I’m a long-time Meryl Streep fan. So, what better thing to do when stuck at home with a rotten cold than to watch the timeless classic, The Bridges of Madison County? The movie’s lessons on love are not especially helpful—dream partners rarely, if ever, serendipitously appear at our doorsteps—but the film offers some surprisingly worthwhile estate planning lessons.
For those of you who haven’t seen the 1995 hit or don’t recall it, here’s the set-up: It’s 1965. A photographer, Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), wanders into the rural life of Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep). Francesca is an Italian WWII bride who lives with her American husband and their two children on an Iowa farm. Robert appears while Francesca’s family is out of town for four days. Romance ensues. So does a tumultuous decision.
The film begins at the end, however, after Francesca’s death. The opening scene is all too familiar to estate planning and probate lawyers: Her adult children, Michael (Victor Slezak) and Carolyn (Annie Corley), are meeting with the family’s probate lawyer at their childhood home to settle Francesca’s affairs. Michael’s wife is present, and she is particularly insensitive. (“This is exciting—maybe we will find a million dollars hidden somewhere!”) But for Michael and Carolyn, the crucial issue is their mother’s wishes for the disposition of her remains.
They learn that Francesca specified in her will that she wished to be cremated. Michael and Carolyn are shocked and confused. For one thing, cremation at the time was not as common as it is now, and it was banned by the Catholic Church until 1963. And the children believe that their late father had bought two burial plots for a reason. I leave it to you to watch what happens next.
From that opening scene, here are five estate planning DON’Ts and DO’s.
1. DON’T use your will to communicate your burial instructions.
Clients often have specific instructions for their funeral and memorial services and often insist they be expressed in their will. That’s not wise, because a will may not be read (or even found) until after the funeral. It is best, instead, to leave a “side note” to your will and to talk about your plans with your close family members. If funeral and burial instructions are only expressed in the will and never discussed, there may be no way for anyone to carry out your wishes in time, adding to your family’s distress when they find out.
2. DO be sure your family knows your preference for specific funeral instructions.
Francesca’s choice to be cremated confused her children, but she explained her choice in a letter that enabled them to understand her decision. (And that letter provided the catalyst for the rest of the movie.)
3. DO be sure that your probate lawyer knows who should attend the first meeting after your death.
It may or may not be appropriate (or helpful) for in-laws and other relatives to come. Information that you prefer to be kept confidential among your immediate family might be disclosed to others.
4. DO sort through your loved one’s possessions in private.
As mentioned in 3, above, confidentiality is key. It’s best to hold that first meeting with your lawyer at her or his office and not at the deceased’s home. Michael and Carolyn quickly learned this lesson the hard way. Then they asked the lawyer and Michael’s wife to let them examine their mother’s belongings in private. Given Francesca’s revelations in her letter, it was a wise move.
5. DO encourage your lawyer to write copious notes regarding any of your personal preferences for your estate and/or funeral service.
If you do not wish to explain your wishes in detail to your family, let your lawyer do it!
One more recommendation: have tissues handy if you watch the film. I went through more, wiping tears at the end of the movie, than I did on my rotten cold!
Image: Holliwell Bridge, Madison County, Iowa, via Madison County Iowa Chamber and Welcome Center