Have you ever fantasized about the possibility of inheriting a significant fortune from a distant uncle? If so, you will be glad to know that you are not the only one. In fact, this scenario is more common than you might think, and it even has a term in legal jargon: the laughing heir. This concept has captured our collective imagination to the point where Hollywood has incorporated it into a popular trope of inheriting vast wealth from long-lost relatives. In this article, we will explore several examples of laughing heirs in popular movies and how these narratives highlight the importance of trust and estate planning. These films provide entertaining scenarios that involve unexpected inheritances while also shedding light on the potential consequences when a proper estate plan is not in place.
Examples in Hollywood
In the 2002 movie “Mr. Deeds” featuring Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder, Sandler plays a small-town pizza shop owner who inherits a huge sum of money and a company from his deceased distant uncle. He moves from his humble, middle-American abode to a penthouse in New York City, and is thrust into the role of running a massive corporation. “Mr. Deeds” is a charming movie about small-town values in the big city, but there is a bigger message from the perspective of a legal expert. Uncle Deeds clearly did not have a will and so his valuable estate was passed down to an underprepared and unsuspecting relative. Much could have gone wrong, and Deed’s legacy could have been destroyed. The uncle clearly built an empire that he was proud of and should have certainly taken more precautions in securing its future.
The 1985 film “Brewster’s Millions” has a different moral. In this movie, a minor league baseball player receives an immense inheritance from an eccentric uncle, but, in order to access the entire fortune, he must meet certain stipulations. The central challenge of the story is that he must spend 30 million dollars in 30 days without owning any assets, gifting any money, giving anything to charity, or destroying it. If he succeeds, he gains access to the rest of the 300 million dollar fortune, but if he fails, he does not get anything. This is an example of an extremely well-coordinated and effective estate plan. Clearly, the uncle had certain wishes and, through carefully crafting his estate plan, he ensured that they would be carried out after his passing. Through estate planning, you can do whatever you please with your money whether that means giving it to charity, planning challenges for your heirs, or simply giving it to the individuals you see as most deserving.
What is a laughing heir?
The legal definition of a laughing heir is someone who inherits a large fortune from a distant deceased relative with whom they have no connection. Essentially, a laughing heir gets to enjoy the bounty of their estate without the grief of losing a close loved one. A few key factors must be in play for this situation to occur. Typically, the primary reason for a laughing heir situation is that the deceased individual did not have a will and so the state turned to intestacy laws to pass down their assets. In the case that all immediate relatives have predeceased them, the estate moves to the next tier of relatives. The potential for becoming a “laughing heir” depends wholly on what state you reside in. Intestacy laws vary greatly between states – some states do not look for relations past your grandparents, while others continue the search until they find a relative, no matter how distantly related. Technically, you can also become a laughing heir in a situation where you inherit from someone that you divorced and who neglected to change their assets with named beneficiaries.
As funny as this all may sound, the bottom line is that everyone needs an estate plan. If you want to leave your fortune to an unsuspecting relative, that is your prerogative, but it is better to be in control of whom your assets will be transferred to after passing. You can leave your estate to whoever you want, whether that be someone you met on the street, your ex-wife’s uncle’s dog’s babysitter, or anyone of the like. The fact is, it is better to have autonomy over your assets and to be aware of who inherits them after you pass away. It is important to remember that it is never too early to create an estate plan as long as you continuously update it when certain changes such as marriage, children, and new wealth come your way. If you are ready to begin your estate planning journey or have any questions, please contact the Law Office of Inna Fershteyn at (718) 333–2394.