The Wolverine

The Wolverine is the latest X-Man movie from Fox, the sixth in the series overall. It’s set after the events of X-Men III: The Last Stand, and is in continuity with the earlier (admittedly dreadful) X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Unlike that one, this movie is actually okay. It focuses on Wolverine’s connections with Japan, introducing Mariko Yashida (first appearance, Uncanny X-Men # 118, 1979) and several other characters from the comics, including Yukio and Viper.

In this post we’re going to take a look at one of the legal issues, specifically the issue of inheritance, which is actually pretty key to the plot. But we’ll have to do so with a disclaimer: the movie is set in Japan, and neither of us know much if anything about Japanese law, either in general or particularly about estates and inheritance. So we’re forced to analyze it in the context of American law, and we’ll do so in comparison to prevailing opinions, not any particular state’s law.

There are major spoilers inside.

I. The Setup

The movie starts in what turns out to be Nagasaki, where Wolverine saves a Japanese soldier from the Fat Man, necessarily revealing the nature of his mutation. Fast forward some seventy years, and Wolverine is camping out in what appears to be the Alaskan/Canadian Rockies. The soldier Wolverine saved has become the head of the most powerful tech company in Japan—making it a very powerful company indeed—but he’s dying. Wolverine is invited to pay his respects. It’s obviously a trap, but why isn’t important here. What is important is that the dying soldier seems to have bequeathed his company not to his son (who wants it more than anything in the world), but to his granddaughter (who doesn’t seem to want it at all). Long story short, the son takes out a hit on his own daughter, presumably so he’ll wind up with the company, not her.

Our question is: would that even work?

II. Wills and Bequests, Generally

Let’s start by saying that the basic presumption is that any person of sound mind can bequeath his or her property in whatever manner he chooses, and although Yashida was dying he did not seem to be suffering from dementia or the like. The failure to make a bequest is interpreted in most instances as a deliberate attempt to exclude that bequest. In this way, it is possible to disinherit people by leaving them out of one’s will even if they would ordinarily take a share if one died without a will.

There are limits to this, however. It’s really difficult to disinherit a surviving spouse. Many states permit a surviving spouse to make a choice: accept the terms of the will, or ignore the will and take an “elective share” of the probate estate. Exactly how this works varies from state to state, but the general rule is that the surviving spouse is entitled to 50% of the estate. Many states limit that to assets in probate, but many do not. If the spouse has been completely disinherited, this is an easy choice: it’s the elective share or nothing. But if the spouse has been left something, just not as much as the elective share would get, things can get tricky. If a spouse has been left a particular asset in a will, but would be entitled to a bigger inheritance with an elective share, choosing the elective share would nullify the bequest of that asset. The spouse would still end up with more than under the will, but they might or might not get that asset. It’s sometimes possible to avoid this issue by simply not having any assets in probate, i.e., they’re all in a trust, life insurance policies, non-probate assets, etc.

But all of that is sort of irrelevant here, because children are afforded no such protections. The only way a child can avoid being disinherited is if the will was made before the child was born and included all of the decedent’s living children when the will was executed. Many states construe that situation as the decedent having expressed a desire to leave something to all of his children but having failed to update his will since the last child was born. In pretty much every other instance—barring some kind of contractual relationship between the parent and child which might permit anyone family member or no, to receive something—a disinherited child is out of luck. It’s easier to accomplish this by explicitly referring to a child and disinheriting them, but even silence can work to effect a disinheritance.

We’ve got one more issue: can parents ever inherit from their children? Again, I don’t know how that works in Japan, which puts a higher premium on filial piety than American culture does, but in the US, it’s possible but somewhat unlikely. If a child leaves something to their parents by will, sure. That’s fine. But if they don’t, parents are basically never presumed to be intended beneficiaries of a will, so silence would leave them out entirely. If, however, one dies intestate, one’s parents can inherit only if one does not have a spouse or descendants. In such a situation, the parents would get everything.

III. Mariko and Shingen

The goal here is for Shingen to take control of the company from Mariko, so if Mariko’s death would not produce that result, killing her would be pointless. It’s obviously a cold-blooded move, but is it even sensible?

It might well be. Two possibilities present themselves.

First, it’s possible that Mariko has a will which names her father as her sole heir or at least a major heir. I think it’s reasonable to assume that she has a will, as most families—in any country—with the kind of money that the Yashidas seem to have wouldn’t think about doing without one. Too much money involved. It’s also entirely possible that Shingen is named as her sole heir. She isn’t married, doesn’t have kids, and doesn’t even seem to have siblings (Yukio, being unrelated, doesn’t count). Further, it seems unlikely that she would have been permitted to have much say in her bequests, at least not of any significance. She’d probably have been permitted to dispose of personal effects and trinkets as she saw fit, but a corporate family like that one isn’t likely to let the company pass out of the family. Her family wouldn’t have had any legal way of forcing her to do that in the US, but even in the US, family pressure generally doesn’t operate by law. So it’s entirely possible that Shingen would inherit under Mariko’s will, and knows this because he wrote it, or at least had a hand in its drafting and knows its contents.

Second, if for some bizarre reason Mariko didn’t have a will, Shingen probably would stand to inherit from her. She has no spouse (yet) and no descendants, so under most states intestacy laws, he’d inherit everything. Again, it seems more likely that he’d have handled this properly by shaping her will, but it’s likely that he wouldn’t even have had to do that.

IV. Conclusion

Of course, all of this ignores the state of affairs in Japan as such, not to mention issues of corporate law. If the elder Yashida’s control of the company was in corporate stock, he could pass that on like any other asset. But if it was simply control by tradition and custom, whether that would follow lines of heredity is an open question. In the US, probably not, but in Japan, it just might. Things do work differently over there. Which would be another complicating factor, i.e., it’s possible that the bequest to Mariko would have been problematic from the outset as a violation of some custom or corporate bylaw.

But all of that aside, under US law—which the writers were probably intuiting, even if not explicitly so—Shingen’s plan is at least plausible. The only way it wouldn’t have worked is for Mariko to (1) have a will, and (2) bequeath most of her assets on someone other than her father. As that doesn’t seem particularly likely, this one seems to check out. It’ll certainly pass the artistic license test, which is better than we can say of a lot of the stories we look at!

10 responses to “The Wolverine

  1. Would Shingen inherit if it came out that he conspired to kill Mariko?

    • Usually that sort of thing is a bit of an obstacle in inheritance.

      • To elaborate, at least under the usual US legal principles, if it could be proved that her father caused her death, he could not inherit from her under either the rules of intestacy or by bequest. A person who causes the death of another is usually treated as if they had pre-deceased the victim for purposes of distribution. I haven’t seen the movie and have no plans to, but I assume the father took at least SOME steps to try to prevent people from knowing he had killed her. If he did, and they worked, and she died, he’s free and clear. If he didn’t, or they didn’t work, under the typical US system he could not inherit.

        Depending on the circumstances as a matter of public policy he might even be barred from receiving the benefits of a trust, etc in exactly the same way. I don’t know any cases on that but it seems like a sound legal theory.

      • He hired the Yakuza to abduct her. I think its ambiguous if he was actually going to kill her or just wanted her to disappear (one of the conspirators says he wants to kill her; if that’s the case, he seemed to want to do it with his bare hands, because he had her kidnapped first). But yes, he took steps to hide his involvement.

  2. Inheritance law in Japan is actually quite a bit different than in the US. As in some other (typically civil law) countries, there is no presumption in Japan that a person of sound mind can choose how to bequeath their assets in any manner they wish–that is a common law presumption historically (although it has been adopted in some civil law countries).

    Inheritance in Japan is determined primarily by a formula set in law. In fact, if inheritance of shares of a company followed basic Japanese inheritance law, the elder Yashida’s will would not be valid, because a grandchild is not a valid successor if the grandchild’s parents are still alive.

    The simple version of inheritance rules in Japan: there are several classes of successors, and assets must be distributed amongst primary successors if any primary successors exist. The distribution of assets amongst primary successors (surviving spouse, children) is set by law: 50% to any surviving spouse, equal shares of the remaining amongst any other primary successors. If there are no primary successors, the assets go to any available secondary successors (parents). If no parents, spouse or children, it is divided amongst tertiary successors (siblings). Grandchildren are only successors if the primary successor (their parent) is deceased.

    The above is all Japanese family law 101, but some assets may have more complex rules. Stocks also may have other rules based on commercial law, I really don’t know. You should check with someone who actually knows Japanese law better than I do to investigate the issues properly.

    • What’s more (and again assuming that stocks or the like are not treated specially), as best I can tell, as the only statutory heir Shingen would have had a legally reserved portion of 50% of the estate even if the elder Yashida could have named Mariko as an heir in his will. So it appears to me that there is no way (via a will as opposed to a trust or something) that the elder Yashida could have left everything to Mariko.

      It’s also not clear to me why Shingen was so concerned about killing Mariko before the will was opened. A will takes effect at the time of the testator’s death, according to Japanese Civil Code Art. 985(1), so “what’s done is done.” If the will was sealed it would have to be opened in Family Court, so at least the three day delay makes sense. But as a parent Shingen would take everything from Mariko if she died unmarried and childless. I guess Shingen would inherit it together with his wife, who I presume is Mariko’s mother (we see very little of her in the movie, but she’s around), but no doubt he could get his wife to transfer any rights to him. So Shingen could easily have waited for another opportunity to have Mariko killed.

    • Googling this stuff is pretty easy. Here’s an actual copy of the Japanese inheritance law: http://jis.main.jp/souzoku%20english.html . What you describe is only true if there is no will. If there is a will, the will can designate anyone, however the primary successors always can claim 50% and the secondary successors can always claim 1/3 (to be split up among them if necessary). So if the will names only Mariko, then Shingen gets 50% and Mariko gets 50%.

      • Notably, however, Mariko could always renounce the gift, with the result that it would go to Shingen. But that would go against the elder Yashida’s wishes, so it’s believable that she wouldn’t go that route.

  3. Going back to an assumption of what would happen in the US:
    I’ve noticed that a clause such as “if any beneficiary dies within days of my death they shall be presumed to have died before me for the purposes of this will” is almost boilerplate material. Even if Yashida left his share of the company to Mariko, he probably left at least something to Shingen, which would take care of the disinheritance factor. In this case, if Mariko died within the given period, wouldn’t that make Shingen the sole beneficiary of Yashida’s will, even if Mariko had a will of her own leaving things to someone else?

    Assuming that the above is true: if it were discovered that Shingen had Mariko killed, that would obviously have ramifications as far as her will goes, but would it necessarily affect his inheritance under Yashida’s will? If not, that would leave open the possibility of him still receiving control of the company, even if he has to run it from inside prison.

  4. Thanks for another interesting article.

    You spoke a fair bit about inheritance for a surviving spouse, but you left out the fact that the surviving spouse will already have an ownership interest in all of the community property (assuming they are in a jurisdiction that uses community property). Unfortunately, the laws regarding what is community property vary between the states, but it can have a large impact on what the surviving spouse has (and what the deceased spouse has the power to will away) after the death of one spouse.

Leave a Reply

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