Estate Planning Lessons from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

“Big Daddy… What is it that makes him so big? His big heart, his big belly, or his big money?”

– Brick Pollitt, character in the play

Last week my husband and I saw Tennessee Williams’ play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Fulton Theatre. The theme of truth vs. mendacity runs through the play as a dysfunctional family fights over an inheritance in the Mississippi Delta.

Plantation owner Big Daddy has come home from the clinic on his 65th birthday. In addition to Big Mama, his sons and their families are there to welcome him and to tell him he is dying of cancer! Big Daddy favors his tormented, alcoholic, former-football-hero son Brick, married to Maggie the cat. Their marriage is childless and on-the-rocks. Brick has quit his job and taken to drinking after the death of his friend Skipper, with whom it is intimated he had a homosexual relationship. Gooper, the less-loved son, and his over-bearing wife Mae are there with their 5 children (no-neck monsters) and another on the way.

Everyone except Big Daddy knows that he does, in fact, have terminal cancer. The maneuvering begins for the inheritance. What does Big Daddy own? “Close on ten million in cash an’ blue-chip stocks, outside, mind you, of twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile!”

As the family quarrels and postures, trying to gain control of Big Daddy’s estate, we are given lessons in human nature, family dynamics and estate planning:

1. Make your will now. Big Daddy couldn’t decide whether to leave the plantation to older son Gooper, whom he hates, or younger son Brick, whom he loves but knows is an alcoholic. “I didn’t make up my mind at all on that question and still to this day I ain’t made no will! – Well, now I don’t have to. The pressure is gone. I can just wait and see if you pull yourself together or if you don’t.” The audience knows he is in fact dying – so it looks as though he will die without a will. Don’t wait until there is a crisis situation to make a will. If drafted in response to a crisis, the disposition of your estate may not be the result of thoughtful, careful consideration but a knee-jerk reaction influenced by the situation.

2. Is blood thicker than water? Should it be? Big Daddy’s hesitation over leaving the plantation to Brick is two-fold: 1) he is an alcoholic and Big Daddy doesn’t want to “subsidize a [@#$%&*] fool on the bottle,” and 2) Brick has no children so that Big Daddy’s legacy will not continue past Brick’s generation. An estate plan can address questions such as 1) do I need to control distributions to a beneficiary who is incapable of handling money, 2) do I want to provide for future generations or 3) are there beneficiaries other than family members I want to consider.

3. Even with an estate plan, don’t think there won’t be sibling rivalry. Even if your kids get along with each other and you, they may have spouses. Gooper and Mae pretend to be the dutiful, attentive son and daughter-in-law, when in truth they are driven solely by the desire for material gain. Children who keep their animosity damped down while you are around lose that inhibition when you are gone. No matter what Big Daddy does, it appears that the sequel to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will be Cat and the Will Contest.

4. Don’t try to use your money to control people. They may be nice to your face, but behind your back they will hate you. Who could expect Big Daddy’s statement to Brick as to who will inherit the plantation, “I can just wait and see if you pull yourself together or if you don’t,” to produce anything but Brick’s disdain for his father.

5. Provide for your spouse. What about Big Mama? It becomes clear that Big Daddy hates her, although he puts on a show of caring for her. What does she get when Big Daddy dies? No one seems to think she will inherit – it’s only the two sons. If you are married, make sure your spouse is providing for you adequately. If your spouse dies without a will in Pennsylvania, you do not inherit the whole estate. If there are children, you get the first $30,000 and one half of the remaining amount with the kids getting the other half.

6. Bring out the skeletons. There are repressed ideas in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that are finally revealed at the climax of the play. But in many lives, hidden secrets are never exposed. Don’t assume you know and understand everyone in your family. If there are difficult situations or problems, your attorney needs to know.

The biggest lesson of all? In Big Daddy’s words, “You can’t buy back your life when it’s finished.”