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WSJ on “Downton Abbey” Planning Lessons

It is not everyday that important retirement and estate planning issues make their way into popular entertainment drama. One of the few exceptions was the movie “The Descendants” a few years ago which garnered widespread acclaim–and some Oscar awards–in a tale focused on a man who unexpectedly comes into control of vast land holdings in trust following his wife’s surprising death. The main character, played by George Clooney, is forced to grapple with a range of issue while dealing with feuding in-laws and uncertainty about his wife’s wishes.

One of the other exceptions is the massively-popular British drama Downton Abbey. The BBC program has been running for several seasons, with the most recent batch of episodes just finishing to high rating here in the United States. The story is set over the course of several years in the first part of the 20th Century, including the first World War and the decade or so afterward.

Much of the drama revolves around one family living off “old wealth” and the challenges presented in maintaining a large estate and transitioning for its transfer to another generation. Recently, a Wall Street Journal article offered an interesting take on some estate planning lessons that viewers can glean from the ups and downs depicted in the show surrounding the inheritance drama.

For example, one key problem is the challenge of maintaining a significant amount of wealth in a large home. The family in Downton Abbey engages in a range of struggles all in an effort to keep the large estate in the family. In reality, it is often far easier to simply sell a home and distribute cash instead of being burdened by the exigencies of maintaining an unwanted piece of real estate.

Another lesson is the value of dynasty trusts. In the show, the patriarch of the home pour vast holding in one bad investment and risks the entire family fortune. If that fortune had been handed down with certain limitations, perhaps via a dynasty trust, then the danger of massive loss to creditors or mismanagement may be limited.

Of course, most New Yorkers do not have the wealth of the Crawley family in Downton Abbey. Yet, the basic lessons in the show hold true to the present day and apply to families of varying asset levels. Diversify holding, protecting against sudden illness, guarding against ramifications following divorce, remaining flexible with asset allocation, and many other issues in the show are faced everyday by local families. For help navigating these somewhat confusing legal and financial waters, please contact the New York estate planning attorneys at our firm for tailored guidance.

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