Trust and Estates

King Lear and a Thousand Acres: Two Estate Planning Tragedies

By Anne M. Rudolph and Ralph E. Hughes


King Lear has been called the best of all Shakespeare’s plays. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Both works are relevant to estate planners because both great observers of human behavior addressed fundamental questions in the context of an estate plan gone wrong.


The first words of King Lear tell us that King Lear’s advisors know that Lear plans to divide his kingdom, and that they believe he will divide the kingdom equally among his three daughters. Shortly thereafter, Lear announces that he will make lifetime gifts of his kingdom to his daughters. He will then retire in peace in the assurance his gifts will avoid strife within his family. However, in a surprise move, Lear conducts a public “love test” to determine which of his daughters loves him most. Goneril and Regan trip over themselves describing their love. Lear gives each of them a share of his kingdom, but secretly holds back the best share, intending to give it to his favorite, Cordelia. When Lear asks Cordelia, “What can you say to draw/A third more opulent than your sisters,” Cordelia responds, “Nothing, my lord.” Cordelia explains that she loves Lear as a daughter, but reserves love for others, including a potential husband. “Sure I shall never marry like my sisters/To love my father all.” Cordelia’s words thwart Lear’s authority and expectations. He immediately disinherits Cordelia and banishes her from the kingdom, telling her, “Nothing will come from nothing.” In his rage, Lear divides his kingdom equally between Goneril and Regan, giving them his troops, his “power,” and his “majesty.” He plans to alternate monthly stays at their castles and keeps one hundred knights to be housed with him. Kent, one of Lear’s advisors, tells Lear that he is doing evil and asks him to revoke his commands. Lear, having never revoked a command, refuses, and banishes Kent from the kingdom. Lear takes his knights to spend the first month of retirement with Goneril. In less than two weeks, Goneril has had it with his high-handed kingly actions and the riotous behavior of his knights, and she tells him he must let some knights go. Enraged, Lear calls Goneril a “detested kite.” He takes his knights and rides off to “kind and comfortable” Regan, expecting to be treated better. Leaving Goneril, he shouts a lament recognized by many parents: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is To have a thankless child. — Away, away!” Although Lear doesn’t know it, Goneril and Regan are in cahoots, and Regan shuts Lear out. Lear is left on the heath exposed to a violent storm. Others join Lear. All are mad or pretending to be. After the madness and chaos, Lear sleeps. As he sleeps, his daughters are plotting his death. When King Lear ends, the entire English royal family has destroyed itself. Lear dies with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms.


A Thousand Acres reimagines King Lear in twentieth-century America. Smiley places a family with three daughters dominated by “daddy” Larry Cook on an immense kingdom-like Iowa farm. Smiley selects one daughter, Ginny, as narrator and, as Ginny reveals her memories, Smiley, like Shakespeare, ponders how an individual obtains power, the role a gift can play in a family’s destruction, what happens when a parent gives away power, and why a man’s seemingly loyal daughters might rebel against him. Larry announces his plan publicly, telling everyone at a church dinner that he will form a corporation to own his farm, with the shares to be owned by his daughters and their husbands. Like Lear, Larry observes that he is getting older and wants to rest. Unlike Lear, Larry is worried about death taxes. Ginny fears that Larry has had too much to drink, but also thinks “He is holding it out to you, and all you have to do is take it.” In spite of feeling an “inner clang,” Ginny tries “to sound agreeable,” saying, “It’s a good idea.” Rose says, “It’s a great idea.” Caroline says, “I don’t know.” Immediately after Caroline expresses her slight doubt, Larry becomes angry and declares, “You don’t want it, my girl, you’re out. It’s as simple as that.” As in Lear, the destruction of the original plan happens quickly. A few days after the farm transfer, Larry drunkenly drives his pickup into a ditch. After a minor disagreement a few days later, Larry tells Ginny, “You think because I gave you girls the farm, you don’t have to make up to me anymore. I know what’s going on.” Shortly thereafter, Ginny and Rose discover that Larry has driven his truck into a violent storm and disappeared. When found, Larry screams curses at Ginny. Ginny tries to persuade Larry to go home, but he refuses, again cursing Rose and Ginny, and disappearing into the storm. Rose then tells Ginny that Larry had raped both of them when they were teenagers. Ginny denies it, but later realizes that Larry had raped her in her childhood bed. A key to Larry’s success was that he never had to mortgage his farm. However, Larry knew that his plan would require Rose, Ginny and their husbands to mortgage the farm. The gift included a seed of its own destruction. Meanwhile, Larry’s friend and advisor, Harold Clark, uses his own estate plan to harass his sons. He goes around town telling people that he will leave his farm equally to Jess, the prodigal son, and a Vietnam War draft dodger, and Loren, the faithful son. Then, at another church supper, Harold informs everyone that Jess will get nothing, humiliating him. Ultimately, Ginny, Jess, and Rose realize the strong possibility that their fathers purposely planned their estates to destroy some or all of their children. “Maybe they have, Jess,” Ginny says. “Maybe they have aimed right for it.” In a twentieth-century move, Caroline joins Larry in an unsuccessful lawsuit to cancel the estate plan and recover the farm. Ultimately, the farm is lost to the bank and the family is destroyed. Ginny closes the book commenting, “Rose left me with a riddle I haven’t solved, of how we judge those who have hurt us when they have shown no remorse or even understanding.”


a. Transferring Property and Power Can Lead to Catastrophe

King Lear and A Thousand Acres both illustrate that a parent who transfers power to children during the parent’s lifetime does so at risk to both parent and family. Both works illustrate that there are no winners when a family goes to war against itself.

b. Plans Can Be Destroyed by a Client’s Secrets

Lear’s advisors knew that Lear planned to divide his kingdom but did not know about Lear’s planned “love test.” Larry’s lawyer did not know that Larry had raped Ginny and Rose. In each case, a potentially reasonable plan was undone by secrets.

c. Transfers of Money and Power Can, by Themselves, Cause Drastic Change

Both works strongly suggest that gifts and the transfers of power can, themselves, be agents of change that convert apparently normal children into evildoers willing to maim, murder, or otherwise destroy others to accomplish goals generated by the gifts. Shakespeare and Smiley warn us that any time a plan calls for a parent to transfer control to a child, something evil – not just bad – can result. The gift itself can change the behavior of both parents and children.

d. The Locus of Evil Can Be in the Elder Generation

Shakespeare leaves his audience to wonder how evil entered the kingdom. Smiley, on the other hand, places the locus of evil in Larry and also in his friend, Harold. By placing the locus of evil in the parent instead of the child, Smiley makes us understand that when planning goes bad, the fault may not lie only with the child. Larry likely pursued his plan with the knowledge that he was acting destructively, knowing that the plan would require a significant mortgage and that mortgages had led many farmers in the area to disaster. Harold purposely let the whole town believe that he would do one thing, before doing another. While intentionally setting up an estate plan in a way to cause one’s children to fail may not sound familiar, it has undoubtedly happened. A seemingly-neutral gift equally to two children who hate each other can be an evil thing. Estate planners should always be aware that family dynamics can be significantly different than they seem.

e. Disinheritance is a Dangerous Thing

In both stories, the disinherited daughter returned to “save” the kingdom but ended up contributing to its destruction.

f. Nothing is Perpetual

Lear intended his gifts to Goneril and Regan to be perpetual. Various states are now extending the rule against perpetuities in ways that suggest that we may be able to make plans that will last forever. Shakespeare reminds us that even kings could not accomplish this feat.


We estate planners cannot let ourselves forget Albany’s words as King Lear closes: “Humanity must perforce prey on itself, Like monsters of the deep.”

Anne M. Rudolph and Ralph E. Hughes are shareholders in the San Diego law firm of Hughes & Pizzuto, APC, which provides comprehensive estate planning, litigation, administration and taxation for entities and individuals.

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