As an estate planning advisor, I provide high-level estate planning advice so clients can better understand the content of their estate plan and leave the legacy they desire. So, I was happy to discover that Ann Patchett’s latest novel The Dutch House drives home some of the estate planning concepts that I often discuss with our clients.

The Dutch House focuses on the strong bond between two siblings, Danny and Maeve, their childhood home, and their respective memories of their youth. But it also looks at what can happen to a person’s estate after they die.

At the end of World War II, Danny and Maeve’s father Cyril Conroy begins to acquire a real estate empire and significant wealth. He purchases the Dutch House, a grand estate with a history of its own in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a gift for his wife, the purchase of the house begins the undoing of familial relationships.

After Cyril’s wife, the mother of his two children, leaves him, Cyril marries Andrea, a much younger woman who has two young children of her own. As can be the case in many second marriages, the relationship between Andrea, Danny, and Maeve is strained.

When Cyril passes away, Andrea exiles Danny and Maeve from their family home. Turns out Andrea had convinced Cyril to put the title of the home and his financial assets in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Time for review: When people own assets in joint tenancy and one of them dies, the surviving joint tenant then owns 100% of the property. Thus, at Cyril’s death, Andrea became the sole owner of the Dutch House.

The reader can imagine that Cyril loved Andrea and trusted her to do the right thing by his children. But once Cyril is gone, Andrea devises her own plans for the Dutch House and the financial future of her biological children and herself.

But Danny was not totally left in the cold. Cyril had also established a pot educational trust for the benefit of Danny as well as Andrea’s children.

Time for review: A pot trust is a trust in which the trustee has discretion over how to spend money on each of the beneficiaries based on their need and there is generally no requirement that the same amount be spent on each beneficiary.

Maeve, who was not a beneficiary of the educational trust, encourages Danny to obtain multiple educational degrees in order to use a significant portion of the trust funds to the possible detriment of his stepsiblings.

The Dutch House also addresses how memories of our past affect our present and future behavior. Whether true or false, each individual’s memories factor into their current behaviors and the choices they make.

The key estate planning lessons to be learned from the novel are:

  1. It is important to understand how title holding will affect your estate plan.
  2. Pot trusts can be useful but significant inequality among distributions may not be what was originally intended.
  3. Our memories are influenced by our current lens and may influence the decisions made in an estate plan. Reviewing your estate plan every few years will help ensure that the legacy you wish to leave is achieved.

The Dutch House is an enthralling read and perhaps a good addition to a holiday gift list.

Cerity Partners LLC (“Cerity Partners”) is a registered investment adviser with offices in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, and Texas. Registration of an Investment Advisor does not imply any level of skill or training. This commentary is limited to general information, and should not be construed as personal tax, legal, or investment advice. There is no guarantee that the views and opinions expressed in this piece will come to pass. The information is deemed reliable as of the date of this commentary, but is not guaranteed, and subject to change without notice. It should not be considered as an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security.

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