Knives Out has been on my, “Oh, I really want to see that,” list since I first saw the trailer. Well, I finally saw it and it was…. Fine. I had a pretty good time, but it definitely didn’t live up to my expectations. Maybe it was just different than what I had planned in my head, which isn’t necessarily bad. But I also don’t think that absolves it from criticism. 3 stars. Anyway, that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
I am here to talk about one particular scene from the movie: the reading of Harlan Thrombey’s will – the alleged murder victim. During the reading of the will, the movie wants to prove that it’s a “thinkin’ man’s whodunit” by waxing on about will law. The family asks the lawyer how to challenge the will, and the lawyer says they have no claim. While the script does touch on actual laws, it either merely defines them or applies the facts incorrectly.
In the interest of fairness, I am by no means an expert on wills law, but I now have the entire power of the internet at my disposal and an unlimited amount of time to write this analysis. Hopefully my professor stumbles across this and realizes that we’re not so different after all.
There’s a chance Harlan’s will is not valid. At the reading, the family’s lawyer, Alan, reads a new will that even he has not seen. Everyone in the movie finds out (likely after at least 30% of the audience has figured it out) that Harlan has rewritten his will, cutting off every cartoonishly selfish, yet interesting, member of the family. Harlan has decided to leave everything to his nurse, Marta “she’s-just-a-really-good-person” Cabrera.
Everyone, including Marta and Alan, is shocked. There are two inferences we can make. The first is that Harlan executed a new valid attested will, conforming to the formalities of the Uniform Probate Code. The UPC would control because the movie takes place in Massachusetts, based on the stationary of the Chief Medical Examiner, as well as Chris “I’m-glad-to-see-him-acting-after-Captain-America-but-I-wish-the-movie-was-just-slightly-better” Evans’ license plate. Now, the UPC requires wills to be in writing, signed by the testator (in this case, Harlan), and attested by two witnesses. Basically, two people need to sign the will, saying that they saw the testator sign. So, we are to assume that Harlan had two people sign his new will, and neither his attorney, nor Marta – his closest friend, were the ones to sign. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to assume Harlan had like a gardener or something he called into his office. Just remember, Rian Johnson made me do this.
The second inference is that Harlan’s new will is a Holographic will. Holographic wills have way lower standards that attested wills. Basically, they just need to be in the testator’s handwriting, and signed by the testator. However, we catch a glimpse of the will, and I don’t think there’s any way Harlan’s handwriting could be like that of a typewriter. I’ve seen some neat handwriting, but I don’t believe that the will was holographic. Therefore, it would need to adhere to the requirements previously discussed. Again, it’s not an impossibility that Harlan had two witnesses sign the new will, but I think Daniel “don’t-worry-this-is-the-last-one-comedy-comes-in-threes” Craig should do some deducing on that.
Even if Harlan’s new will was duly executed, the family still has a very valid claim to challenge the will. In fact, it’s so valid (and the film explicitly brushes it off), it’s the entire reason I felt compelled to write this. Bill from It and It: Chapter Two (who the movie keeps calling a Nazi, but then doesn’t really do anything to prove to us he’s a Nazi) brings up the concept of undue influence. The lawyer responds, and I’m quoting, “You need a strong case for that. And you’ve got nothing. ‘She endeared herself to him through hard work and good humor’ won’t cut the salami.” The family needs to find a new lawyer because that’s almost the definition of undue influence.
To back up a little bit, Undue Influence is when someone exerts an influence on the testator that overcomes the testator’s free will. Evolving from case law, namely In Re Moses, the way to find undue influence is to find if a confidential relationship exists. A confidential relationship is a relationship between the testator and the alleged wrongdoer; people who are in a position to control a vulnerable person’s living situation. Marta is Harlan’s home nurse, who literally injects him with drugs on a nightly basis. Courts have found confidential relationships from far less. Not to mention doctor/nurse-patient relationships are often used as examples of confidential relationships
While we, the audience, know that Marta didn’t exert any undue influence on Harlan (or did she? Dundundun! Eat your heart out Rian Johnson), the family doesn’t know that! And the lawyer who clearly specializes in estate planning should know that once a confidential relationship is found, the burden shifts to the defendant – Marta – to prove that there was no undue influence. So, sorry Alan, the family’s argument of Marta exerting undue influence will certainly, “cut the salami.”
So, Knives Out. It was brave of you to try and hand wave your way through some of the most complicated areas of law. It was nice to see a movie put a little thought into what is actually necessary for a will, but you strayed too far when you tried to say that a nurse-elderly patient relationship would be “nothing” in an undue influence challenge. Maybe next time, you’ll think twice before selling a ticket to a law student who applies the law to beloved McDonald’s mascot, The Hamburglar.