One of the joys of having a legal education is the ability to nitpick movies with law-related themes.
There’s not much to nitpick about The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s dark comedy about a Hawaii lawyer facing familial challenges on a variety of fronts. One of the few movies to successfully employ the Rule Against Perpetuities (“RAP”) as a major plot point (see also Body Heat), The Descendants gets the law right without getting bogged down in the minutia.
George Clooney plays Matt King, the great grandson of Hawaiian royalty and one of the trustees in a family trust that holds 25,000 acres of pristine beach property passed down from his ancestors. Because of the Rule Against Perpetuities, the trust will expire in seven years, and Matt and his cousins are trying to decide whether to sell out to a developer who will turn the land into a resort. Just before the cousins are to vote, Matt’s wife is seriously injured in a boating accident and slips into a coma. Matt is left to deal with the tragedy along with the two daughters whom he has never made time for. The crisis deepens as he learns that his personal and professional lives are intertwined in a way that he hadn’t imagined.
The Rule Against Perpetuities “has long perplexed the courts and the bar.” Lucas v. Hamm, 56 Cal.2d 583 (1961). The common law RAP requires that an interest in land must vest within a certain period of time (usually 21 years) after a the end of a life in being at the creation of the interest (Minnesota is one of a handful of states that have adopted a statutory RAP).
Payne and producer Jim Burke spent a great deal of time on the legal aspects of the film, according to University of Hawaii law professor Randall Roth, who served as a consultant. Roth told WSJ reporter Julia Flynn Siler that he was impressed by their attention to detail. According to Roth, a number of family trusts in Hawaii have found themselves in similar circumstances to those which are depicted in the movie.