Horton Foote’s "Dividing the Estate"

Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate, a play about family interdependence, love, hate and estate planning, had a limited run, Sept. 27 to Oct. 28, to critical acclaim in New York City. The producers are hoping to bring it back in the spring. If it's on the boards again, wealth advisors and their clients are well-advised to see the production. But even if Dividing the Estate never returns to the live theater, the play is worth a quick read. At least, that's the word from Gail E. Cohen, vice president and general trust council of Fiduciary Trust Company of New York, whom Trusts & Estates sent to see the show with a reporter on a recent rainy autumn evening.

Says Cohen: "This play would very much resonate with families in this situation. It really dramatizes their conflicts. I found it to be emotionally true."

Foote, a Texas native, is best known for his screenplay adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. But the Pulitzer Prize, Academy Award and Emmy winner also wrote many plays of his own, including The Trip to Bountiful (which was made into a movie starring Geraldine Page.)

Clearly, Southern Gothic was on the menu in Manhattan. And it was quite a repast.

The action in Dividing the Estate takes place at the Gordon family's Texas home, where a dowager mother rules over her cash-strapped adult children and servants. She is alternatively controlling and consoling (like many a wealth owner.) The play is set (and originally premiered) in 1987, after the stock market crash and the saving and loans scandal. It's only now had its New York premiere, off-Broadway at Primary Stages on 59th Street. But, given today's sub-prime meltdown, it's very timely.

As in life, it's not immediately apparent that money is an issue -- perhaps the issue -- for the family in question. The imperious mother, Stella (beautifully acted by Broadway veteran Elizabeth Ashley), presides over family dinners, attended by a seemingly loving son, daughter and grandson, all of whom live with her. Faithful servants, who seem to come with the Texas estate, complete the picture. The servants are the only people who actually work, along with the grandson, nicknamed "Son," who manages the estate's books. The actual son and daughter proudly announce that they've never worked a day in their lives.

As the play unfolds, each of Stella's children, including another daughter in Houston, has to beg Son and "momma" for cash, borrowing against future inheritances. Apparently, their immediate financial picture is desperate. The brother begs Son for about $10,000; later, it's revealed that he needs to pay off the father of his underage girlfriend. The daughter in Houston has to borrow money, because her house is being foreclosed.

"Son is a de facto trustee because he has control of the money," notes Cohen. "It is so interesting to see the problems that can arise and how divisive it can be when a family member is in control of the flow of money to beneficiaries."

Having to ask relatives for money generates resentment and sparks nasty expressions of sibling rivalry. Discussions around the family dinner table escalate. Each sibling demands to see the estate's books to find out how much everyone else is borrowing. Accusations fly: There's been dishonesty; the accounts are wrong.

"If someone were impartial and not a family member, the shared hatred could have been a unifying factor," says Cohen, touting the corporate trustee option.

The big problem, it seems, is not just short-term cash flow, but momma's long-term plans for her estate. Will she divide it while she's still alive? Will she increase her "gifting"? How big will the kids' inheritance actually be? The children press her for answers.

Momma is maddeningly (from her children's perspective) contradictory in her responses to their requests, sometimes entertaining the idea of estate planning, sometimes not. And her memory is extraordinarily selective, which is perhaps her central manipulative strategy. For Cohen this all rings very true: "'Testamentary capacity' is a key issue when you get into fights about a will. At times, the mother couldn't remember but she really was as smart as a tack. It was interesting how the author and actor got this across."

Also interesting: the origins of the Gordon family fortune are shady. Not to reveal all of the play's secrets, let's just say that these dyed-in-the-wool Southerners, despite their drawling accents, may have some Yankee carpetbagger roots. Or worse. While this skeleton in the closet doesn't impact the family's ability to transfer funds to the next generation, it is important for the family's sense of itself.

The need to know the origin of wealth is certainly a meaningful topic for Cohen. "One of the greatest challenges financial institutions have today is complying with the U.S. Patriot Act, which requires understanding of the source of funds," according to Cohen. "The play is brilliant here -- we have had to become detectives about knowing our clients and the source of their funds."

Cohen has a few technical quibbles with some of the play's legal niceties. The legal fees discussed seemed high, even to this New York attorney. Also in the play, the executor is bound to a specific lawyer, something most (if not all) states would disallow, according to Cohen.

Still, Cohen felt the playwright did a good job "portraying the legal details interestingly and accurately," including the tax treatment of gifting, as well as the overall tax burden associated with a lack of estate planning.

Perhaps more importantly, the larger truths of the play resonate poetically, dramatizing uncomfortable truths. "The children love their mother. But they are also waiting for her to die," observes Cohen. "This generates a lot of guilt."

The Gordons manage to reach a legal and emotional resolution. It's an ironic resolution, which no one (except perhaps the mother) anticipated.

But, in the end, the fictional family remains together. And in this respect at least, it was life that imitated art this fall in New York.

This production of Dividing the Estate starred Hallie Foote, Horton's daughter. At the end of the play, the audience, including Cohen, rose to their feet to applaud Hallie's performance.

Then the audience turned to applaud an elderly gentleman sitting in the back row of the spare theatre. Watching the play and Hallie, as he had every performance of the five-week run, was the nonagenarian playwright himself, Hallie's father, Horton Foote.

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