by Emily Wilburn

For several months I had heard the buzz surrounding a program, Downton Abbey, on PBS about an estate, its family and servants set in early 20th Century England, and that the second season was about to start. I started slowly, watching the first episode from the first season, increasing my habit to maybe two episodes per evening eager to find out what happened next- until I caught up to the second season. And now I cannot wait to catch up with the characters when season three is released. I am hooked- and the ever-present antagonist in this drama is estate planning.

Although I am a lawyer, estate planning has never had me on the edge of my seat, but Downton Abbey presents interesting problems related to estate planning and highlights the importance of carefully considering your estate plans. The premise of much of the plot in Downton Abbey’s first and second seasons is that an aristocratic English family has no control over the way that the family’s estate, named Downton Abbey, or the mother’s wealth which she brought to her marriage into the aristocratic English family, will be inherited.

Downton Abbey1 is a massive fictitious estate set in Yorkshire, England. The estate is inhabited by the 6th Earl of Grantham and his wife, their three daughters, and their servants. Several generations back, the estate was “entailed” or, in other words, left to pass down through the generations to the eldest male heir. Before the 6th Earl of Grantham inherited the estate, the estate was in financial ruin. Luckily, the Earl found a lovely wealthy American wife who brought much needed cash to the marriage and the estate. However, the Countess’s money became a part of the estate, and thus is also subject to the entail. This poses a problem for the current Earl and Countess of Grantham because they only have daughters. Once the Earl dies, the Countess and her daughters have no right to remain on the property or to the use of massive amounts of money that the Countess brought into the marriage.

This “estate plan” in Downton Abbey left much to chance and for the current Earl of Grantham and his family has led to consequences that must have been unintended when the entail was created. The disposition of an estate should not be left to chance. Today, there are many planning techniques to insure that your family is left the position which you desire. A little planning in advance can save much anxiety for the future. While the purpose of the entail in Downtown Abbey was to keep the estate and title in the family, there are modern estate planning techniques that can help to preserve your assets for your family. Archaic estate planning makes for excellent drama in Downton Abbey, but there is no need for such drama in real life.



[1] The fictitious Downton Abbey is really Highclere Castle set in Hampshire, England.

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