Wendy and Jen Wreck the Movies: Dial “M” for Murder (1954), or Murder Doesn’t Pay, and Peanut Butter Expires in November

July 21, 2022 | Wendy Hoey Sheinberg | Jennifer F. Hillman | Trusts & Estates

What Happened:

Margot and Tony Wendice seem to have it all – they are young, beautiful, and in love.  However, much like pyrite, not everything that glitters is gold.

Before their marriage, Tony was a successful tennis player.  It would have been unseemly for Margot, a wealthy socialite, to marry a professional athlete, so Tony quit tennis and went into the sports equipment business.  The shine has now worn off their relationship and Margot is embroiled in a clandestine love affair with Mark Halliday, an American crime writer who likes to write flowery love letters.

Fearing discovery, Margot burned all but one of Mark’s letters, keeping one memento letter safely in her handbag.  One day, Margot discovers the letter is missing.  An unknown person blackmails Margot, telling her the letter will be returned if she sends money to a pawn shop; however, the money is not picked up and Margot does not get the letter back.

As it turns out, Tony is the unknown blackmailer.  He has the letter and is terrified that he will lose Margot and the lifestyle to which he has grown accustomed.

Tony decides the only solution is for Margot to die, leaving him a wealthy single man.  Immediately he begins squirreling away small amounts of money to pay someone to murder Margot.

Once Tony has enough money, he puts his plan in motion.  Charles Swan, Tony’s chum from his days at Cambridge University, is now a grifter, charming wealthy older women out of money.  Tony threatens to expose Swan, unless he murders Margot, a deed for which he will be well-paid.  In an exceptionally evil twist, Tony enlists an unwitting Mark into becoming his alibi on the night Swan is to murder Margot by bringing him to a (rather boring) stag night.

Every part of Tony’s plan goes wrong.  Margot kills Swan while defending herself with a hefty pair of sewing scissors.  Initially, Margot is convicted of Swan’s murder and sentenced to hang.

Just in the nick of time, Mark and a police detective realize that Margot was framed.  A trap is set, and Tony is caught, literally saving Margot’s neck.

What Should Have Happened:

The spark that began Margot’s marriage to Tony Wendice has flamed out.  Initially, Tony enchanted Margot as a handsome, jet-setting, pro tennis player, and she was a young socialite from a wealthy family naive to the duplicity of some people.

Now, Tony is bitter and washed up with no direction, occupation, or projects to give his life meaning and fulfillment.  It has become increasingly apparent to Margot that Tony is more interested in her stock portfolio than her heart.  Margot has tried to make her marriage work, but she cannot stay with Tony.  Margot knows that Tony is financially immature, unmotivated, and unlikely to find suitable employment.

Margot’s high school sweetheart, Mark Halliday, recently “Friended” her on Facebook and she has realized Mark was the man she should have married. Margot met with a matrimonial attorney and plans to divorce Tony, but she is worried that Tony will take all the money she inherited from her grandmother.

Upon the advice of her matrimonial attorney, Margot meets with Wendy & Jen to discuss her estate planning questions and her current last will and testament.  Several years ago, Margot signed a will nominating Tony’s brother as executor, and leaving Tony her entire estate.  Margot also has a large life insurance policy and brokerage accounts, all naming Tony as the sole beneficiary.  Margot also named Tony as her power of attorney and health care agent.

The matrimonial attorney told Margot that “automatic orders” go into place during a divorce which prohibit her from changing the beneficiary designations on the brokerage accounts or life insurance policies.  Margot does not want to hurt Tony, but she does not want to leave him everything if she dies during or after the divorce.  Margot is also worried that Tony, in anger, might misuse the power of attorney.  Margot is worried that the automatic orders prevent her from making any changes.

Wendy & Jen tell Margot that even though the automatic orders keep her from changing some things, she can still take many steps to protect herself and her assets.  Wendy & Jen explain that in New York you cannot fully disinherit your spouse, because New York has spousal elective share.[1] The elective share law sets the smallest amount of money a surviving spouse must receive.  Wendy & Jen tell Margot she can sign a new will leaving Tony an amount equal to his elective share if she dies before the divorce is completed.  Wendy & Jen also tell Margot she can and should revoke her existing power of attorney and healthcare proxy to keep Tony from taking charge of her money and her medical decisions if she becomes incapacitated.

Wendy & Jen tell Margot that their eventual divorce will revoke Tony’s interest in her will, but it will not revoke her nomination of Tony’s brother as executor.  They advise her to make that change as soon as possible in her new will.

Wendy & Jen also tell Margot that divorce revokes beneficiary designations on life insurance and brokerage accounts, but to avoid any future problems she should name new beneficiaries once the divorce is final.

Margot tells Wendy & Jen that Tony has started joking that she is worth more dead than alive, but it is just Tony’s dark sense of humor, and he would never hurt her.  Once convinced that Margot is not in danger, Wendy and Jen tell Margot that the New York case of Riggs v. Palmer prevents a wrongdoer from profiting from their wrong.  This means that Tony will not inherit from her if he intentionally causes her death.  Wendy and Jen encourage Margot to tell her matrimonial attorney about Tony’s “jokes” and to consider spending a few nights with her parents.  Fortunately, Margot was right.  Tony was only joking, and the divorce turns out to be quite amicable.

Margot tells Mark about this Riggs v. Palmer case, and he is fascinated.  Mark is so fascinated that he writes a best-selling true crime novel, “Death and Marriage.” Margot and Mark get married and live happily ever after.

Tony, inspired by Mark’s book, begins a true-crime podcast called “Peanut Butter Expires in November” based in part on a diabolical lie his grandpa told him as a child in order to finagle all of Tony’s Halloween Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.  “Peanut Butter Expires in November” goes viral, both securing Tony’s financial future and healing some old emotional wounds that were the basis of his many trust issues.  A newly revitalized and emotionally secure Tony marries his podcast producer, and the pair drive into the sunset in his personalized orange and yellow Mini Cooper.

It is important to meet with knowledgeable estate planning counsel when going through a divorce.  Murder does not pay.  Save the drama for the movies.

[1] The elective share gives a qualified surviving spouse a right to a cash amount equal to the greater of 1/3 the decedent’s net elective share estate or $50,000.

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