Hurley Burish and Stanton, SC Attorneys at law

Knives In – How Harlan Thrombey Could Have Saved Marta Cabrera

Author: Attorney Tom Vercauteren
Phone: 608-257-0945

Spoiler alert: this article addresses some of the plot details of the film Knives Out.

I’m something of a film buff.  I’ve been a big fan of director Rian Johnson ever since I saw his first feature length film Brick in theaters when I was in college back in 2005. It’s also my opinion that his take is the best of the newest set of Star Wars films, and am available to bore anyone with my reasons why.

Mr. Johnson’s latest film, Knives Out, is a twisty mystery that plays with some of the classic conventions of a whodunit.  Of particular note to an estate planning geek like myself, the film revolves around the recent passing of a bestselling mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey, and the circumstances surrounding his death.  About halfway through the film, we learn that Mr. Thrombey’s last will and testament leaves his entire estate to his caretaker, Marta.  This estate planning moves effectively disinherits his children and grandchildren.

Wisconsin law would identify Mr. Thrombey’s 2 surviving children and the child of his predeceased son as his “intestate heirs.”  The legal term for dying without any estate plan in place (will or otherwise) is called dying “intestate.”  When you pass away intestate, Wisconsin law says your estate should be distributed to your “heirs.”  Who those heirs are is determined by statute. 

The dramatic “reading of the will” scene is a common way many film directors take liberties to insert drama or comedy into some of the more mundane aspects of estate administration.  In my ten plus years as an attorney, I have never conducted nor attended such a reading performance.  

In the real world, the will reading scenes are depicting the disclosure of the terms of a decedent’s last will and testament to that decedent’s heirs.  Wisconsin law requires that a copy of the decedent’s will that is being offered for probate be provided to all “persons interested.”  Wisconsin law further provides that a decedent’s intestate heirs are necessarily persons interested.  Therefore, the law states that even if you are disinheriting one or more of your children, they are entitled to receive the document that disinherits them and must be served with notice of the probate proceeding.

From a logical standpoint, this disclosure requirement makes some sense.  The people that stand to benefit if a decedent’s will be found invalid for any reason are the intestate heirs.  They will receive the estate if there is no will.  Therefore, the heirs are presented with the document offered as the decedent’s last will and testament and are given notice of the opportunity and proceeding to bring their objections to the will.  This works as a sort of “speak now or forever hold your peace.”

However, from a practical standpoint, being served with a document that disinherits you can add insult to injury.  Regardless of the reason for the disinheritance, the person is receiving notice of it at a time that they are likely still grieving the loss of the family member.  This time of emotional vulnerability can cause an unpredictable and unintentional reaction from the recipient.  A person might lash out, and misdirect their anger at the decedent for disinheriting them towards the beneficiary named in the will.

Such reactions are on full display in the Knives Out will reading scene.  Marta is immediately accosted by the surviving Thrombey family members.  Their first reaction is that they “need to fight this thing.”  They then throw accusations and derogatory insults at Marta, who is just as surprised as they are that she is the named beneficiary of Mr. Thrombey’s estate.  While these reactions are played up for dramatic and comedic effect, their depiction captures feelings that I think ring true.

Mr. Thrombey could have saved Marta from this assault, and likely avoided at least some of the confrontation by establishing a revocable trust.  With a revocable trust, Mr. Thrombey would create an entity that is separate from himself and that entity holds or receives his assets.  Thus, upon his death, he wouldn’t own any assets himself, and therefore there would be no assets to probate.

Wisconsin law regarding trusts only requires that the qualified beneficiaries of the trust be informed about the trust’s existence and the terms thereof.  Thus, if Mr. Thrombey had a revocable trust, the trust could be drafted in such a way so that his heirs do not receive information about the identity of the trust’s beneficiary.  While the Thombey children’s initial reactions of anger may have been the same, they would not have known to direct their anger towards Marta.

This privacy aspect is only one of the many reasons people establish revocable trusts.  They are not only for the uber-wealthy Harlan Thrombeys of the world, as many of the factors that inform Mr. Thrombeys estate plan are just as present in estates of more modest sizes. 

An estate plan that gives thought and consideration to the numerous circumstances and family dynamics is a gift to your surviving family and friends. At Hurley Burish, SC, we can help you make sure that your estate planning decisions are well articulated, and that they are delivered in the best method so as to avoid conflict.  Contact Attorney Tom Vercauteren at or (608) 257‑0945 to schedule your no obligation initial estate planning consultation.