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6 Estate Planning Lessons from Duck Dynasty

By David Greene, JD, CPA

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve undoubtedly had some exposure to the Robertson Family—the beard-sporting, camo-clad, wise-cracking millionaire-redneck stars of A&E’s Duck Dynasty. Before appearing on television, the Robertson family amassed substantial wealth through their Duck Commander business, which manufactures and sells patented duck calls.

In an episode called Jerky Boys, which aired in October of 2013, family Patriarch Phil and his wife Kay decide to do some estate planning and share their wishes with their son and Duck Commander CEO, Willie. What follows are some real-life lessons to be learned from Phil and Miss Kay’s venture into getting their “affairs in order.” Their example proves at times to be good, bad and ugly.

LESSON 1: GET A SENSE OF URGENCY

Phil and Kay arrive in Willie’s office and Phil introduces the subject when he announces that they have just come from the doctor’s office and are going to die. Willie is naturally alarmed, but is quickly relieved to find out that both Phil and Kay are, at the moment, relatively healthy. Phil demonstrates lesson one: a healthy sense of urgency, when he continues, “If you’ve made it 65 years, you’re way ahead of the game, but we will go. We’re like everyone else. At some point, presto—they’re gone. We want to make sure what we leave behind is in order.”
“Today?” Willie asks.
“Today. Right now,” Phil replies. “We ain’t getting any younger Will.”

Most people realize estate planning is important, and most people are realistic enough to know that at some point, “presto—they’re gone.” Not many people expect that presto moment to be today, or tomorrow, or next week, and so planning for death and disability is always something that can be done later. The truth that Phil and Kay realized is that at some point—no one knows when—it can’t be done later, so it’s best to get it done as soon as possible. “Today. Right now.”

LESSON 2: Make It Legal

At Phil’s insistence, Willie accompanies him on a tour of the Robertson property. Phil’s idea is to describe to Willie which portions of the property are to go to whom. Willie skeptically asks, “should we write this down?” Phil’s response teaches (by way of a negative example), lesson 2: Make it Legal. Phil says, “Nothin’ sticks in a man’s ears like his father’s voice. A man’s word is better than putting anything on paper.” Perhaps it should be expected from a man who’s expertise is in duck calls, but this is terrible estate planning advice, and Willie knows it. “Ever wonder why families end up arguing over their inheritance?” he asks. “Because their parents asked their son, who isn’t getting the house, to remember the will.”

LESSON 3: Plan for the Unexpected

Here, Kay sets a good example again. She explains, “If you wanna guarantee your passing is handled correctly, you’ve gotta make sure you’ve got a good backup plan. The more backups the better. Backups for backups for backups for backups. The more backups the better.” Clients often have difficulty with this part. They haven’t considered the unfortunate possibility that their children or grandchildren could die or become incapacitated before they do. But Kay’s advice is sound—it’s good to think about who will inherit (or serve as executor, or guardian or etc.) if your first (and second) choice isn’t available. A solid backup plan includes naming a corporate fiduciary to serve in the event individuals are not willing or able. She then talks about her ultimate backup plan, if none of her descendants are available to inherit: “And then to [Phil’s brother] Si if y’all die in a plane crash or somethin’.” Planning for the plane crash is a good idea, although naming an individual (and one in her own generation) is not necessarily ideal (a larger class of people or charitable organizations would be better). Willie hints that he has a sense of this as well, and bluntly points out: “Si’s old as crap--I don’t think you need to be working him into the inheritance.”

LESSON 4: Plan for Animals

After reciting the dispositive plan, including backups for backups, Kay adds, almost as an afterthought, “we probably should have left something to [the dogs] Bobo and JJ too…” The truth is, planning for animals isn’t always necessary. But if there’s doubt as to who will care for pets after you’re disabled or deceased, or if there’s likely to be disagreement over the animals (whether its because everyone wants them or no one does), it can be a good idea to put your wishes in your estate plan. Most states now have specific trust statutes allowing for a trust to be established for the benefit of pets.

LESSON 5: Revise When Necessary

As the show progresses, Phil and Willie tour the property. Several desirable portions Phil indicates should go to Willie’s brothers. Toward the end of the show, Phil finally shows Willie the portion of the family land that Phil wants Willie to inherit—an unsightly tract with a gas-line easement running across it. Willie’s hope, as he responds to this revelation from his father, is that “you can re-think this thing. It’s not official yet.” And that’s true—as long as Phil remains mentally sharp, he can always change his mind—updating, revising and refining his estate plan so that at the time it’s necessary to enact, it represents his wishes as closely as possible. It’s a good practice to take a look at your estate plan every few years—or when there’s a significant change in family circumstances or wealth—and make sure it still reflects your goals.

LESSON 6: Discuss Your Plan

Phil eventually explained that his reasoning for leaving the seemingly undesirable encumbered portion of land to Willie was due to Willie’s business acumen and ability to negotiate with the utilities. Explaining these types of decisions to your family can be very helpful to them— especially if your loved ones are likely to be surprised by what’s in your plan, or if the plan could be perceived as unfair in some way. If Phil hadn’t communicated his rationale to Willie, it’s possible that his dying bequest could have left Willie feeling slighted. Typically, the overarching goal for estate planning is to make things easier on your loved ones once you’re gone, and sometimes, knowing why you made a choice can be the difference between confusion and resentment, and respect and admiration.

So while these may not be the typical lessons on “family togetherness” that Phil and Miss Kay are used to teaching, when you’re planning your estate (or if you’re helping clients plan for theirs), remember these lessons they unwittingly taught—they might just end up helping that family togetherness thing after all.

This article was written by David Greene, JD, CPA. He would love to hear from you! Call 423.232.0456 or email dgreene@covenanttrustllc.com.

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