Advisor versus Film: Brewster’s Millions (1985)
Experts: Tom Junkin, senior vice president of Personal Trust Services and Operations at Fiduciary Trust Canada, and Ty Cooke, vice president and portfolio manager at Orlic Harding Cooke Wealth Management.
Accuracy rating: 7/10
But as the film’s prologue says, Brewster (Richard Pryor) is “handed the American Dream on a very hot plate.” To inherit US$300 million, he first has to spend $30 million in 30 days — without telling anyone the reason behind his spree.
The great-uncle’s will stipulates many other conditions that Brewster has to meet in order to qualify for his full inheritance. Since the movie is a comedy, some parts are exaggerated, but Ty Cooke of Orlic Harding Cooke Wealth Management and Tom Junkin of Fiduciary Trust Canada say the movie’s representation of some estate planning concepts is accurate.
The great-uncle’s will
One of the first unrealistic portrayals in the movie occurs when Brewster is invited to his great-uncle’s lawyer’s office for the will reading — or in this case, a viewing, since his uncle recorded his last wishes on video.
Looking past the fact that the video was viewed using a film reel (what a throwback), Junkin says the will wouldn’t stand: “The most fundamental thing about a will is it has to be in writing.”
Further, Cooke says the video will is missing necessary components. Since they’d never met, “There’s no way to verify [the great-uncle’s] identity, and it would be difficult to verify signatures.”
Junkin adds, “If they’re convinced it reflects the [great-uncle’s] intention, it would require a long court case to determine if it was valid.”
Beyond the questionable format, Cooke finds the circumstances of the great-uncle’s estate peculiar. In the video, the great-uncle claims Brewster is his only living relative and he decided to leave his fortune solely to Brewster.
“With an estate of that size it’s rare that we see a single beneficiary,” says Cooke. Usually, wealthy individuals with few heirs leave at least some of their money to foundations or charitable trusts.
Conditions on the inheritance
Once the executor, two of the firm’s lawyers and Brewster watch the will, Brewster has a decision to make.
He can either take $1 million that day without any conditions (what the great-uncle calls the ‘wimp clause’) or he could try to meet each of the conditions and attempt to spend $30 million in 30 days, in which case he would inherit $300 million. If Brewster chooses the wimp clause, the law firm would distribute the rest of the money to charity. If Brewster chooses the $30-million route, the conditions on his spending include:
- after the 30 days, he can’t own any assets except the clothes on his back;
- he can hire anyone, but must get value for their services;
- 5% can be donated to charity and another 5% can be gambled;
- he can’t give money away;
- he can’t destroy items of value (e.g., expensive paintings); and
- he can’t tell anyone why he’s spending so lavishly.
Junkin says the conditions are unique, but could stand legally. “The rule of thumb is courts try to make a testator’s intention come through. They will be biased toward trying to make it happen, but a condition will be void in certain circumstances.”
For instance, the conditions could be voided if they are illegal, contrary to the rules of society, or impossible, he says. “The main thing is was there any harm done by the conditions?” says Junkin. “Where’s the harm in asking someone to meet a test in spending a bunch of money?”
In the real world, the clear conditions might even strengthen the validity of the will, he adds. “A condition might be void is if it were uncertain,” he explains. “The great-uncle has made it really specific. It’s testable: you can look at it and say, ‘Did he meet the conditions?’ ”
More commonly, specific conditions are about how to divvy up assets, rather than a test of character, says Cooke. “We see clients that have family jewelry that comes down from generations that they specifically [bequeath] in the will,” he notes.
Another common condition is for the beneficiary to reach a certain age before becoming eligible for an inheritance, Junkin says.
Behaviour of the lawyers
If Brewster had chosen the $1-million wimp clause, or couldn’t spend $30 million in 30 days, the uncle’s two lawyers would give the $300-million estate to charity, while collecting a large fee.
The lawyers, Granville and Baxter, were present when the executor and Brewster read the will. Even before Brewster was told what would happen should he fail, the lawyers were encouraging him to take the $1 million and leave.
Since Brewster was unaware the lawyers would benefit from his decision, Cooke says their urging could be seen as coercion. “It was quite obvious they were looking out for themselves.”
Criminal behaviour aside, one of the film’s greatest accuracies is that the will names contingent beneficiaries, says Cooke. “It’s common in estate planning to have multiple layers in a will. You see secondary or conditional executors and secondary beneficiaries all the time,” he explains. It protects the deceased person’s wishes by ensuring his or her money ends up with the intended beneficiaries.
Someone in Brewster’s position might decide to spend the entire $30 million in one or two very expensive places. But in that circumstance, the 30-day time limit could pose a challenge, notes Junkin.
“The kind of things you can spend a lot of money on — buying a house, buying a car — [those deals] don’t close in a day,” he says.
Cooke agrees the plot would be challenging, but doable. Keep in mind, in today’s dollars, Brewster’s US$30 million would be worth US$66 million, because of inflation.
In the end, Brewster managed to meet his great uncle’s stipulations, but not without a few roadblocks.
“Not a whole lot has changed,” in the estate-planning world since the movie was made, Cooke says.
Junkin rated the veracity of financial concepts in the movie an 8 out of 10, and Cooke gave a 6 out of 10, for an average accuracy rating of 7.
Overall, Cooke says the film is “a little bit out there, but that’s what made it a fun movie to watch.”