Reality Check: Park and Rec’s Ben Wyatt gives Ron Swanson will advice 1


 

In the clip above, Park and Recreation’s Ron Swanson reveals his single-sentence will leaving everything he owns to the man or animal that kills him will to Ben Wyatt. It’s the same will Ron has had since he was eight years old.

In the subsequent dialog, Ben tells Ron that his document is “nothing, it’s not even notarized” and that if he dies without a will that most of what he owns will go to the government.

How much, if any of Ron’s will would hold up in an Idaho court and how much of Ben’s advice should you trust? The answer to both questions is the same: very little, if any at all.

For guidance on navigating these two questions, I turned to this handy self-help guide, prepared by the Idaho State Bar’s Taxation, Probate & Trust Law Section. (A PDF of the guide can be found at the bottom of this blog.)

You must be 18 to execute a valid will

Ron’s first issue is that he wrote his will when he was eight. There isn’t an expiration date on wills. A will lasts until the person who executed the will decides they want to update it. The most current will governs the estate upon death, but there isn’t a set period of time a will “lasts” for. It is however a good idea to get a new will as significant events in your life occur, such as getting married/divorced, having children, losing children, having grandchildren or a drastic change in income.

However, one must be 18 to execute a will. Idaho Statue 15-2-501 states any emancipated minor or any person eighteen (18) or more years of age who is of sound mind may make a will.

(The second sentence of that statue also states “A married woman may dispose of her property, whether separate or community, in the same manner as any other person subject to the restrictions imposed by this code.” Wahoo for women’s equality!)

So while it’s been many years since Ron wrote his will, that alone won’t be a show stopper. The fact that he wrote it at eight will be.

Wills can be handwritten without the aid of a notary (but you shouldn’t actually choose that method)

Putting that aside for the moment, Ben is wrong to tell Ron his will doesn’t count because it’s written by hand and isn’t notarized. Idaho laws recognize handwritten wills, which are called holographic wills. This form from Idaho Legal Aid can walk you through the process to draft your own will, but doing so is generally not the best idea because it becomes easy to miss something drafting your own will.

While a notary isn’t required to execute a will, it is a good idea to have your will notarized. Having it notarized makes it a “self-proved” will, which means your witnesses won’t have to testify as to your proper signing of the will at probate proceedings. It’s very unlikely any will an attorney drafts for you won’t be signed by a notary, thereby freeing your witnesses up from having to testify in court.

So Ben was wrong, you can handwrite your own will without the assistance of a notary. It’s just not the best idea to do so.

Most of Ron’s property will not go to the government when he dies

Ben was also wrong in telling Ron that if he dies without a will, most of what he owns will go to the government. The state is literally the last in line when it comes to distributing your property after your death and will make an effort to find someone else you are related to to distribute it to first.

If you die without a will, which is referred to as “intestate,” your property passes according to the laws of Idaho. In general, a surviving spouse receives all of the community property and the spouse and children share the decedent’s separate property.

If there is no surviving spouse, the property is equally divided among the children. There are additional steps taken if there are no surviving children until someone can be found to inherent the property before the state would take it.

People who intentionally kill you can’t inherent under your will

As discussed above, Ron’s will will not hold up in court because he was eight when it was written and therefore not valid, but despite being exactly one-sentence long, there’s a major problem in that sentence that would prevent Ron’s property to being passed as he wishes.

While leaving animals large sums of money isn’t completely unheard of, most states do not permit someone to profit from a crime and Idaho bars a person who willfully and unlawfully kills the decedent from subsequently inheriting from the estate. This means that Ron’s property cannot pass to the man or animal that kills him. Idaho Statute 15-2-803 does allow for the property to pass through the slayer, meaning that if a son willfully and unlawfully killed his mother and was to inherent under her will, he would not be able to, but his children still could.

Having an invalid will is like having no will at all

As a result of having an invalid will, Ron’s estate would be treated as if he had died intestate and distributed in accordance with state laws. Fortunately for Ron, he decided to draft a new will later in the episode that ensured his stepchildren would be taken care of, but not spoiled, after his death.

Side bar:

Ron admits during the episode, and several other ones in the series, that he owns bars of gold buried in various, secret places. He has a vacation cabin and tries to buy items in straight gold. When he shows Ben the amount of money he wishes to leave to each of his stepdaughters, Ben’s jaw drops when Ron tells him that the amount he is looking at is equaled to only five percent of his estate. If you have a large estate, multiple residents or bars of gold buried in secret places, it’s definitely a good idea to have more than a single-sentence will.

Basic Estate Planning Q&A


One thought on “Reality Check: Park and Rec’s Ben Wyatt gives Ron Swanson will advice

  • The Learned Sergeant

    I’m aware that Idaho does in fact have a “slayer rule” (Idaho Code §15-2-803), but I’m not sure it would apply in this case. While technically, anyone who kills Swanson (good luck with that) would qualify as a “slayer” in the definition subsection (a)(1), I think that there’s a valid policy argument that can be made.

    The intent behind the statute is that it’s unlikely that if you killed a person that the decedent would want you rewarded for that. However, in this case the slayer is the sole, and clearly intended beneficiary. There’s always the maker’s intent to contend with:

    Idaho Code §15-2-603. RULES OF CONSTRUCTION AND INTENTION. The intention of a testator as expressed in his will controls the legal effect of his dispositions. The rules of construction expressed in the succeeding sections of this Part apply unless a contrary intention is indicated by the will.

    The statute is clear, and it wouldn’t really advance public policy to reward a person for killing another, so it’s probably still a loser. But I still think that when the courts seek out the maker’s intent, there’s at least a fighting chance that I.C. §15-2-803 might not apply in this case. I’d take the case as it seems only ethical to carry out the intent of the drafter.

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