In the movie Rainman, Charlie Babbitt discovers he has an older brother with autism he never knew about after the death of their father, Sanford Babbitt. Despite the father’s attempt at a special needs estate plan, he made some crucial mistakes.
Charlie was three years old when his older brother Raymond was moved to a residential hospital for people with disabilities. From then on, Charlie is raised by his widowed father without any knowledge of the existence of his brother. Upon the death of his father and learning that he has been left almost nothing of the multi-million dollar estate he thought he was sole heir to, Charlie accidentally discovers Raymond, setting off a series of events that eventually lead to a full and tender relationship between the two brothers.
What did Sanford Babbit get right?
Sanford Babbit clearly consulted with a special needs law firm. He provided money for Raymond’s care, and he appointed a person who was well acquainted with Raymond to look after him.
Sanford understood that Raymond would need lifelong care and that he would need someone to manage and spend his money for him. Upon his death, Sanford’s assets were placed in trust, and while we don’t specifically know from the movie whether it was a special needs trust or not, the money is clearly protected and designated solely for the care of Raymond.
The trustee chosen to handle the money is the doctor who has looked after Raymond for 30 years, so he is well-acquainted with Raymond, his needs, and also with the priorities of his father, an important aspect of ensuring that Raymond’s life can continue with little to no disruption.
What did Sanford Babbitt get wrong?
Basically, Sanford failed to consider the possibility and impact of conflict on Raymond’s life. This left Raymond unprotected in some important ways. He either did not do everything recommended by his special needs law firm, or he was working with a firm that did not have enough experience with special needs planning.
Secrets can backfire
Sanford’s first mistake was in keeping Charlie in the dark about his brother. Certainly there is no law that says parents have to tell siblings about each other, not is there a law that requires parents to leave their estate to their children, but by letting Charlie think he was an only child, Sanford ensured that Charlie would be surprised, hurt, and probably angry when he discovered he had been essentially disinherited. Grief is difficult for people to deal with, and it tends to magnify feelings.
The most common approach to inheritance is to divide the parents’ estate equally among the children, so anytime a parent intends to leave their property differently it is helpful to keep the kids informed beforehand. Removing the element of surprise allows the kids to work through any feelings about the distribution plan without the element of grief muddying things up.
If Charlie had known in advance about Raymond and known that the bulk of his father’s estate was going to be set aside to care for Raymond, his behavior and reactions would not have been so disruptive to Raymond, even if Charlie was unhappy about his father’s choices, he would have had an opportunity to deal with those feelings without blowing up Raymond’s life and safety.
Formal Guardianship provides the best protection long-term
Sanford also left Raymond vulnerable by not setting up a court appointed guardianship for him. It is understandable that he probably felt that was not necessary due to Raymond’s living situation and his protection from outside influences, but it was the failure to have a guardianship that allowed Charlie to take Raymond with him to Los Angeles. The doctor who was Raymond’s informal caretaker had no legal right to prevent Raymond from leaving and no legal way to prevent Charlie from leaving with him.
If the doctor had been the legal guardian of Raymond, he would have had the ability to involve law enforcement officials to find and return Raymond to his home. Without that, the doctor had few options other than initiating a guardianship proceeding at that time, which of course is what ultimately happens in the movie when Charlie himself initiates the process in order to seek to have himself appointed as guardian. But Raymond was left unprotected and vulnerable in the interim.
Siblings are an important part of the community
And finally, Sanford erred by denying Raymond the ability to have a relationship with his brother Charlie. Even under guardianship, individuals generally have a right, to the extent they desire to and can exercise it, to maintain relationships with friends and family. A guardian does not have the right to isolate a person with a disability for reasons unrelated to the individual.
Sanford’s appallingly awful relationship with Charlie was between Sanford and Charlie. Raymond had a seperate and independent right to have a relationship with his brother, which was denied to him by Sanford’s petty actions.
Parker Counsel Legal Services is a special needs law firm providing estate planning, special needs trusts, guardianship, and more to families with children who have developmental disabilities. Offices in Texas, Massachusetts, New Jersey. To see how we can help your family prepare for the future, schedule a short phone call here, or call 833-Red-BOOT (833-733-2668) or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.