Forfeiture in Film: The Slayer Rule in The Grand Budapest Hotel
Recently, I experienced a series of coincidences involving American filmmaker Wes Anderson. In the span of a handful of days, I came across the newly-released trailer of his upcoming film, The French Dispatch, and had the opportunity to revisit his 2014 hit, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Not having seen the latter in several years, I had entirely forgotten a key plot point involving a handful of curious estate planning decisions. Although the film was released six years ago, I nonetheless attach a mild spoiler warning.
The plot of the film revolves around a specific bequest of a work of art made by one of the characters in the film, Madame D. The painting, Boy with Apple, is left to Ralph Fiennes’ character, Gustave H, the proprietor of the film’s namesake hotel, per Madame D’s (purported) Last Will and Testament.
Her decision to leave the painting to Gustave, rather than her nephew, Dmitri, creates a firestorm of controversy, not least of all because Dmitri accuses Gustave of murdering his aunt in order to secure
his entitlement to Boy with Apple. In reality, it is strongly hinted in the film that Dmitri is responsible for her murder. As an additional twist, a further Last Will and Testament executed by Madame D is discovered later, which appears to leave the entire residue of her estate, rather than just Boy with Apple, to Gustave. However, it is stated in the film that this further Last Will is only to be given effect in the event that Madame D is murdered.
This single plot point raises a number of points of discussion and policy concerns as to what would transpire if the film were set in Ontario. This blog will explore the nature of Dmitri’s and Gustave’s potential entitlements in the Estate.
Prior blogs have explored the concept of common law forfeiture rules in Canada, which preclude an individual from deriving a benefit from their own morally culpable conduct. Colloquially known as the “slayer rule” in the context of a testator-beneficiary relationship, a beneficiary who is found to have caused the unlawful death of a testator will be deemed at common law to have predeceased the testator, thereby extinguishing any interest in the testator’s estate.
In the film, Dmitri accuses Gustave of the murder of Madame D. In the ordinary course, a conviction proper is not a necessary precondition to the applicability of the slayer rule. Rather, common law suggests that the rule applies strictly in the event that the beneficiary’s deliberate act caused the death of the testator. In theory, Gustave’s interest in the estate of Madame D could be in jeopardy despite the lack of culpability. In practice, despite his efforts to frame Gustave, the evidence would likely show that Dmitri was the culprit, thereby extinguishing any interest in Madame D’s estate.
Of course, the further Last Will purportedly being given effect only in the event a murder adds a further layer of discussion, and will be explored in greater detail in part 2 of this blog.
Thanks for reading.