Wendy and Jen Wreck the Movies (And the Books They Are Based On): Howards End (1992), or “Estate Planning Should Not Wait Until the End”

November 17, 2022 | Wendy Hoey Sheinberg | Jennifer F. Hillman | Trusts & Estates

What Happened:

Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox bond over Christmas shopping, their shared attachment to their respective childhood homes and familial loyalty. Ruth enchants Margaret with stories of her ancestral home, Howards End. Ruth confides in Margaret that her husband, Henry, and children do not share her connection or affection for Howards End. They are oblivious to Ruth’s loneliness and obvious terminal illness. Over time, Ruth confides her illness to Margaret, and Margaret becomes an attentive confidante and source of comfort. In gratitude for her companionship, Ruth tells Margaret that she wants to give her Howards End. Later, in the presence of a witness, Ruth pens a deathbed note in pencil stating her intention that Margaret should receive Howards End, which is then sent to Henry.

Henry receives the note after Ruth’s death and calls a family meeting. Henry authoritatively tells his children that Howards End belonged to Ruth and she was free to dispose of it as she pleased. Henry’s daughter-in-law Dolly (a legal genius and moral barometer) declares that the note is in pencil and as everyone knows “pencil never counts.” Ruth’s daughter, Evie, shreds the note and tosses it into a blazing fire. Henry ignores the note and becomes the owner of Howard’s End.

After Ruth’s death, Henry and Margaret develop a deep friendship. Henry hosts a wedding for his daughter Evie. Margaret’s sister, Helen, arrives at the wedding with Jacky and Leonard Bast. Henry confesses to having had an extramarital affair a decade before Ruth’s death with Jacky (who was 16 years old at the time). Somehow Margaret overlooks Henry’s past behavior and forgives all. Margaret and Henry eventually marry, but the family intrigue continues. Helen has Leonard Bast’s baby out of wedlock, Henry’s oldest son kills Leonard, Margaret leaves, Henry has a quasi-reckoning, blah, blah, intrigue, blah.

Henry is finally shamed and tells his children that he will leave Howards End to Margaret. Dolly (the legal genius and moral barometer) reminds everyone that it was Ruth’s dying wish that Howards End belong to Margaret. Henry (half) confesses to Margaret that Ruth scribbled Margaret’s name on a piece of paper, but knowing that Ruth was not herself, he set it aside (as one does). Henry asks Margaret (rhetorically we think) “I didn’t do wrong, did I?” Somehow, Margaret does not grill him on his uncalibrated moral compass, and everyone lives on in a state of denial.

What Should Have Happened:

Ruth Wilcox loves her home Howards End more than life (or her family). She wants the property to go to a person who will treasure it and keep it safe from bulldozers and developers. After some contemplation, she decides her friend Margaret Schlegel is just the person to preserve and protect Howards End. Ruth, like many people, put off her planning for far too long. It was only on her deathbed that Ruth finally scribbled out a note expressing her wishes. The note was witnessed by one nurse and then sent to Margaret.

Following Ruth’s death, the law firm of Moe & Larry, LLP, as attorneys for Margaret, sent Henry the original handwritten document claiming it is the operative testamentary instrument. Henry dusts off Ruth’s ten-year-old last will and testament, which names him as sole beneficiary (an “I Love You Will”) and brings the will and the note to Wendy and Jen.

Wendy and Jen tell Henry it is a class E felony under New York law to conceal, suppress, mutilate, or destroy a will, codicil, or other testamentary instrument, with intent to defraud, punishable by a four-year prison sentence.

Wendy and Jen tell Henry it is unlikely that the note could be probated as a Will. Henry shouts “I knew it, pencil doesn’t count!!” Seeing the deeply confused faces of Wendy and Jen, Henry explains that his daughter-in-law, Dolly, read on the internet that documents written in pencil were invalid as a matter of law. Wendy and Jen explain that a Google search is not a substitute for a law degree, and Henry vows to have an attorney review all matters in which he previously consulted Dolly.

Wendy and Jen explain that a Will could be written in purple crayon as long as it was signed and dated by the testator in the presence of two attesting witnesses and executed with certain formalities. After further explaining to Henry that a black tie and tails are not part of the necessary formalities, Henry retains Wendy and Jen to act as his attorneys.

Wendy and Jen submit the “I Love You Will” and the original handwritten note to the Surrogate’s Court. Ruth’s children and Margaret receive proper notice of the proceeding. On the initial return date, the Court appoints a Guardian ad Litem on behalf of Ruth’s oldest son, Charles, who is in jail after allowing Dolly to represent him in connection with a parking ticket.

The Guardian ad Litem, the parties, and their attorneys come together to try to resolve the issues.

During the negotiations, it becomes clear that Margaret is not a gold-digging interloper; she is deeply concerned that Ruth’s family will not honor Ruth’s wishes and they will sell Howards End to a real estate developer.

Henry is so moved by Margaret’s loyalty, goodness, and character that he falls madly in love with her. Henry proposes to Margaret, and they invite Wendy and Jen to the disco-themed engagement party.

Wendy and Jen represent Henry in the negation of a prenuptial agreement with Margaret’s lawyer. The prenuptial agreement specifies the treatment of their separate, joint, and marital property, on death or divorce. Henry and Margaret (or Hen-Ret as they insist on being called) draft corresponding estate plans. The Hen-Ret wedding is a lavish affair held at Howards End, with all guests giving charitable donations to a foundation that helps young families break the cycle of poverty in lieu of gifts.

Ultimately, Ruth’s estate is settled. The parties agree that the note is not a testamentary instrument, and the settlement agreement provides that after the property is re-titled in Henry’s name, he must create an irrevocable trust giving Hen-Ret a life estate in Howards End (meaning they each have a lifetime right to use and enjoy Howards End) and after they both die, Howards End will belong to Margaret’s nephew.

The settlement results in a significant estate tax savings because Howards End passed to Henry as Ruth’s surviving spouse. Henry’s children are overjoyed with the estate tax savings and assurance that their inheritance from their father is otherwise secure with a properly executed and acknowledged prenup.

For years to come, Hen-Ret hosts an annual charity event at Howards End to honor the memory of Ruth and her kindness.

The legal process surrounding inheritance issues can be tricky and requires the assistance of a knowledgeable estate practitioner.

Save the drama for the movies.

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