out of town attorney uncovers the error and confronts Ned, most people, I suspect, focus on Ned – or maybe Ted Danson (he played the DA) in the background.

What grabs me though, is the reaction of the widow when she learns she has just been ‘unintentionally’ disinherited. At first she’s puzzled. That fades into blank faced incomprehension. Then, she is simply … crushed.

It’s a moment that makes me glad I do what I do.