Lessons Learned from Downton Abbey
Like many of us here at the ETV Endowment, you still may be basking in the glow of this beloved British drama’s return, this time to the big screen. All the delightful things we love about Downton Abbey were present in the new movie – glorious costumes, droll comments, heartwarming—and sometimes heartbreaking—love stories, stunning Yorkshire landscapes and dramatic surprises. But, something much bigger was still lurking: the essential problem of what was to become of the Downton estate and what its success or demise would mean for all of its residents, upstairs and down.
While most of us don’t live the noble lifestyle of Lord and Lady Grantham, there is still much we can learn from the Crawleys and the many estate planning decisions they made throughout their fictional years.
It’s Never Too Early To Plan
Mary’s marriage to Matthew Crawley, and his subsequent inheritance from his first fiancée, seemed like a godsend for Downton and the family. Who could have predicted that Matthew would have died such an early and tragic death? (Some of us still haven’t quite recovered from that story line) This triggered new issues of estate taxes and the line of succession that now moved to baby George.
Lesson Learned: firm estate plans, with contingencies, are necessary even if one is still a young adult, and these estate plans must be updated when children join the family or when other milestones are reached. Fortunately, Mary was a resourceful and intelligent woman who could manage the estate until George comes of age. But, does life always work out as well as a fairy tale? Consult with an attorney to put a basic plan in place.
Taxes, Taxes, Taxes
Again, Matthew’s death triggered potentially crippling estate taxes for the family and there was great debate within the family about how to meet this pressing obligation and what kind of debt to take on. Mary, Robert and Tom struggled to find the best path forward.
Lesson Learned: While most of us fly well under today’s estate tax exemptions, it is important to arrange your affairs in a tax-wise manner for your family or other loved ones. A local financial planner or attorney can craft a plan that maximizes what you are able to leave behind and in the way that you intend.
Never Make Assumptions
In the movie, the family once again pins its financial hopes on a distant relative. We meet Lady Maud, a Crawley cousin with whom the family has fallen out over inheritance tensions. The Dowager Countess fears Robert will be cheated out of his rightful bequest. Unbeknownst to the family, Maud has a daughter that she wishes to have inherit her estate.
Lessons Learned: Violet’s instinct to get an honest answer and resolution on the status of Maud’s will was not bad. As uncomfortable as it may be, it is helpful and healthy for families to have open and honest conversations about estate plans to avoid problems, legal challenges and hurt feelings down the road. We understand this is not always possible or easy to do; most of us don’t have Violet’s audacity to ferret out the truth. Seeking the services of an objective professional advisor can ease the process, though. Maud also had good instincts in this situation – she put on record her estate plans to benefit her heretofore unknown daughter, Lucy. Had she not documented such plans, then it would be been likely that the Crawley family either would not have known her intentions to leave everything to Lucy or would not have honored those wishes. The bottom line is you can’t assume your family or the courts will know your intentions, or the full extent of them, or that they will even carry out your wishes exactly as you hoped.
A Cup of Tea Makes Everything Better
Diving into estate planning is a daunting task even if you don’t have a vast English estate to consider. We suggest pouring yourself a bracing cup of tea and sitting down to work on the Personal Estate Planning Guide, a handy booklet that will help you get organized so that you can start making a plan with a professional advisor. Click here to request your free copy.
This week the ETV Endowment is marking National Estate Planning Awareness Week. In addition to sharing estate planning strategies, we are offering a tool for taking the important first step – getting organized! Thanks to AccountingWEB for providing the original inspiration for this post. Check out their post for more Downton Abbey lessons for business owners.
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