A family trust and its trustee-advisor -- played by George Clooney, no less – found their way to the silver screen this week in Alexander Payne's new film, “The Descendants.” This is our favorite film of the year, a depiction of what the trust industry is all about.
Every multi-generational trust is a balancing act between the living and the dead, with the trustee in the precarious position of having to weigh the wishes of vanished grantors against the priorities of their heirs.
The new film “The Descendants,” by the director of “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” frames that balancing act against the lush landscape of Kauai, where the fictional King family have lived for decades on acreage held in trust.
The land is not only their home but their birthright, so when the heirs decide to sell the property to generate income, the trustee (played brilliantly by George Clooney) has to do plenty of soul searching.
As a beneficiary and heir of the grantors himself, his position is almost impossibly complicated. He is torn between succumbing to the pressure of the cash strapped beneficiaries and the original intent of the family to preserve the land for generations to come.
He gets a lot of things wrong along the way -- nobody said playing referee for a fractious family is easy, especially when there are billions of dollars at stake and the heirs are your cousins.
But at the end, he does the best he can, and Payne (who co-wrote the screenplay from a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings) even gives him a little peace after the hard decisions have played out.
Ripped from the headlines
In fact, the situation he has to face reflects the real-life decisions the trustees made a few years ago on behalf of the beneficiaries of Hawaii's billion-dollar Campbell Estate.
The 107-year-old Campbell Estate was required to dissolve in January of 2007, twenty years after the last death of the direct descendants who had been alive at the time of the trust's creation.
Some of the heirs took large cash payouts, according to an account in the Honolulu Advertiser -- now the Honolulu Star Advertiser -- while others chose instead to roll their interests into a new national real estate entity, the San Francisco-based James Campbell Co. LLC.
In its new corporate identity, the former estate had to distribute its estate tax liabilities as well as its assets to the beneficiaries.
But where the acreage in “The Descendants” ends up sold off to outside developers, the Campbell family still controls several thousand acres of their family legacy in Hawaii, as well as an empire of projects on the mainland
Other details are drawn from the story of other family trusts in Hawaii that have faced this same situation in the last few years.
For example, when the film refers to how “Matt King,” played by Clooney, is a descendant of a Hawaiian princess, who was a member of the powerful Kamehameha dynasty, and a mainland banker, the lineage is fictional.
But the story is reminiscent of the foundation of what was formerly known as the Bishop Estate, created by Charles Reed Bishop, a banker who married the Hawaiian princess Bernice Pauahi.
For trustees, the telling scene comes when Matt King looks at a series of black and white photos of his ancestors. He's asking himself whether he's doing the right thing by selling the land that had been entrusted to his family.
It's a question that many of the descendants of Hawaii's old families surely must have asked themselves in recent years, as much of what makes Hawaii so achingly beautiful has disappeared beneath resort developments and condominiums.
These are the same people whose ancestors came to Hawaii to do good and ended up doing very well for themselves indeed. Remember, the rule against perpetuities only applies to trusts where the beneficiaries are individuals, rather than charities.
Essential viewing for estate planners and trustees alike
For grappling with the hard questions, “The Descendants” would have been noteworthy enough for all trust advisors. But for acknowledging that the questions are never answered in a vacuum, it is five-star viewing for beneficiaries and potential grantors as a glimpse of what can go wrong when circumstances take a family trust off course.
A trust may be an impersonal entity, but its heart is human. “The Descendants” manages to break that heart and, through a surprising undercurrent of humor, put the pieces back together.