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PBS period drama offers estate planning insights

The phenomenon that seems to be "Downton Abbey" is an interesting one that a lot of New Jersey folks are probably tapped into. The series certainly has attracted a lot of viewers. The show's second season ended earlier this month on PBS drawing an audience of nearly 5.5 million.

The show's appeal can be attributed to its high production value and great performances, but also to its solid attempt to realistically depict life and society in the early years of the 20th century. But we wonder whether viewers also are tuned into the view it provides of estate planning; the importance of establishing clear cut plans for the protection of an estate's financial value and disposition through tools like wills and trusts. In support of this argument we offer this recap.

The main plot line of the story involves Robert Crawley, Britain's Earl of Grantham, and his struggle to ensure the survival of his family heritage. He oversees what amounts to a huge estate with a castle known as Downton Abbey. Here he is, a Victorian era aristocrat, with a financially troubled estate and no male heir to bequeath it to.

The first season began with His Lordship attempting to execute what he figured was a full-proof plan. He married an American heiress. Money issues apparently were covered. His thoughts then turned to marrying off his oldest daughter to a cousin, who proceeded to die on the Titanic. With no suitable beaus in the wings, what was he to do?

Upon analysis, it becomes apparent that one thing Crawley failed to develop was a backup plan in the event of the unexpected. That can be difficult for anyone to do, especially without legal help. In the early 20th century, within the ranks of the aristocracy, love was not typically the first priority in marriage. The greater consideration was protection of assets.

For many today, that hasn't changed. Individuals come together from disparate social and economic backgrounds all the time. The status of ownership of assets deserves to be addressed, and can be through estate planning. Wills that may name specific beneficiaries of an estate can be thrown into disarray by an unexpected death, making it advisable for the wills to be regularly revisited and updated.

Source: The New York Times, "'Downton Abbey' Finale Rivals Ken Burns in Ratings," Adam W. Kepler, Feb. 23, 2012

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