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.
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!