In the first episode of the PBS hit television series Downton Abbey, the Titanic sank somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean, and with it sank the heir to Downton Abbey. This international tragedy set the foundation for the show -- with the family's closest male relative gone, who would inherit Downton and preserve the home and livelihood of so many? Amid the uncertainty of who would claim the "entail" (an outdated term used to describe the manner of passing real property by inheritance), the show explores many estate planning issues relevant to our lives today. This article highlights five modern-day planning considerations buried within the battle for the entail on Downton Abbey. A warning: This article contains spoilers!
NUMBER 1: Consider a prenuptial agreement. Lord Grantham married Lady Grantham for her money. Once married, Lady Grantham's wealth was permanently entwined with Lord Grantham's and became destined to pass to his family's heir. If Lady Grantham had had the option of entering into a prenuptial agreement, she might have been able to protect her significant fortune from the fate of Downton. Although historically such agreements often had a stigma attached, today couples commonly protect their family wealth (or hard-earned riches) by entering into a prenuptial agreement to provide for the disposition of their assets in certain situations, including death and divorce, and to assign property as separate assets or as part of the marital estate. Lord and Lady Grantham (and the entire Crawley family) undoubtedly would have benefited from a prenuptial agreement to separate Lady Grantham's wealth from that of Downton.
NUMBER 2: Start business succession planning early. In season three, Matthew Crawley, the heir of Downton, contributed some of his individual (albeit inherited) wealth to save Downton after the bulk of the family's assets were lost in a poor investment. Thereafter, Lord Grantham asked Matthew to participate in the daily operation of Downton. Matthew agreed to do so, and, not surprisingly, what followed was a transition marred with tension and resentment. Anytime there is a transition of power within a family business, the family may face challenges, but such challenges can be mitigated by starting the transition early and identifying each family member's role in the business. An early start also gives the younger generation the opportunity to operate the business, learn the trade and contribute to the family's professional goals while working collaboratively with the older generation. Had Lord Grantham given some of the responsibility to Matthew years earlier when he learned Matthew would someday inherit Downton, this transition of control might have been easier on Lord Grantham and his family.
NUMBER 3: Seize estate planning opportunities when they arise. In season three, tragedy struck Downton when Sybil died from complications during childbirth. Her sudden incapacity and death left her husband and entire family struggling to identify her wishes for her child's future as well as for her own medical care when she was incapacitated. Even in today's world, a significant life event -- a new baby, an unexpected inheritance, administration of a loved one's estate, a divorce -- is what triggers the desire to implement (or update) an estate plan. Whatever that event may be, recognizing and seizing the planning opportunity when it arises is important. With an estate plan, each person has the ability to declare his or her wishes and to exercise some control over the transfer of wealth after death. Had Sybil executed a will or healthcare proxy while she was healthy, she might have diminished some of the uncertainty and stress her family ultimately endured.
NUMBER 4: Use trusts to preserve the family wealth. When Lord Grantham's daughter Sybil married a (gasp!) chauffeur, Lord Grantham grappled with the idea of cutting off financial support to Sybil and her family. What could he have done instead? He could have set up a trust to pass wealth through generations in a manner that protected the assets from creditors (including an ex-spouse), imprudent investment decisions and spendthrift beneficiaries. If Lord Grantham had set up a trust for Sybil and her children, he could have provided financial support for them while keeping those funds from the reach of Sybil's husband. In addition, the use of a trust might have prevented the loss of the family's wealth through bad investment decisions. The trustee of a trust has various duties in administering the trust, some of which prevent him or her from investing the bulk of the trust's assets in one venture and risking a significant loss in the event that investment goes sour. If a trustee had managed the family's wealth and overseen investment decisions, the family might not have suffered so great a loss when the Canadian railway, the family's main investment, went bankrupt.
NUMBER 5: Plan for yourself and your family -- because you can! Throughout the first season, Lord Grantham struggled with the thought of a distant male cousin, a stranger to the family, inheriting Downton and taking control of the business he had worked so hard to build. Lord Grantham often wished he had earned his fortune himself, in which case he would have had some control over how it would pass to subsequent generations. This wish would have been granted if Lord Grantham could have created his own estate plan. Today, in most cases, individuals have the power to dispose of their own wealth by designing and implementing an estate plan. Absent an estate plan, state law would generally govern the disposition of property upon death, which could result in a situation as unfortunate as Lord Grantham's. As a result, the most important estate planning lesson learned from Downton Abbey may be this: If you can "fight the entail" with your own proactive estate planning, you owe it to yourself and your family to do so.