Lessons from “Lady Bird”: Four Reasons Why You Need a Will to Determine Who Gets What

September 14, 2018 2:55 pm Published by Nina T. Dow

Lady Bird is my hands-down favorite film this year. Like the protagonist, I spent my formative years in Catholic schools. The movie prompted fond memories of plaid uniforms, cotton knee socks that never sagged, and recitations of prepositions (I can still rattle off the list to this day), as well as a renewed appreciation for my strong spelling skills and ability to write in cursive (now rare talents) that those 13 years gave me.

Aside from the trip down memory lane, the film also fascinates me as an estate planning lawyer, because it raises important reasons for “getting a will.”

Heirs Apparent

In one scene, the film’s protagonist, Christine McPherson (Saoirse [Shur-sa] Ronan) talks with her best friend, Julie Steffans (Beanie Feldstein), about Christine’s latest school crush, Danny. Danny comes from a wealthy family whose grandmother’s ostentatious home has piqued Christine’s interest. Imagining that she and Danny will wed, Christine tells Julie, “if Danny and I got married and then his grandmother died, I’d inherit the dream house.” This is a rather precocious way of thinking for a teenager with an “innocent” crush. Julie, who may have an estate planning attorney in her family, asks a very good question: “Won’t his [Danny’s] parents get it?” Christine’s response: “Oh yes, we would have to kill them . . . and we have to kill his older brothers, too.” (Don’t worry, it’s a comedy.)

What was that all about? Although the film takes place in California, I can tell you what would happen if Danny’s Granny were a Massachusetts resident—and whether she had a will, or not, upon her death.

If Danny’s grandmother, we will call her Granny, leaves a will, then the house can go to whomever she wants when she dies. That is the beauty of a free country and having an amazing estate planning lawyer in your contacts list who will draft and execute your will properly. (Read more here about how wills should be executed to be valid under the law in Massachusetts.)

Four Possible Outcomes If You Die Without a Will in Massachusetts

What if Granny dies without a will? The answer depends on her family situation that exists at her death. Under Massachusetts law, if you die without a will, our Commonwealth provides default rules to determine how your estate will be distributed.

Here’s how it works. If Granny dies without a will, leaving a spouse, but no children (so, really not a granny), her estate would be distributed not only to her spouse, but also to her parents, if one or both survive her. Let’s hope that Granny’s spouse likes the in-laws. Specifically, her spouse is entitled to receive the first $200,000, plus three-fourths of any balance of the estate, and her parents would get the rest. So, if you are a young married couple who do not yet have children, consider getting wills now.

Given that Granny has living children in Lady Bird, our friend Christine would have a lot of barriers in her way (and family members to murder) before she could move into the coveted house. For example: if Granny dies, leaving a spouse and children, all of whom were born or adopted during the marriage, the spouse gets the whole estate.

On the other hand, if Granny dies unmarried, but leaves living children, her estate will be divided equally among her children.

Let’s apply those principles to Lady Bird. We will assume that Danny’s father is Granny’s son, who dies before Granny. Who gets the house now? Danny and his brothers would get a share of the house, along with Granny’s other living children. Even if Christine pulls off the perfect murder of Danny’s brothers, her depraved and insane plan would still fail, as Danny’s aunts and uncles, if living, would take a larger share of the estate!

So, how does Danny get the house so that Christine can move in? Granny can execute a will and leave it to Danny, or Danny must be the only living descendant of Granny. I think Christine has set her sights too high for this one.

The intestacy laws involving other family situations—children from other marriages—are different. If you have questions about your particular family tree and how an estate would be distributed under the law, we would be happy to help.


Attorney Nina Dow enjoys the challenge of helping clients reach their unique estate planning objectives in a tax-efficient manner. She also assists with charitable giving, special needs trusts, Medicaid planning, trust and estate administration, and the preparation of estate and fiduciary income tax returns.

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