Family Drama in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Family Drama in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen “The Force Awakens,” stop reading NOW.

George Lucas recently stated that Star Wars is “actually a soap opera, and it’s all about family problems.” Distributing the assets of a deceased loved one is a problem that almost all families will eventually face. So, in light of the shocking events of “The Force Awakens,” who would be the beneficiary of Han Solo’s estate?  

First, let’s consider what assets Han would have had upon his passing. We know that he had likely accumulated significant wealth over his long career as one of the galaxy’s most successful smugglers. We also know that he received a sizeable monetary reward from the Rebellion for his successful rescue of Princess Leia from the Death Star in Episode 4. There’s good reason to believe that his assets were substantial.

Second, let’s consider to whom Han would have left his assets if he had executed a somewhat standard estate plan composed of a pour-over will and a revocable living trust. (Let’s also assume, for purposes of simplicity, that the Star Wars universe does not have a gift and estate tax.) We know that at the time of Episode 7, Solo was married to Princess Leia and they had at least one child—Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren. We also know that Ben’s turn to the dark side deeply affected both Leia and Han and significantly strained their marriage. Episode 7 makes it clear that Han and Leia were barely on speaking terms, had not seen each other in quite a while and did not maintain a traditional marital relationship by any means.

We also know that Solo was still close with his loyal sidekick, Chewbacca. Star Wars fans may recall that Chewbacca owed Solo a “life debt” whereby Chewbacca committed to working with and protecting Solo as a result of Solo rescuing Chewbacca from slavery decades earlier.

It’s also important to note that Han’s son, Ben, was the one who killed him, which is legally significant.

Now, in light of all of this, what would likely unfold upon Han’s death? The question would depend, in part, on whether Han had executed a will and trust (testate), or if he did not have an estate plan in place, in which case he would be deemed to have died intestate.

Scenario #1

It’s fair to assume that if Han died testate (with an estate plan), he would likely have named Chewbacca as the beneficiary of his will and trust. In Episode 7, Han was angry with Leia and distraught about Ben, making it less likely that he would want to provide for either in his estate plan.

However, in many jurisdictions, a decedent can’t completely disinherit his spouse. The disinherited spouse has the right to file a claim for what’s known as the elective share of the deceased spouse’s augmented estate (which is one-third of the augmented estate if the deceased left surviving children or their descendants [which Han did]). Accordingly, it seems likely that if Han named Chewbacca as the sole beneficiary of his trust, Leia would file a claim for the elective share.

Here’s where things could turn contentious between Leia and Chewbacca: In many jurisdictions, a spouse is barred from taking the elective share if the spouse willfully deserted or abandoned the decedent and such abandonment continued until the time of the death. Therefore, the big question would be whether Leia willfully deserted or abandoned Han, and whether that continued until the time of his death. This would likely be a hotly litigated issue, as there are strong arguments on both sides.

Leia would argue that she simply saw her husband less than a typical couple (a practice which is not unusual among celebrity or high-powered couples, especially when one of them holds a leadership role in a military organization, as Leia did). Leia would also argue that she had an active, functioning relationship with Han, as evidenced by their detailed discussion in Episode 7 about their remorse at their son’s turning to the dark side and Leia’s plea to Han to try to “bring him back.”

In support of his argument that Leia abandoned Han, Chewbacca would try to argue that Leia’s prioritizing of her duties as a general for the Resistance led her to neglect her marriage to Han to the point that she willfully deserted or abandoned him (forcing Han to return to a life of smuggling apart from her). That, coupled with the marital tension resulting from their remorse at Ben’s decision to turn to the dark side, led to a complete marital breakdown.

Scenario #2

If Han Solo died without having executed a will and/or trust, then a statutory order of beneficiaries would control the distribution of his estate. In many jurisdictions, the sole beneficiary is the surviving spouse, with some exceptions. In the Star Wars universe, we have no indication that Han ever had any children by a woman other than Leia (the main source exception), so under the intestacy scheme, Leia should inherit all of his assets. However, the bar on taking the elective share that we discussed above also applies to taking via intestate succession. Accordingly, Leia would face the same potential legal problems if Han died intestate as she would if he died testate.

Here’s where things get especially interesting: If Leia was in fact barred from inheriting via intestate succession, then Han’s estate would pass to his children (not Chewbacca as in the scenario above). As far as I’m aware, Han has only one canonical child: Ben. So, if Leia were barred from inheriting via intestate succession, then Ben would inherit his father’s estate, right? Well, not exactly.

Many jurisdictions have a “slayer rule,” which prevents a person who murdered (or was involved in the voluntary manslaughter of) the deceased from inheriting any portion of the deceased’s estate. Therefore, the administrator of Han’s estate would likely argue that Ben’s act of killing Han in cold blood, without provocation, certainly constitutes murder (or, at a minimum, voluntary manslaughter).

Ben, on the other hand, would argue that his act did not constitute murder or voluntary manslaughter, but rather was the proper killing of an enemy soldier during combat. Ben would point to the active conflict between the First Order and the Resistance, the fact that Solo had infiltrated the First Order’s base on behalf of the Resistance and that Han was accompanied by other armed combatants when the confrontation occurred.

If Ben is also barred from taking via intestate succession, the next question is, who is the proper beneficiary? Typically, the order of inheritance proceeds as follows: Han’s parents (although it seems unlikely they would still be alive), then Han’s brothers and sisters and their descendants. Does Han have any brothers or sisters? I don’t know. However, Disney is currently casting a movie about young Han Solo, so perhaps that movie will shed some light on Han’s brothers and sisters (one or more of whom would be the lucky beneficiary of Han’s ample estate).

Will Episode 8 portray the courtroom drama as Leia, Chewbacca, Kylo Ren, Han’s unknown siblings and the administrator of Han’s estate all litigate against one another for the right to his ample wealth? Of course it won’t. But Han’s death does raise many interesting issues that are frequently litigated in a galaxy much closer to home.

 

Will Sleeth is a Williamsburg, Va.-based partner in national law firm LeClairRyan.

This is an adapted version of the author's original article.

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