The Elrod Firm

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A Gift or a Curse?

You may be surprised to learn that according to at least one reputable website, the movie Gremlins is ranked as the nineteenth greatest Christmas movie of all time. Personally, I never thought Gremlins was that good. I would not have expected to find it on any type of “best movies” list, much less a list professing to be the top twenty-five Christmas movies of all time. For a few minutes I thought I must have clicked on the wrong list, but after a thorough review, I confirmed that the writers of this particular website really did consider Gremlins to be a great Christmas movie.

I’m sure most readers will remember the basic plot of this part-comedy, part-horror, part-Christmas movie. Rand, a struggling inventor, wanted to give his son, Billy, a memorable Christmas present. He wound up shopping in a Chinatown antique store, where he first encountered a small, furry creature called a Mogwai. The owner of the store refused to sell the creature to Rand, but the owner’s young grandson was less cautious. He secretly sold the Mogwai to Rand, telling him to keep in mind three important rules – do not expose the Mogwai to sunlight, do not let it get wet, and never feed it after midnight. Rand proudly gave the creature to Billy, who treated it as a pet and named him Gizmo.

Predictably, Billy was not equipped to properly handle the gift his father gave him. As it turned out, the rule about keeping the Mogwai dry was pretty important. Billy quickly learned that when Mogwai get wet, they spawn more Mogwai from their backs. At first the spawning of additional Mogwai didn’t seem like a major problem. Even though there were a lot of them, they were still sweet little furry creatures. Billy thought he could handle the situation on his own. The rule about feeding after midnight, however, was a much bigger deal. When the Mogwai tricked Billy into letting them eat after midnight, they transformed into cocoons, later emerging as mischievous, reptilian gremlins that enjoyed causing trouble and were willing to torture and kill for fun.

In the end, as you probably expected, Billy and Gizmo succeeded in killing what had grown into a full army of gremlins through the course of the movie, but not before they destroyed the entire town and killed several innocent people. Near the end of the movie, the owner of the Chinese antique store appeared to collect Gizmo. He accurately observed that Billy was obviously not ready to care for something like Gizmo. The shop owner predicted, though, that one day Billy might be mature enough to handle that kind of responsibility (leaving open the possibility of a sequel).

Although you probably wouldn’t think of Gremlins as a movie filled with important life lessons, it does present an important message that we would be wise to keep in mind when planning to pass on a gift or inheritance. When giving a gift to or planning an inheritance for someone you care about, it is essential that you consider whether they are ready, willing, and able to manage it properly. A gift can quickly turn into a curse when given to someone who, like Billy in the movie, is not equipped to handle it.

The likely perils of Rand’s gift to Billy may have seemed pretty predicable in a movie like Grimlins – the warnings of the shop owner’s grandson were pretty foreboding. But unfortunate outcomes are almost just as predictable in many estate plans I see. It is not at all uncommon to see parents leave large assets to children who are too young, too immature, or too inexperienced to manage those assets safely and successfully. I have also seen parents leave assets to children who are at a high risk of going through a divorce, filing for bankruptcy, getting sued, or needing some sort of government benefit. I’ve seen parents structure estate plans in ways that almost guarantee their children will fight after they are gone or, at a minimum, do nothing to help avoid potential disagreements between the children in the future.

Many people don’t realize that they can pass on all types of assets, even retirement accounts, to the next generation in safe and protected ways that don’t risk turning the gift into a curse when the recipient proves he or she was not equipped to handle it. The answer is not, as some people assume, to disinherit the unprepared or ill-equipped child. The answer is simply to limit the control and access that recipient has to the gift. The gift or inheritance can still benefit the child even if the child shouldn’t be in direct control of it.

The bottom line is that when we ignore the age, maturity level, experience, and life circumstances of those who will benefit from the gifts and inheritances we want to pass on, we put the assets in danger and put the beneficiary at serious risk of ending up worse off than before they received the gift. Don’t let a gift become a curse because of unwise or incomplete planning.

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