UH Law Professor Tapped for Land Trust Expertise in 'The Descendants'

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't already seen the film, details in this story could spoil the ending.

When searching out an accurate depiction of the complicated nature of Hawaii land trusts, who better to turn to than Randall Roth, right?

That's what Hollywood director Alexander Payne did for "The Descendants," according to an article this week in Forbes magazine.

After all, Roth knows quite a bit about the drama surrounding family estates, having co-authored "Broken Trust", a book about the mismanagement of Bishop Estate, the largest charitable trust in the nation.

Roth, a University of Hawaii professor on trust law, told Forbes he spent about six hours chatting and exchanging emails with Payne for the film. He said it was an unpaid consultation, but that he "thoroughly enjoyed the experience and was thrilled" to get a screen credit.

The film tried to find a middle ground on a subject that's far from sexy: estate planning. Roth told Forbes he felt Payne "didn't want to make a documentary and didn't want something so precise that it would destroy the tone or the emotional pacing" of the film.

The Hawaii-based movie centers on Matt King, played by George Clooney, an attorney who is the sole trustee of a family trust that is nearing its end. King has to decide whether to sell undeveloped beachfront real estate on Kauai to a developer — a move that would make the family very rich.

The Forbes piece notes that while the "estate planning themes are secondary to the film's other dramas, ... it turns out that the legal issues were painstakingly developed and fact-checked."

Those who read Kaui Hart Hemmings' book that the film is based on may have noticed a difference in the way the movie portrayed the life of the trust inherited by George Clooney's character.

"Most movies simplify legal matters. In 'The Descendants' there is one issue that gets much more complicated. In the book, the reader is told that the trust, according to its provisions, was scheduled to end when Matt King's grandfather died — something that wouldn't be unusual.

But Roth saw gaps in the facts that he thought would raise questions for people who are knowledgeable about trusts and estates law. To solve the problem, he recommended an arcane legal principle be added to the script."

Roth said the dilemma facing Clooney's character — whether or not to sell the Kauai land — and his ultimate decision raised some red flags. He said that trustees are fiduciaries, "which means that certain legal obligations automatically apply. These include a duty to act always in the best interests of the beneficiaries and to avoid conflicts of interest."

Read the full Forbes article: 'The Descendants' Buries Estate Planning Lessons in George Clooney Drama

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