Superman Returns

Superman Returns was a pretty good movie (though hopefully the Man of Steel reboot will be an improvement).  The legal issues the movie raises are quite a bit different from our usual crime & torts fare, which is a nice change of pace.  Spoilers inside:

Right off the bat the movie establishes that Lex Luthor is an eeeevil man by showing him convincing a dying rich old lady to give her entire estate to him.  The problem is that this scam has been around for millennia, and the law has developed several tools to prevent it.

I. Undue Influence

One tool to reach for is ‘undue influence.’  This is a common law doctrine, so the precise elements vary from state to state, but the Metropolis of Superman Returns is very similar to New York, so we’ll use New York law.  In New York, the standard for undue influence dates back to an 1877 case, Children’s Aid Soc’y of N.Y. v. Loveridge, 70 N.Y. 387, which held:

“In order to avoid a will, upon the ground of undue influence, it must be shown that the influence exercised amounted to moral coercion, which restrained independent action and destroyed free agency; or that, by importunity, which he was unable to resist, the testator was constrained to do that which was against his free will and desire.”

That standard is still in use today.  See, e.g., In re Eastman, 880 N.Y.S.2d 157 (N.Y. App. Div. 2009).  Unfortunately, the standard itself isn’t very helpful in determining whether a undue influence is present in a given case or not.  Luckily there are lots of cases we can use by way of analogy.  For example, In re Neary, 843 N.Y.S.2d 689 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007), in which the court held that:

“the proponent was in a confidential relationship with the decedent, and engaged in a course of conduct designed to sway the decedent into leaving the bulk of his estate to her. In light of all of the circumstances of this case, including the decedent’s weakened physical condition at the time the will was executed, there was sufficient evidence to establish that the will was the result of a subtle, but pervasive, form of coercion and influence, by which the proponent overwhelmed and manipulated decedent’s volition to advance her own interests.”

The facts in the Luthor case raise similar alarms: a confidential relationship (Luthor was keeping the woman separate from her family, members of which were demanding to be let in to see her as she lay dying) and a weakened decedent.  Other common alarms in this case include the estate suddenly being shifted to the alleged influencer and the fact that the influencer was the only person present for the execution of the new will.  While not conclusive evidence of undue influence, these facts “call for and impose upon the proponents of the will the burden of explanation.”  Children’s Aid Soc. of N.Y., 70 N.Y. at 388.  The woman’s family would have a good case for undue influence.

II. Testamentary Capacity

It’s not clear exactly what mental state the dying woman was in when she signed the will, but she comes across as a little loopy.  An argument could be made that she was incompetent, but that’s a tougher argument to make than undue influence in this case.  The standard for testamentary capacity is pretty consistent across the US, and the New York standard is typical: the testator must have “understood the nature and consequences of making a will, the nature and extent of his property, and the natural objects of his bounty.”  In re Malan, 866 N.Y.S.2d 774 (N.Y. App. Div. 2008).

It’s pretty clear that she understood that she was executing a will, and there’s no reason to think she wasn’t aware of the extent of her wealth.  The only real question is whether she fully understood that she was depriving her family (the ‘natural objects of her bounty’) of her estate.  Unfortunately we don’t really have enough to go on here, but it’s definitely an issue that would come up.

III. Will Formalities

And here we come to a clincher.  In most jurisdictions, a will must be signed by multiple witnesses (there are exceptions in some states for holographic wills, that is, wills written out by the testator).  New York requires two witnesses.  N.Y. Estates Law § 3-2.1(a)(4).  But in this case there was at most one, Luthor himself.  This pretty well spells the end for Luthor’s plan.

Furthermore, as in many states, a witness who is also a beneficiary under the will is incompetent to testify regarding the will unless there were at least two disinterested witnesses (i.e. witnesses who weren’t getting anything). N.Y. Estates Law § 3-3.2(a).  In this case, there were no other witnesses, so Luthor would be unable to prove the will in court.

If there’s no way to prove a disposition to an interested witness, that witness gets at most whatever they would get if the testator had died without a will (i.e. what they would get ‘by default’).  There is some indication in the movie that Luthor was married to the woman (after she dies he takes off a ring), which means he would still get a surviving spouse’s share.  In New York that is equal to the greater of $50,000 or one-third of the net estate.  N.Y. Estates Law § 5-1.1-A.  So he wouldn’t walk away empty-handed, at least not on the basis of being an interested witness.  The other issues with the will and its execution would take care of the rest, though.

IV. Conclusion

Although we picked New York law for convenience, we don’t think there’s a jurisdiction in the country that would have let Luthor get away with his scheme.  It’s just as well he put his larger evil plan into motion quickly, since the family would almost certainly win a will contest.

We didn’t have space for it today, but if people are interested we can also discuss Superman/Clark Kent’s possible liability for child support for his son Jason.

26 responses to “Superman Returns

  1. How often do probate courts actually overturn wills? The way you’ve laid it out, it makes perfect sense for a judge to laugh Luthor out of the courtroom (no witnesses for the new will), but do they like to do so on a normal basis?

    Also, I’d be very interested in hearing about the analysis for child support. I’m curious as to how a court would actually enforce its judgement against Superman, though.

    • Dude. It’s Superman. As soon as he finds out he’s got a kid, he’ll support it. No question. Whether he’ll set up his own business turning coal into diamonds or whether he just gets a night job to supplement his reporter gig, I have full confidence Superman will take care of his kid.

      • Jeremy Levine

        I would be interested in finding out what a company that owns the mineral rights to a coal mine that Superman takes coal to turn into diamonds (as in the ending of Superman III) would have for theft. One the coal is turned into a diamond, would they be entitled to the property back – though it had materially changed? Would the court award costs of loss profits on what they would have made on the coal or what Superman earned on the diamond?

    • I couldn’t find any solid modern statistics, but I can say that will contests are much more common in the US than Europe and that will contests arise in roughly 1% of cases. Some older empirical studies found that juries frequently found for the contestant (i.e. the party trying to get the will thrown out), but that those jury verdicts are also frequently overturned on appeal.

      That is mostly the product of the slippery doctrine of undue influence, however. Outright failure to comply with the statutory will formalities means that this case is pretty open and shut.

      “I’m curious as to how a court would actually enforce its judgement against Superman, though.”

      That’s a common problem, true, but if Superman were found liable in court I think his own sense of morality would require him to pay up. It’s not like it would be hard for him to earn the money.

  2. On the issue of witnesses for the Will. As is shown in the following scenes both the Maid and (it looks like) the Chauffeur were Lex’s Henchmen and could easily have been used as witnesses.

    • I thought about that, since in New York the witnesses have 30 days in which to attest the signature, but it wouldn’t work in this case. For one thing, the testator has to sign the will in the presence of the witnesses, which clearly didn’t happen. He or she must also “declare to each of the attesting witnesses that the instrument to which his signature has been affixed is his will,” which also didn’t happen.

      • They’re henchmen and would probably lie. As no one was present but Lex during the will signing, they could easily
        have pre-signed a post dated will and then lie about it. Lex would have not qualms doing that given the actual actions during the signing (the completion of the signature.) All that of course left out of the movie in the interest of brevity.

      • No one was present in the room but Lex, but right outside the only entrance were a couple of dozen family members. And Lex had to pass by them to get to his henchmen. It is simply not possible for the will to have been executed properly, and no judge or jury would believe a couple of henchmen over a couple of dozen family members.

  3. Melanie Koleini

    I have a couple of paternity questions. First, would Superman even be legally considered Jason’s father?
    I don’t know much about family law, but I do know who can give legal consent for a child when they are participating in a research study. Just because a man is the biological father of a child, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have any legal authority over the child. At least in Missouri, if a couple isn’t married when a child is born, the man does not automatically gain full legal authority as the child’s father.
    I assume Louis’s fiancé, Richard White, signed the birth certificate. Would that make Richard legally responsible for Jason? I assume Superman could go to family court and asked to be recognized as Jason’s father but would he win if Richard and/or Louis objected?
    If Richard is paying (court ordered) child support, could he get out of it by going to court and contesting paternity now when Jason is 4years old?
    Would the answers be different if Louis and Richard were currently married or married at the time Jason was born?
    Thinking through it, I don’t think a family court judge would give Superman physical custody of a kid. Legal custody maybe, but how could Superman demonstrate the ability to provide a safe, stable home life without revealing his secrete identity to the court?

    • These are good questions, and we’ll try to answer them in the follow-up post!

    • Actually… Melanie’s right. The presumption of paternity goes to the *husband* of the mother, not necessarily the biological father. James Marsden’s character was married to Lois and not only believed himself to be the boy’s father, but had raised the boy and held himself out as the boy’s father for his entire life. Most Supreme Court cases would punish Superman for interrupting this happy family unit to seek any sort of role in the kid’s life.

      However, an argument could be made that Superman *should* be given some recognition as the boy’s father because of the extraordinary circumstances. For instance, Superman and Jason are the only Kryptonians *in the universe*, and an argument could be made it is in the best interest of the child to be trained in his powers, history, and weakness to Kryptonite from the only other person in existence who *could* instruct him, his biological father.

      • No, they weren’t married, they were simply living together with an assumption that they would eventually marry. This (and the other legal matters related to the will) have been discussed a lot in Superman fandom and fanfic, and a lot of people have checked the script etc. to make sure of the facts.

        Luthor’s release on appeal simply because Superman didn’t turn up is another legal plot hole, of course.

      • Thanks for the clarification. That means Luthor couldn’t even manage a surviving spouse’s share, which was really his last hope for getting anything (i.e. if this was the woman’s only will, so she actually died intestate because the will was invalid, he could have gotten 1/3rd or so).

      • That would still leave the question of child support. Regardless of custody or access, would Superman be liable for any kind of child support, including possible back payments for his five year absence?

        The issue is further complicated given that Richard seems to bow out at the end. He drives Lois to the hospital and isn’t seen after that, not even leaving the hospital. In our audience (admittedly a sample size of three), we took that to mean that Lois and Superman were getting back together and would raise Jason.

      • Seriously? A) I had no idea this movie was popular enough to warrant fan discussion, and B) I found it totally within Lois Lane’s character to immediately marry a man and use him as a cover for Superman’s child. If Lois were somehow put into that position, I believe that is indeed what she would do to protect the kid. But simply shacking up with a guy? Seems unlike her, and doesn’t seem to fully protect the kid.

      • Melanie Koleini

        Another question about paternity: assuming Louis knew Richard wasn’t Jason’s father but told Richard that he was, did she commit a crime?

        Also, I agree that if Louis was sure the kid was Superman’s, she’d do her best to be married to someone presumed to be fully human when the kid was born.
        I also think she would do everything in her power to prevent Jason getting examined too closely by doctors– Which is yet another problem of giving birth to a super baby.

  4. Honestly it seemed if anything like Luthor just grabbed the woman’s boat and ran; he wouldn’t even need to make it through a hearing on the subject if he did what he had to do fast enough (i.e. buy what he needed to find the Fortress of Solitude and/or the rest of his plan later). It wouldn’t have to stand up in court if he bluffed the family for long enough. Apart from the boat he only briefly stayed at her home later, which judging by the unfortunate fate of that one dog wasn’t being taken care of anyway. Actually that one dog eating the other begs one question, would Luther or the woman’s family be on the hook for animal cruelty? I’m fairly sure abandoning a dog to starve like that counts as cruelty, but who’d be responsible for it legally?

  5. I think it would be Luthor. The New York animal cruelty law (N.Y. Agricultural & Markets Law § 353) reads:

    “A person who … deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, food or drink or neglects or refuses to furnish it such sustenance or drink, or causes, procures or permits any animal to be … deprived of necessary food or drink … is guilty of a class A misdemeanor.”

    On its face the statute is extremely broad: there is no requirement of a culpable state of mind (i.e. strict liability) and it extends to “any animal,” which would include pets, squirrels in the park, and deer in the woods. The courts have refused to find the statute unconstitutionally vague but have noted that it is not well drafted. People v. Arroyo, 3 Misc. 3d 668, 673 n. 1 (Crim. Ct., Kings Co. 2004); People v. Bunt, 118 Misc. 2d 904, 910 (Just. Ct., Dutchess Co. 1983). It looks like the courts have read in a requirement that the animal must be in the defendant’s care and the defendant must be aware of the deprivation. People v. Richardson, 841 N.Y.S.2d 221 (N.Y. App. Term 2007).

    Here, Luthor has the run of the house (at least for the time being), and his girlfriend cares for the remaining dog. While Luthor may not have been explicitly aware that the dogs were going hungry, he clearly turned a blind eye to the situation, and the courts often equate willful blindness with knowledge. See, e.g., Coque v. Wildflower Estates Developers, Inc., 58 AD 3d 44, 53 (N.Y. App. Div. 2008) (equating knowledge and willful blindness in the context of hiring undocumented workers).

    The family, by contrast, likely had no legal access to the house at this point and may not have had any reason to think Luthor would not care for the dogs.

  6. I would like to see some discussion of Superman’s obligations to his son. Could Lois force him to take a paternity test if he didn’t voluntarily recognize Jason? (I mean legally of course, it’s not like anyone could physically force him.) If he were forced to pay child support, how would it be calculated? Superman has no “official” source of income – could he be forced to reveal his alternate identity to get Clark’s income? And given that Superman has access to almost unlimited income if he chose to take advantage of it, could he be obligated to do so?

    • I think this is one of those points where we need to stop glossing over the characters’ personalities. Because realistically, there’s no way a suit for child support would ever come up. What, do you honestly think Lois Lane would sue Superman for child support? She knows all his assets and she knows he would provide for the kid even without a lawsuit. And she would also recognize that pursuing such a suit would do more harm than good, because it would reveal that her son was Superman’s kid. Not only would that bring them a host of unwanted publicity, but it would make them a target for Superman’s enemies, make the government want to dissect her kid, and would raise legal issues we’ve already discussed on this blog about exactly what rights her son would have. (i.e., he was born in the U.S., so he would be a U.S. citizen, except… he’s only half human, and we have no case law referring to the status of half-human hybrids)

  7. A point I remember seeing on some review site was that this movie was in a way a sequel to Superman II, in which Lois and Clark got together… but then Lois forgot all about it… so she didn’t know the kid was Superman’s… (that does raise the question of her wondering how she became pregnant, although depending on how quickly she hooked up with Richard…) In which case, that raises a whole parcel of other legal issues…

    • Melanie Koleini

      Given that there were a couple of movies between Superman II and Superman Returns, does that the time-line come close to working without assuming human/Kryptonian pregnancies are a lot longer than 9mos?

      • Given the apparent ages of Lois in Superman II and Superman Returns, human/Kryptonian gestation period must be around negative ten years 🙂

      • John Kingston

        IIRC, and with the caveat that I have not seen it, but only heard it discussed, Superman Returns is a direct sequel to Superman II and that the events of the intermediate Superman movies did not occur in this continuity.

  8. “Because realistically, there’s no way a suit for child support would ever come up.”

    Well one of the interesting things about child support is that it’s not the mother’s right, it belongs to the child. The mother can’t sign or negotiate it away. It’s been a while since I’ve looked into the issue but there have been cases where a child upon reaching adulthood has sued his/her father for child support and won (usually this means requiring Dad to pay for college tuition or the like). However – if Richard White did sign the birth certificate than HE is the presumptive father. Even if Lois Lane subsequently married Superman and declared him the father, it’s possible White would still be on the hook for child support. He undoubtedly would be if Richard White had married Lois; I’m looking forward to an upcoming post on the subject. Particularly since that sort of thing IS one of the hot family law issues of the day (where due to DNA testing the presumptive father discovers, whoops, he’s not dad). Hollywood usually gets the law wrong, too.

  9. Could Superman charge Luthor with attempted murder? If Kitty were not available to testify, then there would be no witnesses to Luthor stabbing Superman and leaving him for dead out in the sea.

    Would it be a case of his word against my word? The same with creating New Krypton. Would Lois’ word be enough to prove Luthor was behind it? And what charges would those be?

    I bet every time Superman was in court, crime would spike everywhere, though…

    By the way, thanks for taking the time to keep this blog! I love it when I find articles and stories where superheroes are placed under real world conditions 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *