The intriguing introduction
Many of you will know the plot of A Series of Unfortunate Events. It traces the lives of the Baudelaire orphans as they attempt to escape the clutches of Count Olaf, a distinctly treacherous man allegedly guilty of the murder of their parents and the destruction of their home.
Whilst at first glance, it appears Count Olaf is merely enchanted to meet them; it becomes increasingly apparent that this is a hoax. You are forced to realise that he’s not a saint, and he’s not what you think; he’s an actor hell-bent on the Baudelaire fortune.
At the hands of Count Olaf, their lives go from one pickle to the next as they are dogged by the Count and his henchmen from one ‘home’ to another, each less suitable than the last.
All those who have read/watched this tale will agree that ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ is, by nearly all discernible metrics, a considerable understatement.
The erudite executors
Many who observe the Baudelaires as they attempt to evade ever more extraordinary and distressing scenarios, fraught with death, mystery and betrayal, lay a lot of the blame for this predicament at the door of the interminably inept Mr Poe. There is of course merit to this.
Mr Poe’s actions and inactions are somehow equally disastrous. It bears considering, however, that the choice of executor when drafting a will is something that is worthy of much deliberation and such an appointment should not be made lightly.
My first month or so in private client has allowed me to confront the possibility that the orphans would be more than a little justified in blaming their parents for a number of the ‘unfortunate events’ that come to mar their lives.
Now, I completely understand that there are those who would prefer that we just allow the Baudelaires to remember their parents in their best moments, dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light, but it does not seem right for Mr Poe to take the entirety of the fall. He is, after all, only the executor, bound by his duty.
It seems that one cannot ignore the fact that we might have been excused his bumbling efforts had the Baudelaires put a little more thought into their choice of executor. As a solicitor advising on this matter, it would be imperative to ensure that the Baudelaires had given the appointment of the executor due consideration.
The gallant guardians
My primary qualm with the Baudelaire parents is this:
Surely, as parents to three children, when you instruct a solicitor to draft your will you would name at least one guardian, and most likely a number of substitute guardians. Ensuring that your children are cared for, especially as minors, ought to be the primary objective of this will drafting.
Again, I know what you are going to say: the Baudelaire parents were not aware that they were at imminent risk of being murdered by Count Olaf (allegedly) or of having their house destroyed along with all their possessions.
They were, however, aware that they had three children between the age of one and 14 who would require further care in the event of such a disaster. They were also, presumably, aware that they were in possession of an enormous fortune that might attract such nefarious characters into their lives.
What makes their blasé attitude to their estate planning all the more negligent is that they were members of a secret society that had recently undergone a schism of epic proportions.
They ought to have been preparing for the worst.
Although often not wholly applicable, this feels like exactly the sort of scenario where a solicitor might advise the inclusion of a disaster provision in the event of something befalling the entire Baudelaire family.
Mr Poe, as executor, is left with the completely baffling instructions that Violet, Klaus and Sunny are to be raised in the ‘most convenient way possible’.
From a legal perspective, this is an unbelievably lax piece of drafting. When confronted with such a clause (whilst his best efforts were undoubtedly catastrophically and inexplicably hopeless) it seems that Mr Poe would be well within his rights to hold his hands up and say ‘this is me trying’.
Had the Baudelaires, in the first instance, simply named a guardian with whom they were familiar, and who was happy and able to take care of the children, such as the wonderful Dr Montgomery Montgomery, this could all have been avoided.
The truculent trusts
It is not entirely clear, being primarily a children’s book, how exactly the Baudelaire estate is structured. What does seem clear is that Violet, the oldest child, is set to inherit at 18. It is not explained whether she is to inherit merely her share at 18, or the whole fortune, to be used for the benefit of her younger siblings.
My first thought is that it is unwise to bestow such huge sums of money upon an 18-year-old.
My second thought is that there are certainly more practical and tax efficient structures that the Baudelaires could have, and should have, availed themselves of.
Without wishing to dwell on these too much, a first port of call would likely have been an 18-25 Trust. In so doing, the parents would have ensured that Violet, Klaus and Sunny would be provided for by the trustees, whilst not burdening them with absolute ownership until they reached the age of 25.
Another option that might have been considered by more dutiful parents is that of a Discretionary Trust. This would have provided maximum protection for the assets whilst giving the trustees total discretion as to how best to utilise the funds to further the interests of the beneficiaries.
In the case of the Baudelaires, their funds would have been protected, leaving them free to claim funds to further refine their skills, namely invention, reading and biting.
A key point to consider here is the appointment of trustees. It is vital to ensure that the guardians and the trustees will be able to cooperate. The desire to care for their charges can sometimes put guardians at loggerheads with trustees, but if wisely selected by the parents, this can be easily avoided.
The benefit of such a Discretionary Trust is that any reasonable trustee would have taken one look at Count Olaf, seen through any and all of his ludicrous disguises, and known that he was trouble from the moment he walked into the Baudelaires’ lives.
The facinorous forfeiture
A final factor in relation to this matter is that, in the UK at least, wills are subject to the Forfeiture Rule. What this means, broadly speaking, is that it is not conducive to public policy to allow someone to benefit from their criminal behaviour. This rule, conveniently for our situation, applies to gifts made in wills, or else acquired via the laws of intestacy.
Essentially then, despite what folklore may have us believe, you cannot just murder someone and then benefit from their estate. This seems to me to be a reasonable rule.
This of course, would have been highly beneficial to the Baudelaires whose parents were, allegedly, murdered by Count Olaf. As such, it would greatly undermine any claim that he may make against the estate. If the Baudelaire orphans (or maybe the police?) had been successful in convicting Count Olaf of their parents’ murder, then the Violet, Klaus, and Sunny could have cancelled the series after the pilot.
Had this been done, his claim against the estate, and his treacherous schemes, would have finally been defeated.