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In the movie Knives Out (2019) there is a specific type of inheritance.

The old milionare bequeathed all of his property to his nurse, instead of giving it to his family.

Could he really do it like this ? Could he omit all of his descendants and bequest his property to a non-family member ? (According to US Law).

Do the descendants have any right to get some money or property from the inheritance even when they were purposely omited from the passed one's will ?

Edit: The movie took place in America, not in Great Britain as I found out.

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  • For what it's worth. the law of the UK (and of all its constituent parts) is irrelevant to the plot of Knives Out, because the story is set in Massachusetts. – phoog Jun 21 '20 at 5:05
  • I see, thanks for correction. – John Ronald Jun 21 '20 at 7:21
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    I only can say: German law with Pflihtteil does not apply in GB and US, and even in Germany, you can contract away the whole inheritance. – Trish Jan 27 at 8:12
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"British law" is a misnomer as inheritance law is very different in Scotland compared to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In English and Welsh law, a person can bequeath his property to whom he likes. However, relatives, dependants and others can challenge someone's Will by going to court and claiming 'reasonable financial provision' from the estate. Equally, if someone dies 'intestate' (ie they don't have a will) and beneficiaries are not happy about their inheritance (or lack of), they may be able to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. These types of claims must be made within 6 months from the date of the grant of probate (Grant of probate is the document issued by the Probate Service which acts as legal authorisation for the executor to deal with the deceased’s assets). The Court does have power to permit claims after this time limit has expired, but this would only be in exceptional circumstances.

https://www.lawdonut.co.uk/personal/claiming-an-inheritance/dependants-claims-against-an-estate

https://www.bishopslaw.co.uk/wills/uk-inheritance-claim/

The situation before 2015 in Scotland was: Scots law provides protection to a surviving spouse and children. Where an individual’s estate is subject to the Scottish rules of succession the surviving spouse/civil partner and children have an automatic entitlement to 'legal rights' (legitim) which if exercised will override the terms of the will. The surviving spouse and children must, however, decide whether to benefit under the terms of the will or make a legal rights claim as it is not possible for them to benefit twice.

https://andersonstrathern.co.uk/news-insight/scottish-succession-law-reforms/

The law has been changed by the Succession (Scotland) Act 2016 and some of the provisions of this Act may still be in consultation. It appears, although I can't find official sources, that legitim is being preserved but the method of calculation and the assets it refers to is being simplified.

The new rules have abolished the right of a widow (this never extended to widowers) and family of a deceased person to claim an allowance from the estate to purchase mourning clothes and provide an aliment to enable bills to be met until the estate was distributed. This was a common law right but has now been abolished.

https://www.harpermacleod.co.uk/hm-insights/2016/march/new-rules-on-succession-in-scotland-how-they-will-affect-who-inherits-your-estate/

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Since Harlan Thrombey is not married at the time of his death, his children (Walt and Linda, but not Toni, who is his daughter-in-law) are entitled to some of the personal effects from the estate. Section 2-403 of the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code:

The decedent's surviving spouse is entitled from the estate to a value at date of death, not exceeding $10,000 in excess of any security interests therein, in household furniture, automobiles, furnishings, appliances, and personal effects. If there is no surviving spouse, the decedent's children are entitled jointly to the same value. ... These rights are in addition to any benefit or share passing to the surviving spouse or children by the decedent's will, unless otherwise provided, by intestate succession, or by way of elective share.

This means that even if the will held up in probate court, Marta would probably still not be entitled to "the house ... and all belongings therein"; Walt and Linda would get to pick out up to $10,000 (between them) of their favorite pieces. To be honest, though, you could probably remove $10,000 worth of furniture from that house and it would look largely the same. And, of course, the house itself, the money, and the business are not affected by this clause.


Note that unlike surviving children, a surviving spouse cannot be completely disinherited under Massachusetts law. A surviving spouse can choose the "elective share" of the estate instead:

The surviving husband or wife of a deceased person, except as provided in section thirty-six of chapter two hundred and nine, within six months after the probate of the will of such deceased, may file in the registry of probate a writing signed by him or by her, waiving any provisions that may have been made in it for him or for her, or claiming such portion of the estate of the deceased as he or she is given the right to claim under this section, and if the deceased left issue, he or she shall thereupon take one third of the personal and one third of the real property; ... if he or she would thus take real and personal property to an amount exceeding twenty-five thousand dollars in value, he or she shall receive, in addition to that amount, only the income during his or her life of the excess of his or her share of such estate above that amount, the personal property to be held in trust and the real property vested in him or her for life, from the death of the deceased. ...

If I'm reading this correctly, this means that if Harlan's wife (or husband?) had still been alive during the movie, and had been disinherited in the will as the children were, she could have claimed $25,000 outright and a life interest in one-third of the estate (less the $25,000.) Given the ongoing income from the publishing business, this would probably have been quite lucrative. However, there do not appear to be similar provisions for Walt and Linda under Massachusetts law.

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In England (but not Scotland), individuals have testamentary freedom, meaning that they can bequeath their property to whoever they want. However... The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 allows children, present and former spouses and civil partners to challenge the will if the will does not make make reasonable financial provision for that individual. The court then asks if the claimant was financially dependent on the deceased, and was it reasonable for the deceased to disinherit him. In other words, maybe, maybe not, depends on the circumstances.

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