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The Grand Budapest Hotel and the mental capacity to make a will

Picture this. A legendary hotel concierge and serial womaniser seduces a rich, elderly widow who regularly stays in the hotel where he works. Just before her death, she has a new will prepared and leaves her vast fortune to him rather than her family.

For a regular member of the public, these events could send alarm bells ringing. “She can’t have known what she was doing!” or “What a low life for preying on the old and vulnerable!” These are some of the more printable common reactions. However, for cinema audiences watching last year’s box office smash, The Grand Budapest Hotel directed by Wes Anderson, they may have laughed, even cheered, when it was Tilda Swinton (as Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis) leaving her estate to Ralph Fiennes (as Monsieur Gustave H) rather than her miffed relatives. Thus the rich, old lady disinherits her bizarre clan in what recently became 2015’s most BAFTA-awarded film.

Wills have always provided the public with endless fascination, and are often the subject of great books and dramas. From Bleak House and The Quincunx to Melvin and Howard and The Grand Budapest Hotel, wills are often seen as fantastic plot devices that create difficulties for the protagonists. For a large part of the twentieth century, wills and the lives of dissolute heirs have been regular topics for Sunday journalism. The controversy around the estate of American actress and model, Anna Nicole Smith, is one such case that has since been turned into an opera, and there is little sign that interest in wills and testaments will diminish in the entertainment world in the coming years.

“[The Vegetarian Society v Scott] is probably the only case around testamentary capacity where the testator’s liking for a cooked breakfast has been offered as evidence against the validity of his will.”

Aside from the drama depicted around wills in films, books, and stage shows, there is also the drama of wills in real life. There are two sides to every story with disputed wills and the bitter, protracted, and expensive arguments that are generated often tear families apart. While in The Grand Budapest Hotel the family attempted to solve the battle by setting out to kill Gustave H, this is not an option families usually turn to (although undoubtedly many families have thought about it!).

Usually, the disappointed family members will claim that either the ‘seducer’ forced the relative into making the will, or the elderly relative lacked the mental capacity to make a will; this is known as ‘testamentary capacity’. Both these issues are highly technical legal areas, which are resolved dispassionately by judges trying to escape the vehemence and passion of the protagonists. Regrettably, these arguments are becoming far more common as the population ages and the incidence of dementia increases.

Wes Anderson, director of The Grand Budapest Hotel. By Popperipopp. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Wes Anderson, director of The Grand Budapest Hotel. By Popperipopp. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The diagnosis of mental illness is now far more advanced and nuanced than it was when courts were grappling with such issues in the nineteenth century. While the leading authority on testamentary capacity still dates from a three-part test laid out in the 1870 Banks v Goodfellow case, it is still a common law decision, and modern judges can (and do) adapt it to meet advancing medical views.

This can be seen in one particular case, The Vegetarian Society v Scott, in which modern diagnosis provided assistance when a question arose in relation to a chronic schizophrenic with logical thought disorder. He left his estate to The Vegetarian Society as opposed to his sister or nephews, for whom he had a known dislike. There was evidence provided by the solicitor who wrote the will that the deceased was capable of logical thought for some goal-directed activities, since the latter was able to instruct the former on his wishes. It was curious however that the individual should have left his estate to The Vegetarian Society, as he was in fact a meat eater. However unusual his choice of heir, the deceased’s carnivorous tendencies were not viewed as relevant to the issues raised in the court case.

As the judge put it, “The sanity or otherwise of the bequest turns not on [the testator’s] for food such as sausages, a full English breakfast or a traditional roast turkey at Christmas; nor does it turn on the fact that he was schizophrenic with severe thought disorder. It really turns on the rationality or otherwise of his instructions for his wills set in the context of his family relations and other relations at various times.”

This is probably the only case around testamentary capacity where the testator’s liking for a cooked breakfast has been offered as evidence against the validity of his will.

For lawyers, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis is potentially a great client. Wealth, prestige, and large fees for the will are then followed by even bigger fees in the litigation. If we are to follow the advice of the judge overseeing The Vegetarian Society v Scott, Gustave H would have inherited all of Madame Céline’s money if she was seen to be wholly rational when making her will.

Will disputes will always remain unappealing and traumatic to the family members involved. However, as The Grand Budapest Hotel has shown us, they still hold a strong appeal for cinema audiences and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Feature image: Reflexiones by Serge Saint. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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