Friends:

Consider this interesting set of facts:  a very wealthy man dies and in his Will he devises all of his assets, including substantial real estate holdings, to his son, provided that he marry a specific girl.  If he does not marry this girl, then the estate is to go to the wealthy man’s butler.  After the wealthy man’s death, his son, while traveling to the funeral for his father, is killed in a boating accident, thus precluding him from marrying the girl.  Based on the terms of the Will, then, the butler inherits the entire estate.

So far so good, right?  Disregard the propriety of the provision in the Will itself and whether a condition of marriage to a specific individual is an enforceable covenant in an estate planning document.  Simply the process by which the butler received the estate is relatively clear.

I want you to step into the shoes of the butler.  You lucked out, didn’t you?  The fact that the son died and was thus unable to complete the term requiring his marriage to the girl made you a wealthy man.  What do you do with all of that money?  The money just fell from the sky, completely changing your life overnight, and escorting you to a status in society you never thought attainable.

Now I want you to consider a different set of facts:  father dies leaving a trust that indicates that the assets of the trust are to be divided between his daughter and his son.  Unfortunately, the daughter and son are not so much estranged as actually strangers, never having met each other and having very little knowledge of the other.  In fact, son, as administrator of the trust, doesn’t even know if his sister is alive, so he does nothing with respect to administration of the trust and acts as if it is all his. 

Years later, when son and his wife are having marital difficulties, wife, in looking for dirt on her husband to use against him in the divorce proceedings, comes upon the trust, reaches out to the sister (who she somehow figured out how to make contact with) and informs the sister of her entitlement.  Sister had no idea she was a beneficiary of her father’s estate and now has a claim against her brother for her share.

I want you to step into the shoes of the wife, the person who informed the sister of her good fortune.  Aren’t you a little jealous of the sister? 

In case you didn’t figure it out, I didn’t make either of those scenarios up.  One is based on true events and the other is the basis for a classic novel by one of our greatest writers, Charles Dickens.  Can you tell which is which?

Here is how the first scenario played out:  after the butler receives his inheritance, he takes pity on the poor girl who missed out on a large payday because of the son’s death, takes her into his home and basically adopts her, sharing all of his good fortune with her, it being his understanding that it was only because of her decided misfortune that he became the sole heir of the estate. 

The second scenario played out far differently:  when the wife learned that her sister-in-law was entitled to inherit a significant sum of money, she took to holding the actual document hostage until such time as an agreement was made by which she would receive a healthy finder’s fee for her discovery.  Her rationale was that if it wasn’t for her, the sister would still be ignorant as to her good fortune and she should be rewarded for her unearthing the trust document.

Obviously the first scenario is a figment of the creativity of Charles Dickens and is the main thrust of his last completed novel, “Our Mutual Friend.”  Be honest, would you really have thought about taking care of the poor girl who did nothing wrong but simply was a victim of her circumstance?  It isn’t too farfetched to believe that had the son and girl married they would not have taken care of the butler, so why should the butler have taken care of the girl?  Wikipedia (that bastion of truth) states that Charles Dickens was known for his keen observation of character and society.  Doesn’t seem accurate in light of the plot of “Our Mutual Friend,” does it?

Then you have the second example, the real life one, the one that more plainly illustrates where we are as a people and the way our morals are compromised when money is involved.  I have said it many times before—money changes people.  But not only does it change people when they receive it, it changes people when other people receive it.  Jealousy mixed with greed is a lethal combination and the second situation described above is a classic example of it. 

I highly doubt that sensibilities and avarice have changed considerably since 1865; however, Dickens can’t be criticized for creating characters that embody positive principles and moral fiber.  Instead, I view “Our Mutual Friend” as one of two things:  a fantasy fashioned by Dickens that gave him the freedom to manipulate the characters in a way which he knew normal people would never act; or, it was just one big excoriation of the greed of English society in the 1860s.

In fact, I think that “Our Mutual Friend” was both.  It was fun for Dickens to play overlord in a fantasy world, and it was also discouraging to Dickens to have the knowledge that people would never change.

And based on the second scenario above, can you really blame Dickens for wanting to have that fun.  Real life is distinctly not like in the books.  When money is involved, people most assuredly change.

As Gordon Gecko so eloquently described it in “Wall Street,” “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”  It is that mindset which will keep me busy handling probate and trust litigation matters, I assure you.  Human nature doesn’t change overnight, nor over 160 years… 

Advertisements