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Estate Planning and Financial Lessons From Downton Abbey

Ever since I spent a year studying at the London School of Economics and developed a love for the English culture, I’ve considered myself an Anglophile.  If you are like me, you have been enjoying each episode of Downton Abbey and are eagerly looking forward to the start of the next season.  I wear two hats as I watch the show: one as the Anglophile and one as a financial advisor.  There are many estate and financial planning issues that the Crawley family deals with that mirror those in our lives.  For that reason, there are many lessons that we can take away from the show.

If you are not up to date on the three seasons of the Downton Abbey series, this newsletter will contain some spoilers.

Lesson 1:  Estate Planning

Early in Season 1, Lord Grantham learns that the heirs to Downton Abbey, his only male nephews, have died on the Titanic’s voyage to America.  Much of the season’s storyline is based on the question of who will inherit the property.  The questions that Lord Grantham and his family face remind us to look inward to our own situations and ensure that the proper account ownership and estate planning is in place.  The questions that you should address are:  Do I hold title to my assets in the correct manner so that they can be passed to future generations in accordance with my wishes?  Has my will been prepared?  If it has been prepared, does it need to be updated?  Are beneficiaries designated on the proper accounts?  Do my beneficiary designations need to be updated to account for marriages, divorces, births, and deaths?

Lesson 2:   Diversify Your Assets

Lord Grantham has invested all of Cora’s wealth in just one asset, a Canadian railroad company.  The future of Downton Abbey and the Crawley family’s fortune is put at risk at the start of Season 3 when he learns that the railroad company has gone bankrupt.  If Lord Grantham had followed the advice of a financial advisor, his wealth would have been invested in a diversified portfolio. 

Lesson 3:  Appropriate Liquidity

Cora’s mother visits Downton in Season 3, just after Lord Grantham has learned the fate of the Canadian railroad company where he invested the Crawley family’s wealth.  She is looked to as a resource to provide additional money to the family.  However, the principal of her fortune is tied up and only the income generated by the asset is available to her.  While this strategy may have been appropriate for Cora’s mother, it highlights that it is important to discuss liquidity issues and needs for cash with your financial advisor. 

Lesson 4:  Disability Insurance

During Season 1, Bates is hired as the valet at Downton Abbey but has a war injury that causes him to limp.  He is fearful that if he ever loses his job at Downton Abbey, he will not be able to attain work anywhere else.  Disability insurance is an important financial planning tool that is available to plan to for the unknown.  If you worry that if you were to become injured and are unable to work in your field or in any capacity, disability insurance is something that you should consider and something that we can provide.
Lesson 5:  Medical Directives

The characters of Downton Abbey frequently become sick or die.  Matthew returns from battle in World War I and is unable to move his body from the waist down.  Cora and Lavinia become gravely ill in Season 2, and while Cora overcomes the illness, Lavinia passes away.  Sybil struggles in childbirth and ultimately passes away.  Doctors argue over her care and family struggles to determine how Sybil would have wanted her child to be raised.  In each case, the illnesses or events came on quickly and unexpectedly.  We are reminded to have medical directives in place, so that family and medical staff are able to carry out the patient’s wishes regarding their care.  The medical directives include a living will and health care proxy.  The living will outlines the patient’s wishes if they are no longer able to make decisions regarding their care.  The health care proxy appoints another individual to oversee their care and make medical decisions if the patient is unable to do so. 

Lesson 6:  Guardianship

One of the most difficult decisions to make when two parents are preparing their wills is who will be a legal guardian for their child if they were to pass away.  The situation in Downton Abbey is relatively simple because Sybil’s husband survives her and is able to raise their child.  However, if the parents were to have died in an accident at the same time or if the second parent dies after the first, guardianship would be given to the individual(s) noted in their will. 

The episodes of Downton Abbey do a wonderful job depicting the culture and fashion of British aristocracy in the 1910s.  Some of the financial lessons that the characters learn may strangely mirror those experienced by you or your loved ones. 

If there is an estate or financial planning question that you would like to address with us, please give us a call to discuss. 

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