John Carter is Disney’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom works, drawing mostly from the first book, A Princess of Mars. Actually, it’s really Andrew Stanton’s adaptation, he of WALL-E fame, because it doesn’t seem like Disney had any actual input, into the film or its marketing. The result is… problematic. But lo and behold, they’ve got a lawyer character who winds up touching on a bit of estate law. So we’ll take a look at that. Some pretty significant spoilers follow.
I. The Operation of the Will
As reviews indicate, which exactly is the framing story and which is the actual narrative are… confusing, if not downright confused. We start on Mars at some point in the indefinite but presumably recent past, go to 1881, then to 1868, and… look, it’s a hot mess. The basic gist seems to be that Edgar Burroughs has been summoned to his uncle’s estate, only to find that his uncle has expired just before his arrival. This is something of a nod to the framing stories in the Barsoom books, which are generally presented as Burroughs relating the stories of his uncle, John Carter. In the film, Burroughs is greeted by his uncle’s attorney, who almost immediately reads Burroughs his uncle’s will.
John Carter has put his apparently substantial fortune in trust for Burroughs, either for twenty-five years or until such time as Burroughs should reach twenty-five years of age (the author forgets precisely which), and the interest is to be used for Burrough’s benefit. At the end of that period, whichever it is, the principal “reverts” to Burroughs in fee simple.
Trusts are a real thing, namely the transfer of property from one party to another for the benefit of a third.* The person creating the trust and contributing the property is known as the “settlor,” the person to whom the property is entrusted is known as the “trustee,” and the person on whose behalf the property is being held is known as the “beneficiary.” What we’ve got here is the species of trust known as a “testamentary trust,” i.e., a trust created by a will. Trusts may also be created by a written instrument which is not a will, in the case of inter vivos trusts, or by oral declaration. A court may also create a trust. This sometimes happens, for example, in divorce cases where the judge wants to make sure the kids are taken care of, or where the plaintiff in a personal injury case is a minor and the judge doesn’t trust the parents.
*Mostly anyway. It’s now possible to create a trust without the use of a trustee, i.e., a person can declare that their property is now being held in trust for a beneficiary
Regardless, Carter’s trust is, broadly speaking, okay. So John Carter seems to have settled a trust upon Burroughs, the beneficiary, presumably with the lawyer acting as trustee, as part of his will. One quibble though. The attorney says that the principle of the trust will “revert” to Burroughs at the end of the trust period. This is not precisely what happens, as “reversion“, as such, only happens when property returns to a grantor. If the principal truly “reverted,” it would go to Carter, not Burroughs. No, this would more properly be “distribution”.
But the basic idea is sound.
Except for the fact that this is, in reality, an inter vivos trust, because (spoiler!) Carter isn’t actually dead. He fakes his death to draw out a Thern to steal an amulet to get back to Barsoom. Look, it makes sense in context. Sort of. More or less. In any case, Carter is pronounced dead but was really only sleeping, having apparently ingested pufferfish venom. It’s entirely unclear that pufferfish venom actually does that, but whatever. Carter comes back, kills his Thern, and goes into his tomb where his body can be safe while he is projected to Mars. Because apparently that’s how that works. The long and short of it is that Carter isn’t dead.
In one sense, this matters a great deal, because wills have utterly no legal effect until the testator, i.e., the person making the will, dies. Carter, being alive, thus can’t create a trust for Burroughs by the operation of his will. He can, however, do so with an inter vivos trust, so it’s not like faking his death was strictly necessary. Convenient, perhaps, and effective at drawing out the Thern, but the law wouldn’t actually have any problem with him just setting up the trust and disappearing. He’d be declared legally dead in seven-odd years anyway.
But the fact that Carter has faked his death puts Burroughs in something of a weird position. If it is ever discovered that Carter is still alive, the trust has the potential to dissolve, with the principal reverting to Carter. But Carter doesn’t seem the kind to use his nephew so badly (i.e. we assume he would then set up a proper inter vivos trust), and no one else would seem to have standing to complain.
Even if Carter leaves Burroughs in the lurch then Burroughs wouldn’t necessarily have a cause of action unless the promise of the trust foreseeably induced him to reasonably rely on the trust’s existence to his detriment (e.g. if he took out a loan depending on income from the trust to repay it) and enforcement of the trust is necessary to avoid injustice. This is called promissory estoppel, and it can be used to enforce an otherwise unenforceable promise (e.g. a promise to give a gift). See, e.g, Williams v. Eason, 49 A.D.3d 866, 868 (2008) (“The elements of a cause of action based upon promissory estoppel are a clear and unambiguous promise, reasonable and foreseeable reliance by the party to whom the promise is made, and an injury sustained in reliance on that promise.”). A court could enforce the promise by creating a constructive trust. Carter would be the trustee, holding the property for Burroughs’s benefit until the trust terminates.
If we take things one step further, from foreseeable reliance to intentional reliance, then Burroughs could even have an action against Carter for fraud. But there’s no indication that Carter intended for Burroughs to be harmed by the scheme.
If Carter returns to public life after the trust terminates and Burroughs owns the property outright, then it could be very difficult for him to get the property back, even if he could avoid the promissory estoppel argument.
So this entire gambit, while sketchy in the extreme, isn’t necessarily illegal. No harm, no foul.
The movie is worth seeing, if for no other reason that it has Detective McNulty and Walter White in it. Neither gets much in the way of screen time, but hey, there they are. And though the writers flubbed a legal term, the situation they set up does seem to work, whether or not the fraud is discovered.