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Wills and grace

| Monday, November 13, 2017

Regis Campfield, B.B.A. cum laude 1963 from Notre Dame and past professor of law at Notre Dame and Southern Methodist University, passed away recently. In addition to his many professional accomplishments, he and his wife, Mary, were active supporters of Catholic education, especially through the ACE Endowment for Excellence, which fosters quality teaching for underserved Catholic schools. [A quick aside: Take a little time to learn about the great work of ACE and the efforts of my old dorm-mate, Fr. Joe Corpora, through programs such as the Latino Enrollment Institute to help ensure being economically poor does not preclude being educationally and spiritually well-off].

Campfield was also the founder and long-time chair of the Notre Dame Tax and Estate Planning Institute, with a national reputation for bringing together the country’s pre-eminent tax- and estate-planning professionals. Most remarkable to me was Campfield’s gift for making one of the legal world’s driest subjects — estate planning — palatable, interesting and occasionally entertaining. His sense of humor was dark and dry, like a fine old wine. Campfield often told those of us in his class that his clients never complained, as the only way to test the effectiveness of an estate plan was to die. For that matter, his clients never died, they all “went toes up,” or became “fondly remembered.” And the beneficiaries were not bereaved mourners, but “piggies at the trough, eating it (the estate) all up.”

While I was taking Campfield’s course in Wills and Estates, I was especially fortunate to see a movie that he highly recommended. “There’s a new film out,” he announced in class. “It’s ostensibly a crime thriller, but in reality it’s all about estate planning do’s and don’t’s.” The film was the steamy noir classic “Body Heat.” Well, steamy to most viewers, but lawyers probably got most excited over the movie’s use of arcane estate planning mechanisms to complicate the plot.

“Body Heat” brought together the writing and directing talent of Lawrence Kasdan (who had a string of writing triumphs with “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) with top-notch performances by Kathleen Turner as Matty Walker, the femme fatale, and William Hurt as the easily led lawyer Ned Racine. As is always the case in such stories, Matty eventually turns on the charm to persuade Ned to murder her husband.

Ned was a nice guy, but he was clearly not the shrewdest man to ever graduate Florida State’s law school. In fact, we discover that a few years before, Ned’s criminal law practice was foundering, and he took a substantial retainer to draft wills and trusts for a new client, only to make a complete mess of the job. He was brought before the Florida Bar’s disciplinary committee, and the case gained some local notoriety.

What Ned botched was the application of the Rule Against Perpetuities. The heyday of British property law was roughly 700 to 300 years ago; this particular tenet dates from 1680 and ever since has inhabited the sweaty nightmares of generations of law students. In brief, the Rule prevents trusts from lasting forever. But it is not that simple; it is so complicated in application that the California Supreme Court ruled decades ago that it is specifically not malpractice if a California attorney misinterprets it.

Basically the rule says you’re allowed to leave property to your 1-year old granddaughter but not to your granddaughter’s yet-to-be-born granddaughter — the idea being society does not want property ownership determined centuries in advance. Just so you know, the rule is rapidly eroding (thanks, 1 percent), and few states still apply it in its classic formulation. What it means in this movie is that if you violate the rule in a will, the entire will may be found invalid, so the estate is handled as if the dead person had no will at all (in most states, the surviving spouse takes all).

So, back to “Body Heat;” Matty is aware of Ned’s inability to properly apply the rule (in some early foreshadowing, Matty says to Ned, “You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”), and she relies on that flaw to have Ned prepare a trust that will implode and leave the entirety of her husband’s estate to her. Oh, there’s some nudity, gun play and such, but the real excitement for Campfield was sending us off to see a popular film that cautioned against messing with the rule.

Campfield was not everyone’s favorite professor, but he enjoyed finding something quirky and memorable in the wasteland of the law, and I enjoyed and admired that. A quote, often attributed in error to the fictional Harvard Law School professor Kingsfield in the film “Paper Chase,” summed up the fabled cut-throat and deadly serious nature of legal education: “Look to your left, look to your right. One of you won’t be here next year.” I much prefer Campfield’s witty twist on this ominous warning: “Look to your left, look to your right — all three of you will need a will before going toes up.” Thank you, Professor Campfield. You will be fondly remembered.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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