CAVEAT: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE, DO NOT READ ON. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
What’s The Deal With Knives Out?
Knives Out is a 2019, but still classic, “who done it” movie mystery. Centered in this contentious family affair is wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey. Harlan has amassed quite a fortune authoring and publishing his own mystery novels. Harlan’s immediate family gathered at his mansion for Harlan’s 85th birthday. The next morning, however, Harlan is discovered by his housekeeper with his throat slit. The police rule the matter a suicide, but an anonymous party pays a private eye
James Bond Benoit Blanc to investigate this matter.
Marta, Harlan’s caregiver, believes she is responsible for Harlan’s death when Marta incorrectly gives Harlan too much morphine. In an effort to save Marta from getting in any sort of legal trouble, Harlan concocts a cover-up scheme for Marta to follow. The start of such a plan is for Harlan to actually slit his own throat (there you go, now you know who done it). However, neither Harlan nor Marta were aware that Harlan’s death was actually set in motion long before the morphine mixup.
Now, where it gets interesting (albeit not as interesting as the homicide mystery described above) is when Harlan’s attorney comes to the mansion and explains that Marta (not a relative) will receive Harlan’s entire inheritance. Of course, the entire entitled family is upset and confused. Meanwhile, Marta believes she accidentally killed Harlan and will become quite wealthy because of it.
What Legal Implications Does Knives Out Present?
First, whenever a person dies and has changed his will shortly before death it tends to raise some concern. Was the will changed because the person knew death was imminent and the nearly departed wanted to button-up his affairs? Was the will drastically changed from a prior version of the will or was the new will different than what someone would expect of the person? Was the nearly departed assisted in making the will by the person who stands to benefit from the new will? Did someone put unfair pressure on the person to create a new will? These are all questions that should arise as a result of a Knives Out situation.
Second, could Marta have actually inherited Harlan’s property if she were responsible for his death in North Dakota? (Spoiler: She was not responsible, but only one person knew that until about 10 minutes left in the film).
Many states have enacted legislation commonly referred to as a “slayer statute.” The rule, in its simplest form, states that if you are responsible for someone’s death, you cannot then inherit property from that person (you should not be rewarded for engaging in wrongful conduct). Now, many states put a standard in place on when a slayer rule is triggered. In North Dakota for example, a person is not entitled to inherit from someone if they “intentionally & feloniously” kill the person.
We know Marta did not intentionally kill Harlan (in fact, she did not kill him at all). Nonetheless, had Marta’s actions been the real reason Harlan died, then would she still have inherited under his newly created will? The weird answer under North Dakota law appears to be “yes.”
First, and most gruesome, Harlan killed himself. Now, Harlan did this in an effort to potentially protect Marta. Nonetheless, Marta certainly didn’t use a knife to end Harlan’s life and the suicide was clearly Harlan’s choice.
Second, nothing about Marta’s actions were intentional. If Marta truly was responsible for Harlan’s death, her act of providing the wrong dose of medicine was not an “intentional” act under the statute. Under North Dakota law, a person engages in conduct intentionally “when [s]he engages in the conduct, it is h[er] purpose to do so.” As can be seen in the movie, Marta believes she has accidentally provided Harlan a lethal amount of morphine (she didn’t), but we also see that Marta rushes to her medical bag to locate the Naloxone (a medication that counteracts opioid overdoses). This action of immediately attempting to rectify the situation shows Marta did not have an intent to kill.
While the statute does allow the intentional and felonious standard to be proved by the lower preponderance of evidence standard, it still appears there was simply nothing intentional by Marta’s actions. As a result, it appears Marta actually would stand to inherit property had she actually been the cause of Harlan’s death.
When it comes to probate and estate planning, we are always happy to help. We hope this analysis of the movie Knives Out helped put a fun spin on some unique laws. If you have questions about slayer statutes or need help defending against one, we have an excellent criminal defense division. If you have questions concerning probate and estate planning, please contact us!