Estate Planning Lessons from the Movies – Part II

Recently, a headline titled “Eight Lessons from Killers of the Flower Moon” caught my eye, and the idea for this two-part blog took hold. The article talked about the movie titled “Killers of the Flower Moon” that received critical acclaim for its depiction of the plight of the Osage Indian Tribe. The article focused on the many real-life Estate Planning lessons that we can learn from watching the movie. The first part, Estate Planning Lessons from the Movies – Part I, of this two-part series, gave a brief overview of the movie’s plot along with beginning to introduce the lessons from the movie. This second part will finish exploring those lessons and their real-world application.

As a reminder, “Killers of the Flower Moon” focuses on the “Reign of Terror” which was the name given to the period when white “caretakers” murdered members of the Osage Indian Tribe to steal their rights to the oil under their reservation. After the oil was discovered, each member of the tribe received a “headright” or share in the oil money (learn more about that here: The Osage Nation). The tribe members could devise or distribute, but not sell, that right. Anyone could inherit the headright which meant that outsiders sought to marry into the Osage tribe or otherwise become an heir to one of the members of the tribe. This led to the murder of countless Osage tribe members. As if the murders were not tragic enough, the federal government decided to impose restrictions on the tribe’s financial autonomy by requiring tribe members to take a test regarding their competency to manage their own estates. Every tribe member failed, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs assigned each a white guardian to oversee their spending. It’s unclear whether the guardians had any training, but the article makes clear that the guardians were corrupt and completely unnecessary.

I find the story itself intriguing, yet it becomes even more fascinating when viewed through an Estate Planning lens and with an eye toward learning from mistakes of the past. The first part of this series gave us lessons regarding the importance of fiduciary duties, understanding your intended beneficiaries, how sudden wealth destabilizes, and that addiction knows no income bracket or socioeconomic status. The next lesson focuses on the importance of flexibility in family legacy. A good Trusts and Estates Attorney inquires about the legacy that you want to leave for your family and helps you accomplish that goal. A great Trusts and Estates Attorney helps you create a legacy that will evolve with your family over time. Family expectations may motivate one member while crushing another. This underscores the importance of building flexibility into a legacy. The movie highlights how the Osage people struggled to integrate their well-established traditions into their increasingly modern world as it grew with their sudden wealth and interaction with non-indigenous people. The ones who found ways to adapt their traditions to their changing reality seemed happiest. The same holds true for our modern-day families and the legacies they want to pass along – those who can change with the times experience greater satisfaction.

The next lesson focuses on the importance of the proper valuation of assets. While we often boil down the value of an estate to a single figure, it’s rare that an estate consists of only easy-to-value assets. Usually, an estate contains cash, securities, and many other assets such as real estate, tangible personal property, and even intangible rights. While most of these assets have monetary value, sometimes assets have sentimental value or a different intrinsic value and it’s vital to understand that. The Osage understood the importance of land and the rights attached both above and below it. Upon their forcible removal to the Osage reservation in Oklahoma, they negotiated a deal allowing them to keep any subsoil rights. Because the Osage kept those rights, when they discovered oil under their reservation, it was theirs. This resulted in the headrights at the heart of the controversy in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” While the tragic Osage tale demonstrates the ugly side of greed, among many other things, it also highlights the importance of understanding the value of what you have. For those of us who regularly deal with the valuation of assets in either estates or trusts, we understand the importance of assigning correct value both in terms of assessing taxes and maintaining family harmony.

Third, blended families bring complex issues. For most Estate Planning attorneys, this goes without saying. Anytime a potential client arrives and indicates that they have been married previously, or have children from another relationship, that information changes the advice the attorney gives. Apparently, the perpetrators of the Reign of Terror managed to integrate themselves fully into the society they sought to destroy, and the movie tells the tale of non-indigenous husbands and grandfathers murdering their wives, children, and grandchildren to ensure that they inherited the headrights. While most families agree that’s going too far, families, especially blended ones, have different goals. Estate Planning attorneys need to understand those goals and develop a plan that addresses and honors those differences.

Finally, “Killers of the Flower Moon” reminds us of the danger of undue influence. As our clients age, often their world shrinks, and they depend upon others for help and support. It’s that same help and support that create the opportunity for the caregiver to unduly influence the aging client. Apparently, that’s how the self-proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills” gained his wealth, by insinuating himself with the Osage people and exerting his influence both on his family and on members of the tribe. Ultimately, William Hale’s wealth came from his nefarious deeds and dealings with the Osage tribe. We, as Estate Planning professionals, have the duty to ask the tough questions and determine whether the plan that the client wants to create represents their true intent or that of someone else. It’s not always easy.

I’m excited to catch this movie and look for the lessons explored in these articles. If you have concerns regarding your Estate Plan or any of its provisions, make it a point to talk to me and I can guide you through the maze of Estate Planning and ensure that your plan addresses the lessons raised in this two-part series.