When released in late 2016, Manchester by the Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, received nearly unanimous critical acclaim for exploring themes related to family, personal tragedy, and grief. For estate planning lawyers like myself, the film also resonated because the basic plotline—that of an uncle who is named guardian to his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies—strikes at the heart of the importance of having an estate plan.
Here are 5 important estate planning lessons—for parents in particular—from Manchester by the Sea.
Lesson #1: If you have children, nominating a guardian to care for them is reason enough to make sure you have an estate plan. At the beginning of Manchester, we learn that Joe Chandler—Lee Chandler’s (Affleck) older brother and Patrick Chandler’s father—has just suffered a fatal heart attack after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure 8 years earlier. Knowing he had only 5 to 10 years to live following his diagnosis, Joe took a critical step to protect and provide for his son Patrick: he hired a lawyer to draw up an estate plan.
In my estate planning practice, I’ve noticed that more and more parents are motivated to get an estate plan in place for one primary reason: to name a guardian to care for their children in the event they die prematurely or become incapacitated. For parents seeking peace of mind in an unpredictable world, they view an estate plan as mandatory rather than optional. In Manchester, Joe was compelled to create an estate plan for this same reason.
Lesson #2: Don’t name a guardian to care for your child or children without first getting that person’s consent. In Manchester, Joe proactively draws up an estate plan to specify who will care for his son upon his death. However, Joe commits a common, yet tragic, mistake that will plague the Chandler family throughout the film. Joe does not get Lee’s consent before naming Lee to be Patrick’s guardian. In the film, this makes for a strained interaction between Lee and the lawyer administering Joe’s Last Will & Testament: Lee tells the lawyer that Joe never talked with him about this responsibility beforehand because Joe knew Lee would refuse.
To avoid the situation of a blinded-sided guardian, I counsel my clients on how to seek their preferred guardian’s informed consent. If you don’t get your nominated guardian’s permission, you put your child’s welfare at risk. In Manchester, Lee ultimately refuses to serve as Patrick’s guardian. Lee is unable to forgive himself for his role in accidentally starting the house fire that killed his three children, and he rejects moving back to Manchester under any circumstances.
Lesson #3: Do everything you can to avoid letting the courts, or chance, decide what happens to your children. In Manchester, two circumstances—Joe’s failure before he died to get Lee’s permission to serve as Patrick’s guardian and Lee’s refusal to serve as guardian—invited a potential court battle into the mix. It created a situation where a new guardian needed to be found. The film identifies three potential alternative guardians for Patrick, none ideal: his uncle in Minnetonka, hours away from Patrick’s life in Manchester; his mother, an alcoholic who abandoned him and his father years earlier; and George, Joe’s closest friend in Manchester who has five children of his own. In the end—and luckily, without a court battle—George agrees to look after Patrick until he turns 18 and can manage his own affairs.
In my practice, I strive to help my clients keep the courts out of their affairs. Recently, I helped a couple with their estate plan who had watched from the sidelines as a bitter year-long court battle ensured to determine who would serve as the guardian of a child left behind after the child’s parents were killed unexpectedly in a head-on collision. A key benefit of proper estate planning is that it minimizes potential family conflict; by transparently expressing your wishes in your estate plan, you help ensure that your immediate family and relatives do not end up fighting in court.
Lesson #4: A properly structured estate plan can care for the financial needs of your child in the event of your death, which can ease the financial burden on your nominated guardian. In Manchester, Joe’s Will includes detailed information about his financial assets and how they are to be allocated for Patrick’s immediate and long-term future. When he turns 18, Patrick will inherit the house and boat, both of which are owned outright. Money has been set aside to cover Patrick’s food and clothing expenses. In addition, Joe’s Will included $5,000 to pay for Lee to move from Boston back to Manchester.
In my work with estate planning clients, I continue to be amazed by how a plan can be structured to meet the short-term and long-term needs of children as well as the nominated guardian. Some parents prefer to make their assets available slowly over time, substantially decreasing the risk that funds will run out. Others specify that the majority of their assets are available upfront. Many parents get creative with these details, accounting for everything from food and clothing to educational tutoring and summer vacations to college funds and living stipends. In my experience, most parents want their financial assets to completely offset and/or minimize any financial strain on the nominated guardian.
Lesson #5: Everybody needs an estate plan, regardless of the size of the estate. There is still a pervasive misconception that you only need an estate plan if your assets are substantial. Manchester illustrates that it’s not the size of your estate that matters in estate planning; it’s who—and what—you’re seeking to protect. In the film, Joe is portrayed as a blue-collar guy living and working in a largely blue-collar town. Despite the amount of his assets, he sees the importance of having an estate plan for the purpose of protecting and caring for his son.
Manchester by the Sea isn’t the first time Hollywood has built compelling stories hinging on the death of a loved one followed by the revelation that an unlikely or ill-suited guardian has been named to care for the deceased’s surviving offspring. Baby Boom (1987), Beaches (1988), Raising Helen (2004) and Life As We Know It (2010) are just a few examples of the “seemingly ill-suited for guardianship” film genre. These kinds of scenarios can make for dramatic, even Oscar-worthy, filmmaking. But in real life, it is better to learn from the important estate planning lessons in Manchester by the Sea. In summary, make sure you, your children, and your family members are accounted for and protected—without any extra drama—by having a transparent, well-structured estate plan in place.
Ben Leonard is a member of the Estate Planning and Tax Practice in Ryley Carlock & Applewhite’s Denver office. Using effective estate planning strategies, he helps individuals and families protect their wealth and advance their personal and business interests. He is particularly passionate about helping parents prepare estate plans to protect their children through a process he calls Guardian-Motivated Estate Planning. Ben can be reached at 303.813.6718 and firstname.lastname@example.org.