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Fourteen Estate Planning Lessons From 'Game of Thrones'

Originally published by Wealth Management [link] on April 15, 2016

With its return on April 24, it’s time to check in again on HBO’s "Game of Thrones." The show not only entertains its devoted fans, it also provides a practical guide to succession planning do’s and don’ts. The (spoiler alert) deaths of Ned Stark, Joffrey Baratheon and others provide an interesting peek into the aftermath of sudden death and the benefits of planning for the unexpected. As Jaqen H'ghar tells Arya Stark at the end of Season 2, "Valar Morghulis," or translated, "All men must die."

Check out these 14 estate-planning lessons. (Several of these involve major plot points from all five seasons of "Game of Thrones." Proceed at your own risk.)

1. Taking Inventory of Your Clients’ Assets Is a Good Place to Start

Helping clients periodically evaluate their assets saves time and frustration down the road. Daenerys Targaryen, the last Targaryen alive, while almost always cash-poor, has collected some very valuable assets over the course of her journey, not the least of which are her dragons (although they may be a decreasing asset class as their liability rises). Yet the conquering princess’s wealth is constantly in flux as she continues her domination of the East. U.K.-based Freedom Finance estimated that Daenerys’ assets, including her army of former slave soldiers, are worth £227 million ($382 million).

2. DIY Wills Aren’t the Answer

There are many lessons people can take from Robert Baratheon (conquerors don’t make good kings, alcoholism can kill, etc.), but perhaps the most important: Don’t allow clients to attempt to write wills themselves. It’s too easy to make a big, costly mistake. In Robert’s case, when writing the will, Ned Stark replaces "My son Joffrey" with "my heir" because the king's eldest son is actually a bastard. The will, and Ned Stark’s subsequent actions, tip off a struggle for the throne that costs the lives of thousands.

3. Don’t Stop With a Will

A simple will is probably not sufficient in terms of a complete estate plan. Consider encouraging your clients to develop and fund trusts for children to ensure they’re taken care of in the future—especially if the law of the land is primogeniture. Had Ned Stark done so before he died, his daughters Sansa and Arya would’ve been at least financially secure. Instead, Sansa is left at the mercy of the Lannisters for years and Arya has to travel through the war-ravaged countryside on her own.

4. Assign More Than One Trustee

Since every trust must have at least one trustee, it's a good idea to have clients name successor trustees in their wills, in case the original trustee passes away. Take, for example, the Stark family. Following Ned Stark’s death, his wife Catelyn was in charge of the children, scattered as they were. But her death, along with the heir Robb Stark’s death at the “Red Wedding,” means no one is watching out for the remaining Stark children and their assets.

5. Guardianships

Naming a guardian for children who are minors is essential, but perhaps even more important is notifying the potential guardian and others of your intentions to avoid conflicts in the future. In Season 2, Lady Catelyn Stark asks Brienne of Tarth to secure the safety of her daughters. Unfortunately, she didn’t think to write it down or draft a letter of instruction on how to accomplish the task, so when Brienne and Podrick stumble upon Arya and the Hound in Season 4 (after her mother’s demise), both are wary of Brienne’s promises. In the end, Arya escapes and Brienne is left bruised and frustrated.

6. Beware the Blended Family

The nature of the modern family is changing and advisors will increasingly encounter clients who have blended families, generally featuring multiple spouses/partners and their respective children. Often these disparate groups are linked by only a single person and have little in common with one another. Advisors must account for these differences, both through encouraging communication and in careful planning and drafting of estate planning documents, because when that link is broken, all hell can break loose. "Game of Thrones" features some of the most complexly blended families in fiction, so examples abound. Look at the noble Starks: Ned had five children with his wife Caitlyn and a bastard son from an alleged indiscretion during a military campaign, not to mention a rival’s son he “adopted” to seal a treaty. Is it any surprise that the family scattered to the winds on his death?

7. Encourage Clients to Talk About the Future

Kids need to know what’s in store. Especially since inheritance can be a loaded issue. Tell clients to be as up-front as possible about their intentions, to help alleviate conflicts after they've gone. Ned Stark made sure his children, particularly Jon Snow, knew where they stood while he was alive. In fact, Stark sent Snow to live at the Wall, knowing his son would have a place within the ranks of the Night’s Watch.

8. Work With What You’ve Got

There’s no single estate-planning template. Each plan must be customized to the individual client in order to maximize its effectiveness. Attempting to force a client down a predesigned planning path that doesn’t fit their individual circumstances may have disastrous results. Take, for example, Lord Tywin Lannister, the Lord of Casterly Rock, who was infamous for refusing to ever acknowledge his son Tyrion as his heir, despite the law saying the Rock should be his. "Neither gods nor men will ever compel me to let you turn Casterly Rock into your whorehouse," Tywin told his son. But Lannister’s determination to thwart his son’s inheritance not only played into his eventual murder, but utter chaos leading into Season 5.

9. Keep Your Clients’ Plans Up to Date

An estate plan isn’t something that can be done once and then put in a drawer and forgotten. It has to be constantly updated and re-evaluated because laws, and people, change. Or die. And they die a lot in "Game of Thrones." When (Season 4 spoiler alert) Joffrey dies of poison on his wedding day, his younger brother Tommen is slated to take over as the new king. But what happens if Tommen also dies (as predicted)? Someone should make sure that some King’s Landing scribes have been set to work on a solution … just in case.

10. Clients’ Trust Is Hard to Earn and Easy to Lose

Even the very best advice is worthless if your client refuses to listen. Advisors must work hard to earn their clients’ trust, through patience and competence, and be constantly vigilant of how fleeting said faith can be. This struggle is illustrated in the show when Daenerys learns that her closest advisor, Jorah, had previously spied on her. Though no harm ultimately came from his indiscretion, she sent him away nonetheless. He could no longer be trusted.

11. Listen to the Experts (Even If You’re One of Them)

Estate planning can be extremely complicated, and the consequences of botching it can be dire; thus it’s important for advisors to know when it’s time to contact a specialist. Joffrey and Robert Baratheon, bad kings both, had one thing in common—they refused to listen to the advice of the small council. As Tywin Lannister would say, a wise king listens to his advisors, even when he’s old enough to have some wisdom himself.

12. Managing Wealth Can Be More Difficult Than Amassing It

Often clients can become so focused on making money that they ignore certain dangers that can siphon it away even faster than a client can earn it. In the context of estate planning, the risks of loss are greatest in times of transfer, be it wealth transfer, through gifts or bequests, or power transfer, through a succession event. If these scenarios aren’t properly planned and executed, a lifetime of work can be undone in an instant. Daenerys is currently learning this lesson as, after finding such success liberating the various cities of Slaver’s Bay, she’s struggling mightily now that she’s attempting to settle in and actually rule the city of Meereen.

13. Identify All Potential Beneficiaries and Heirs

In many jurisdictions, disinheriting a spouse or child may be accomplished only through inclusion of specific language in the will (and even in those that are more lenient, doing so is still good practice to secure against contests). Though this requirement has fairly obvious ramifications in the case of purposely excluding a known heir, it can also have outsized impact when unexpected heirs arise. A well-laid plan could be completely scuttled by the revelation of an additional child who wasn’t disclosed to the drafting attorney and, as such, wasn’t considered as part of the planning. In the world of Westeros, it seems as though everyone in power has at least one secret bastard, the revelation of whose parenthood could submarine any number of schemes and machinations with predictably bloody (this is "Game of Thrones" after all) results.

14. Keep Things Flexible

The only certainty in life (other than death) is change, and estate planners need to equip their clients with the tools to deal with change when it inevitably occurs. Though it’s tempting to try and include language addressing every possible eventuality, this impulse is both impossible to accomplish (you’ll always miss something) and actively destructive, because the more hard-line rules are baked into an estate plan, the less flexible it becomes. For documents meant, in many cases, to reach far into the future, inflexibility is a fatal flaw. The best plans manage to walk the difficult tightrope of covering as many bases as possible while somehow not becoming prescriptive. The characters in "Game of Thrones" have plans for seemingly every eventuality. Yet none are prepared for the impending threat represented by the White Walkers, which dwarfs their petty succession squabbles. It would have been ridiculous for them to anticipate the possibility of a frozen zombie invasion, but their plans will have to survive one nonetheless.