This blog post has been written by YVONNE MAZURAK, Associate at Fasken LLP.
Like many others, I spent a good chunk of my time off over the holidays catching up on “And Just Like That”, aka the reboot of the decade long 90s hit show which followed the lives of Carrie Bradshaw—a 30-something columnist living in NYC—and her three best friends.
For those unfamiliar, the reboot continues following Carrie and her friends, now in their 50s, as they navigate new life events and challenges, one of which to the shock of long-time fans, is the death of Carrie’s husband, “Mr. Big” (I am hoping by now there’s no longer a need for spoiler alert disclaimers.)
While much has been written about the show in other respects, as an estate planning lawyer it naturally had me considering Carrie’s experiences following the loss of her husband.
Some of my thoughts:
1. Estate planning is not just about the deceased. One episode begins with Carrie sitting in a boardroom at a law firm attending a reading of Mr. Big’s Will, where she discovers that he had left a $1 million legacy to his ex-wife. As far as Carrie is aware, he had not spoken to his ex-wife in many years and, unsurprisingly, Carrie is left speechless. The lawyer reading the Will comments (rather insensitively, I might add): “When people have unfinished business, they tend to throw money at it.”
Much of this scene was of course created for dramatic effect, but nevertheless, to use the famous Carrie-ism: “I couldn’t help but wonder”, shouldn’t Mr. Big have known that estate planning is not just about the person doing the planning?
Estate planning is often also about the relationships between everyone involved. It is an opportunity to make decisions that will make an impact on one’s loved ones and proactively address foreseeable pressure points. As such, the relationship between beneficiaries can be a relevant consideration for a client when making a number of decisions including, for example, when determining:
• Who to appoint as Executor(s) – If multiple individuals are named (for example, all of the client’s adult children), is there any potential for tensions to develop between them? If so, how should they be directed to make decisions in their roles as executors (and with that, resolve disagreements in the event of a deadlock)?
• Whether to attach conditions to gifts for some (but not all) beneficiaries – There may be valid reasons for doing so, however, the beneficiaries might feel slighted by the decision (which could result in them challenging the validity of the Will), in which case, should the client consider alternative strategies for addressing that risk?
• How to pass down a family cottage – While many have good memories of time spent at their family cottage, conflict with respect to its use and ongoing maintenance is not unheard of. If these types of disagreements are foreseeable, should the beneficiaries be asked to enter into a co-ownership agreement before receiving an interest in the property?
2. One’s estate plan need not be kept a secret. Some degree of conflict between beneficiaries may be unavoidable, but transparency and open communication can be an effective strategy for dealing with the potential for hard feelings in the future and, in turn, reducing the likelihood of litigation. At the very least, had Mr. Big been open with Carrie about his intentions with respect to the gift for his ex-wife, he could have saved her (already overwhelmed by grief) from losing sleep over what the “unfinished business” may be.
3. Managing one’s estate should not be left to chance. Mr. Big’s death came as a shock to all of us. Hopefully, Carrie learned from this experience the importance of having a Will or re-visiting the one she already has in place. Carrie, who once famously stated in the original show, “I prefer my money where I can see it…in my closet”, might also be well advised to have her Will refer to a letter of wishes detailing how her fabulous designer clothes and accessories should be distributed after her death. That way, she would be able to revisit and revise such letter as often as she says goodbye to (and replaces) any pieces that fall out of style.
While flexibility should be worked into a Will to avoid the need to amend it nearly as often as Carrie switches up her wardrobe, it is important to revisit one’s estate planning on a fairly regular basis and certainly after major life events or developments, such births in the family, divorce, marriage and considerable changes to assets. In Mr. Big’s case, depending on when he last revisited his Will, it is possible that not only his family status had since changed (was he already married to Carrie at that point?), but also his financial situation (did he ever acquire real property outside of New York?) and his wishes (had he changed his mind about leaving the gift to his ex-wife and simply not gotten around to changing his Will?). I suppose we’ll never know.
Thanks for reading!