All About Estates

King Lear: Lessons in estate and succession planning, capacity and family dynamics

The Stratford Festival has included ‘King Lear’ among this year’s performances.  ‘Lear’, of course, is the poster boy for older adults who use poor judgment in determining how and when to distribute their assets to their children.  The opening of King Lear reveals the King’s intent to divest his kingdom to his three daughters. Similar to many older adults, he “wishes unburdened to crawl toward death”.  However, he adds a cruel twist.  His three daughters must publicly profess their love for him with “the largest bounty to whoever doth love him most”. This was a narcissistic and capricious act with tragic consequences for him and his one sincerely devoted daughter, Cordelia who refused to be hypocritical as were her two older sisters. Leaving himself no control of his assets and putting himself at the mercy of two greedy, ambitious and vindictive daughters, Shakespeare’s Lear provides us with a cautionary tale.

It is unclear in the opening scene of King Lear whether he has always been a narcissistic and controlling person (therefore probably considered capable) or whether he is mentally ill and in the early stages of dementia with impulsivity and poor judgment (therefore probably incapable). The ability to view the play to its conclusion should have the advantages of a retrospective capacity assessment in which earlier actions, behaviour and symptoms can be cast into sharper relief and be better understood in the context of the clinical course after the event in question.  However, Shakespeare presents Lear as an amalgam of personality disorder, delirium and dementia, thus leaving lots of opportunity for critical thinking but no clear conclusions.  Nonetheless, Shakespeare is remarkably relevant today as he highlights the vicissitudes of old age and its impact on families and on estate planning.   Shakespeare would have made for an excellent expert who could have informed and indeed entertained the modern day court. For those interested, the iconic ‘King Lear’ is well worth reading or seeing the play at Stratford starring Colm Feore. Performances have been extended until October 25.

About Dr. Ken Shulman
Dr. Shulman graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto in 1973 and did postgraduate training in Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He then went on to do specialty training in Geriatric Psychiatry in London, England. Since 1978, he has been based at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, University of Toronto. He is the inaugural recipient of the Richard Lewar Chair in Geriatric Psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, University of Toronto. Currently, he is the Chief of the Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook. Dr. Shulman has had a longstanding interest in the issue of testamentary capacity and vulnerability to undue influence and has been qualified as an expert witness in Estate matters in Ontario and Alberta. Together with colleagues he has published several papers in the area of testamentary capacity in international journals and is a frequent presenter at legal continuing education conferences on Estates and Trusts. Email: