You Won’t Always Be Master of Your Kingdom
When Shakespeare’s King Lear opens, Lear is seated in his castle, resplendent in his power and glory. He is the master of a kingdom. His will is law. He wants to retire in peace, with the knowledge that he has implemented a thoughtful estate plan that divides his kingdom among his three devoted and loving daughters.
He has no worries about probate or estate taxes. He proclaims:
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburdened crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall,
And you our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now.
(, Act I, Sc. 1, Lines 35-43.)
What could be better or wiser? Lear’s plan should have enhanced his retirement and avoided post-death disputes among his daughters. The result, however, was betrayal, madness, war and death.
Absolute Power Can Disappear Overnight
Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy reminds us that absolute power can disappear overnight, that human beings can break seemingly-binding agreements, and that the new generation does not always follow the ways of the old. We are fools on the heath if we believe that an estate plan that ignores the human beings involved will stand the test of time. Lear’s plan lasted just a few months.
Since it is a tragedy, King Lear magnifies humanity’s many weaknesses. Even though we know that most families are not like Lear’s family and that many estate plans work well, Shakespeare’s dark vision suggests:
Keep your eyes open.
The daughter who tells you “I love you more than worlds can leave the matter,” may not love you at all. The daughter who confesses, “Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters, to love my father all,” may be the daughter who really loves you.
Be willing to listen to honest advice.
If someone you have listened to says, “I tell thee thou dost evil,” don’t abruptly exile him from your kingdom.
Above all, be aware of the role of power in human relationships.
Lear divided his kingdom and his crown. Two of his daughters agreed that they would let him visit their castles periodically with his knights. However, when his knights started partying in the castles, his daughters broke their agreements and threw Lear out.
He wandered on the heath accompanied by his fool. He had no power and never regained it. The members of the younger generation who took his kingdom over exiled him and began implementing their own agendas in the kingdom they had received just months earlier.
Few characters in King Lear portray redeeming human values. All of life is not King Lear, and many of us have loving and trustworthy families. However, Shakespeare’s undoubted ability to artistically illustrate the truths of human relationships clearly shows that retirement and estate planning are not limited to the technical issues of hoped-for easy living, avoiding disputes and avoiding taxes.
All retirement and estate plans need to be created with a clear vision of the human beings who are intended to be benefitted by them, and the human beings who will be charged with implementing them.
A bad trustee can ruin a good trust. A good trustee can save a bad trust.
Consider King Lear.
Can a trust designed to last more than 100 years really be a good idea? Lear’s attempt to impose his patriarchal design on his daughters failed. A perpetual trust may be “the ultimate manifestation of patriarchal control . . . .” (“A Critical Research Agenda For Wills, Trusts, and Estates,” 49 Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Journal, No. 2, Fall 2014.)
King Lear tells us that, in the end, it is not clear that the patriarch has much control.