Golden Globe Winning Film Explores the Trust Industry

Estate planning usually doesn’t come to mind when one thinks about award winning Hollywood movies. Most popular films are about great adventures, tragedies, and disasters. Planning for one’s long term financial and medical well-being, on the contrary, is all about prudently working to avoid major crisis or drama. However, a film that many movie buffs believe has the inside track to win this year’s Academy Award for Best Film actually involves estate planning, with a trust and a trustee at the center of the action. This weekend the movie won the Golden Globe Award for Best Dramatic Film.

“The Descendants” tells the tale of a man who is dealing with the impending death of his wife who suffered a traumatic injury and is on life support. The film’s protagonist, played by George Clooney, is the victim’s husband. As his wife slips away he is forced to deal with the consequences of handling her estate. She had come from a very wealthy family, and the couple (along with their two children) had lived on acreage of land in Hawaii that was held in trust.

Clooney, as the husband, is the trustee of his wife’s multi-generational estate worth billions. The other trust heirs (his cousins) want to sell the land to generate income to meet their personal needs. However, Clooney remain unsure of the best long-term decision. He knows that the original intent of the family was to preserve the land for succeeding generations.

After calling the movie “the best trust film ever released,” writers at The Trust Advisor noted that the film echoes many real-life situations faced by trustees debating the wishes of those who have passed with the needs of those still living. They explained “every multi-generational trust is a balancing act between the living and the dead, with the trustee in the precarious position of having to weigh the wishes of the vanished grantors against the priorities of their heirs.”

Our New York estate planning attorneys were not surprised to learn that the movie was based in large part on the real life situation faced by the Campbell family–heirs to a billion dollar Hawaiian estate. For one hundred and seven years a trust held title to thousands of acres of land on the big island. In 2007, after the last of the heirs who was alive when the trust was created passed away, the trustees were forced to decide how best to handle the situation. Eventually some of the remaining beneficiaries took large cash disbursements. A few of the others chose to roll over their interests into a new real estate corporation, meaning that the family still controls thousands of acres on the island.

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