Estate Planning: Seven Lessons Learned from Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey is truly a special show. It’s ability to unite people of all ages, sex, and economic standing is rare and noteworthy. Regardless, I’ve found there are two types of people; those who have watched and love Downtown Abbey and those that have not seen it because they think they will not like it.  I myself at one point fell into the latter of the two categories. But after reluctantly watching an episode with my wife, I suddenly knew what all the news articles, water cooler gossip and even the urging of my grandparents was all about. 


Downton Abbey is about several classes of people living under one roof and highlights their relationships as history flies by. While the show has it’s fair share of soap opera drama, it also includes ample historical references, business lessons, politics, betrayal, and believe it or not, legal theories and principals.  


You can learn valuable lessons in Estate Planning by watching the show and while there may be a few spoilers to follow, I hope that together we can learn from this outstanding program. Again, if you have not seen the show, stop reading and go watch it!!


Lesson One – Plan Ahead

The beginning of the show outlines a complex legal situation.  On the one hand, we have an English Earlship and a house that is intended to pass to consecutive male heirs per English law using a type of property ownership called a Fee Tail. On the other hand, we have a massive fortune from Cora’s (the Earl’s wife) rich American father to the Earlship (not directly to his daughter). Cora’s father wanted Cora’s share of the fortune to keep the royal estate that he presumed his heirs would manage alive. However, since Cora had three daughters and no male children, Cora didn’t have anyone eligible to inherit the heir-ship via early 19th Century England.


At this crossroads, the closest male heirs were the father’s first cousins –James and Patrick.  Who, conveniently enough, die tragically on the Titanic. Their death vaulted Matthew Crawley, a man he had scarcely ever met and his third cousin, into the scene as sole heir of the Earlship and his wife’s fortune.


In estate planning, we would refer to this as a generally
unfavorable result.  Due to potentially
poor planning, an individual you never met could inherit your estate. We
commonly refer to these types of people as laughing heirs. Since they did not
know you, they have no need to cry at your death. Rather they laugh with joy
all the way to the bank!