Still true, forsooth, after 400 years
October 1, 2018
Ask people their favorite Shakespeare play, and chances are they will name Romeo and Juliet, or perhaps Hamlet or Macbeth. A few of the cognoscenti might name something else, but they’re just showing off.
If you are an estate planner, however, your favorite is likely King Lear.
In case you haven’t read it lately (or ever) the play features a king of England who decides he wants to retire. He has three daughters, and he sets out to divide his kingdom among the three of them. He plans to keep the title of King, of course, and 100 knights, but he will let his daughters (okay, actually their husbands, this is the early 17th century after all) manage their respective parts of the kingdom, and he will take turns living in each of their castles with his entourage.
But first, the king wants to enjoy a little flattery. He tells each of his daughters that before he gives them their shares of the kingdom, they must each tell him how much they love him.
The first daughter gives a flowery speech in which she claims to love her father more than anything in the world. The second daughter gives an equally doting speech.
But the youngest daughter, Cordelia, decides that she will simply be truthful, vowing to herself that she will “love and be silent”. She tells the king she loves him as a daughter should love her father, but someday when she is married she will love her husband more. The King is furious, and disinherits Cordelia.
Now, having divided his kingdom, King Lear moves in with his oldest daughter. It turns out that she was insincere in her expressions of love for him, and quickly tires of feeding his retinue, so she kicks him out. He goes to live with the second daughter, who also ends up evicting him from her castle.
After that things get weird and somebody gets his eyes gouged out, a bunch of people die, and the dialogue ends up in the background on I Am the Walrus, but as they say in Airplane, that’s not important now.
My point is that if you are the king of England, you should probably not divide up your kingdom while you are still alive. Of course that only matters to those of our Senior Voice readers who happen to be the king of England. Which unless something has happened between when I am writing this, and the publication date, is probably none of you.
So instead of going back 400 years, let me take you back about 30 years, to when I was a young attorney. There was a case in Anchorage involving a man who had started and grown a successful business, and who decided to give shares of the business to his children. While he retained a small amount of the stock for himself, he gave up a controlling interest. His plan, apparently, was to continue to run the business and pay himself a salary to meet his living expenses. But soon after he transferred the shares, his children got together and fired him.
When I tell that story, the usual reaction I get is, “Yes, but my kids won’t do that to me. I raised them better than that”. But there are a lot of situations in which, even if the children’s hearts are in the right place, they may not be in a position to give your money back. If you transfer a sizable amount to your children, and any of them ends up losing the money through bad investments; or having a major medical crisis which eats up their savings; or being laid off from a job; or is in the middle of a divorce; or any number of other bad circumstances which may make it impossible for them to use the money to support you… well, then, you may have a major problem.
At least, you will have a problem if that was money you needed to live on. So the real lesson -- at least, for those of you who are not the king of England at the moment – is that you should only give away money you’re sure you won’t need, but be very careful giving away money you may need to live on.
Kenneth Kirk is an Anchorage estate planning lawyer. Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice for a specific situation; for specific advice you should consult a professional who can take all the facts into account. Also, nothing in this article should be taken as valid literary criticism; for help with your term paper, consult an English professor.