In celebration of this year’s movie awards season, Mazza Law Center would like to present our list of “Top 10 Estate Planning Films to Watch.” Each film or TV series on the list is somehow impacted or driven by estate planning matters, in addition to being good quality entertainment. We’ve chosen our absolute favorites and outlined some of the legal themes in our descriptions (Full disclosure, we are not the first to do this. In fact, attorney Keith Schiller, has created an entire legal education series around this idea which we were thrilled to stumble upon during our compilation).
So grab your bowl of popcorn, pull out your comfiest blanket, and enjoy our top picks (which are presented alphabetically).
Mazza Law Center’s Top 10 Estate Planning Films to Watch:
- The Bachelor (1999) PG-13, Comedy: This “conditional bequest” film (i.e. the beneficiary wins the gift only if the condition is performed) stars Chris O’Donnell as Jimmie Shannon, a commitment-phobic bachelor who will become the unsuspecting heir to his grandfather’s $100 million fortune… if he is married by 6:05pm on his 30th birthday, which just happens to be tomorrow. This film checks all the boxes for a solid 90s rom-com, including a final scene with hundreds of brides chasing down the unlucky bachelor.
- Bleak House (2005) TV-PG, Drama: This British adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel focuses on the legal injustices of 19th Century England. At the center of the miniseries are the characters whose lives are impacted by the long-running probate case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has been tied up in court because of several conflicting wills. The original novel helped support a judicial reform movement which led to British legal reform in the 1870s. Thank goodness for modern, legal clarity!
- Brewster’s Millions (1985) PG, Comedy: Another “conditional bequest” film. Richard Pryor plays Brewster, a minor league baseball player who stands to inherit his great uncle’s $300 million estate if he completely spends $30 million in 30 days. However, one of the five stipulations indicates that Brewster isn’t allowed to have any assets to show for the $30 million or he will forfeit the money. Hilarity ensues.
- The Descendants (2011) R, Comedy/Drama: In this Oscar winning film, George Clooney stars as Matt King, the sole trustee of a family trust that controls 25,000 acres of pristine land on the island of Kaua’i. The King Family Trust will expire in seven years because of the rule against perpetuities (i.e. a common law that forbids wills from tying up property for too long a time beyond the lives of the people living when the document was written), so the family has decided to sell the land for development. However, just before family members are ready to officially endorse the deal an accident occurs, leaving Matt to confront family matters and reconsider his responsibility as trustee.
- Downton Abbey (2012) TV-PG, Drama/Romance: This historical period drama won 3 Golden Globes and centers around the Crawley family, the hereditary Earls of Grantham, and the estate’s line of succession. Robert, Earl of Grantham and his wife Cora, Countess of Grantham, have three daughters (Ladies Mary, Edith, and Sybil), but no male heir to endow the title and estate of Downton Abbey (as English law required). In the first season, the sinking of the Titanic leads the family to search for their next living male heir — a distant male cousin named Matthew Crawley. The story then follows the family and their servants as they adjust to a new heir and the changes of the early 20th Century. Truly a captivating, remarkable series! Masterpiece Theater does it again.
- Little Big League (1994) PG, Comedy/Family: Billy, a 12-year-old boy who suddenly becomes the owner of the Minnesota Twins after his grandfather passes away, negotiates the challenges of owning a losing major league baseball team. While the film is full of family fun, legally it doesn’t have much footing. Major League Baseball rules prohibits managers and players from owning shares of their teams, unless approved by the commissioner (never mind the irresponsibility of passing a controlling share down to a minor!). Watch it with your kids before heading to a Spring Training game.
- Modern Family, “Ringmaster Keifth” [Season 8, Episode 10] (2017) TV-PG, Comedy: Here at Mazza Law Center, we are all big fans of Modern Family, so when the first episode of 2017 centered around estate planning matters, we were floored! In this episode, Gloria and Jay must decide who will look after their son Joe if something should happen to them. They hilariously consider the pros and cons of each of their adult children raising their son, and finally arrive at a decision with guidance from a wise family member. The moral of this episode? Parents, get your affairs in order in case the worst should happen.
- Rain Man (1988) R, Drama: This 80’s classic won 4 Oscars and stars Tom Cruise as a selfish young hustler whose estranged father’s $3 million estate goes to an unnamed trustee. When he learns that the money is going to a mental institution, Charlie travels and meets his autistic older brother Raymond (played by Dustin Hoffman) for the first time. What follows is a chain of events that begins with Charlie attempting to gain custody of his brother to get control of the money, but ends with the two brothers growing together. Conservatorship, guardianship, and estate planning matters all in one film? Truly, an estate planning attorney’s treat!
- A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017) TV-PG, Adventure: This Netflix adaptation of the children’s novels stars Neil Patrick Harris as the despicable Count Olaf, who is wrongfully named guardian of the Baudelaire orphans by an incompetent banker designated “Vice-President of Orphan Affairs” at Mulctuary Money Management. The series revolves around the children attempting to get out of Count Olaf’s clutches by unraveling the mysteries behind their parents’ sudden deaths. This dark comedy takes place in an imaginary world, with an imaginary legal system, but the perils of having an ineffective estate plan are clear!
- The Ultimate Gift (2006) PG, Drama/Family: Conditional bequest film #3 and possibly our favorite on the list. The movie begins with spoiled trust beneficiary Jason rudely showing up late to his grandfather’s funeral. His inheritance is given to him in video format by his late grandfather Red (played by James Gardner), where he explains that Jason’s inheritance is a “gift” that must be earned. The rest of the film captures the series of challenges that transform Jason into a man worthy of “the ultimate gift.” This heartwarming film is so good, attorney Danny Mazza personally owns it on DVD.