8 estate planning lessons from "Downton Abbey"

(AP Photo/PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE, Nick Briggs) (AP Photo/PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE, Nick Briggs)

The Masterpiece Theater hit “Downton Abbey” offers helpful lessons in a lot of things: turn-of-the-century fashion, 1920s table manners, dramatic face slapping. And while viewers might not realize it, in between all the backstabbing, messy relationships and ego-fueled showdowns, the miniseries is also an in-depth tutorial on the prudence of estate planning. Don’t believe it? Here are 8 valuable estate planning tips, straight from TV’s grandest estate.

(Alert: If you're not caught up on the show, this article contains significant spoilers. Don't say I didn't warn you!)

Anna AP

Disability insurance is crucial — and not just for white-collar workers.

In season one, John Bates arrived at Downton Abbey as a new valet. Due to an injury sustained during the Boer War, however, he walks with a limp and struggles to perform his duties. (The term “upstairs-downstairs” isn't just figurative.) His disability earns him scorn from some of his fellow staff members, and his boss — the Earl of Grantham — fires him because of it. With no other real skills, Bates has nowhere to go. (Lord Grantham later has a change of heart and gives Bates his job back, though. Aw.)

The lesson? Because most people work for profit-minded corporations and not philanthropic Lord Grantham, it’s crucial they protect their ability to earn an income. Whether your client plans to pass down millions to his heirs or just a few hundred dollars, he won’t be able to do either if a disability renders him unable to work. Before getting into the nitty gritty of trusts and other estate planning set-ups, most advisors recommend ensuring clients have adequate life and disability coverage.


(AP Photo/PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE)

Grantham AP

Don’t have a clear business succession plan in place? Get one.

In Downton Abbey’s first episode, we learned that the heirs to the Earl of Grantham — his brother James Crawley and nephew Patrick — have died on the Titanic. Downton’s entail demands that the estate be passed to a male heir — which is now a problem for the earl, who has only daughters. Chaos and drama, of course, ensue.

The lesson? Every business — and Downton Abbey is essentially a business, employing most of the area’s residents either directly or indirectly — needs a succession plan, and maybe a backup plan, and maybe a backup to the backup plan. Does your client want to leave his business to his son? Better make sure the son actually wants it. Does he plan to leave it to a business partner? Be careful the business partner doesn’t die first. Top-tier advisors know to ask the right questions and plan for all contingencies.


(AP Photo/PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE, Nick Briggs)

Anna Ethel AP

It’s never too early to plan.

In season two, Downton Abbey was converted temporarily into a convalescence facility for soldiers injured during World War I. One of the recovering officers, Major Bryant, takes up with a housemaid, Ethel (pictured at right). When she has his baby, he doesn’t acknowledge that the child is his before heading back to the front — where he dies. With no provision for her child — and no job, obviously, because of the whole sleeping-with-a-patient thing — Ethel is forced out on the streets, where she turns up as a prostitute in season three.

The lesson? Whether your client is fathering illegitimate children with servants or just, you know, living a normal life, he doesn’t know when his time is going to be up. All clients, young or old, need to have estate planning basics in place — like, say, life insurance coverage and a will — to ensure their families are provided for, whenever they might pass.


(AP Photo/PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE, Nick Briggs)

Grantham Carson AP

Advisor knows best.

In the season three opener, Lord Grantham (pictured at left) discovers that he’s lost most of his fortune — well, his wife Cora’s fortune — by investing in a railroad that has gone bankrupt. The future of Downton is up in the air, as the earl’s advisors, who warned against going all-in on the investment, tell him, essentially, “Uh, we told you so.”

The lesson? Occasionally, your clients are going to want to do some crazy things — put all their money in gold, skip the life insurance protection they need, neglect estate planning altogether. As a trusted advisor, it’s your job to educate these clients and steer them in the right direction ... which is not toward a tanking Canadian railroad.


(AP Photo/PBS, Josh Barratt)

Martha Levinson AP

Don’t tie up money you might need.

Martha Levinson, Lord Grantham's wealthy American mother-in-law, arrives in season three, just as the earl is learning he lost his shirt — and probably his family’s and servants’ shirts — on that bad investment. Naturally, she’s looked to as a solution to the estate’s money woes, but she doesn’t want to help — and can’t, besides: she has access to an income from her fortune, but the principal is all tied up.

The lesson? Annuities and other financial products can be great, but only if they won’t lock up funds your client might need for groceries, health care or saving the odd English estate. It seems like a no-brainer, but given the amount of consumer complaints stemming from long-term investments like these, it bears repeating: consider the long-term big picture before getting your client into a product that can’t be easily reversed.


(AP Photo/PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE, Nick Briggs)

Matthew Crawley Lady Mary AP

Update … before it’s too late.

At the beginning of season three, Matthew Crawley learns he’s been named as an heir to the fortune of the late father of his late fiancée. Turns out that, of the two heirs in line before him, one is dead and the other is presumed dead. But Crawley doesn’t feel like a worthy heir because his fiancée died after seeing him kiss another woman — whom he's now about to marry.

The lesson? Don’t let your clients set it and forget it. Annual updates and regular check-ins will ensure that your clients’ wishes are fulfilled when they die — and that their money won’t end up with the third-choice heir who didn’t exactly love their daughter.


(AP Photo/PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE, Nick Briggs)

Matthew Crawley AP

There’s no such thing as a quick fix…

Remember that valet from earlier? Bates? Later in the show’s first season, he becomes fed up with his injury and buys a contraption called a “limp corrector.” Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. He eventually throws the waste of money into a lake.

The lesson? Your clients may be looking for a simple estate planning solution where there is none. Trusts, buy-sell agreements and other estate planning tools can seem complicated and confusing to people who don’t deal in them every day. Successful advisors will take the time to explain what they’re doing and why — and how their plan is better than the one-and-done solution the client may have been gunning for.

… except when there is.

Okay, so the limp corrector was a bust. But in season two, Matthew Crawley is injured in the trenches during World War I and sustains a transected spinal cord. He’s paralyzed from the waist down … for two whole episodes. By the end of the season, he's dancing at balls. Miracles are real!

The lesson? Many prospects and clients are also crippled — with fear — when it comes to estate planning. They put it off because they think it’s going to be long, complicated and expensive. And who wants to plan for their own demise? It’s the advisor’s job to show clients that, most of the time, those fears are unfounded, and with the help of an expert (ahem, you), the process can be quite easy.


(AP Photo/PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE, Nick Briggs)

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