“Once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a tiny kingdom – peaceful, prosperous, and rich in romance and tradition. Here in a stately chateau, there lived a widowed gentleman and his little daughter, Cinderella. Although he was a kind and devoted father, and gave his beloved child every luxury and comfort, still he felt she needed a mother’s care. And so he married again, choosing for his second wife a woman of good family with two daughters just Cinderella’s age, by name, Anastasia and Drizella. It was upon the untimely death of this good man, however, that the stepmother’s true nature was revealed. Cold, cruel, and bitterly jealous of Cinderella’s charm and beauty, she was grimly determined to forward the interests of her own two awkward daughters. Thus, as time went by, the chateau fell into disrepair, for the family fortunes were squandered upon the vain and selfish stepsisters while Cinderella was abused, humiliated, and finally forced to become a servant in her own house.” (Opening Narration from Cinderella (1950).
Most people don’t know this, but at its very core, Cinderella is a story about the failure of one man (Cinderella’s Dad – let’s call him Mr. Cinderella) to adequately plan for what would happen when he died. There are no available records concerning Mr. Cinderella’s estate plan, but based on how things turned out (with Cinderella “forced to become a slave in her own house”), my best guess is that he followed the most popular estate planning method in America today – i.e. DOING NOTHING!!! I am also presuming that the laws of the tiny kingdom awarded all of Mr. Cinderella’s assets to his surviving spouse (The Wicked Stepmother) and defaulted to the Stepmother also being named as Cinderella’s legal guardian. Thus, the luxurious and comfortable life Mr. Cinderella had built for his daughter was permitted to be squandered on his step-daughters, while Cinderella was forced to cook, clean, and eventually come to believe that talking mice were her best friends in the whole world.
Believe it or not, my purpose here is not to throw dirt on Mr. Cinderella’s grave. I’m sure he was actually a great guy. My purpose is to help us learn from his mistakes so that we don’t repeat them. So, what can we learn from Mr. Cinderella’s failure to plan? There is so much to choose from, but I want to draw out four main points:
- Planning Can Be Your Friend – Cinderella’s Dad should have taken the time to establish and own his assets in the name of a revocable living trust. That trust could have named Cinderella as one of, or perhaps the sole beneficiary, and given express instructions to use the trust assets for Cinderella’s benefit until she reached a certain age (perhaps 25 or 30), at which point she would have inherited the assets outright. Maybe she still could have married Prince Charming, but her judgment in doing so would have been unclouded by her need to escape the slave-like conditions imposed by her Wicked Stepmother.
- Lock It In – Maybe we should give Mr. Cinderella a break. It’s certainly possible that he had a trust, and that he named Cinderella as one of the beneficiaries. However, in blended families (like Cinderella’s) where a trust has been established, it can be a really good idea to make that trust go irrevocable upon the death of the first spouse. This makes it so that the surviving spouse cannot make changes to the trust (and most importantly to the beneficiaries). As such, an evil stepmother (or stepfather) will then be unable to disinherit the children of the deceased spouse.
- Be Careful Who You Leave In Charge. Apparently, Mr. Cinderella was a nice man who was not the best judge of character. He married the Wicked Stepmother and either left her in charge of his estate or failed to take steps so that she wouldn’t be appointed to be charge of his estate. The decision about who to name as the guardian of your minor children, or your personal representative or successor trustee is vitally important, especially in a blended family or in any situation where that person is given a great deal of discretion or latitude in deciding how to raise children or deal with assets. In terms of dealing with assets, it can be preferable to craft your estate plan so that the successor trustee has little or no discretion about what to do with them. The bottom line is that you need to take these decisions very seriously.
- Safety In Numbers. Mr. Cinderella’s plan (or lack thereof) appears to have left the Wicked Stepmother solely in charge of everything. If he had any inkling of the Wicked Stepmother’s wicked tendencies, he could have named a trusted third-party (maybe someone from his family or from the family of Cinderella’s previously deceased mother), to serve as co-trustee of the trust and co-executor of his estate. When there are two people in these positions, both of them have to sign for the trust or the estate to take any action. This person could have acted as a vital check on the Wicked Stepmother’s obviously evil intentions towards Cinderella.
While it is certainly an extreme case, the story of Cinderella demonstrates what can go wrong if you fail to adequately plan for what will happen when (not if) you die. Don’t procrastinate! Get your Estate Plan done today. It can last you many many years with minimal costs to maintain or update.
Jarom Bergeson is an associate attorney with Kyler Kohler Ostermiller, and Sorensen, LLP (“KKOS Lawyers”) in its Cedar City, Utah office and has extensive experience in helping client register their trademark and protecting their brand identity. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at (888) 801-0010.