• April 23, 2024
 ‘Saltburn’: How the Catton family could have protected the Saltburn estate and could Oliver’s inheritance still be contested?

‘Saltburn’: How the Catton family could have protected the Saltburn estate and could Oliver’s inheritance still be contested?

The dark comedy, psychological thriller that is Emerald Fennell’s ‘Saltburn’ has recently taken social media by storm, trending for its twisted storyline, leading to the demise of the aristocratic Catton family.

*Trigger warning, and spoiler alert*

Filmed at the English country-home Drayton House in Northamptonshire, ‘Saltburn’ is home to the Cattons, an affluent family that lead an indulgent and grandiose lifestyle, portrayed through the cinematic contrast of their stately home with their eccentric characters. Son to Sir Richard and Lady Catton (Elspeth) and first heir to the Saltburn estate, charming protagonist Felix Catton is seen to develop an unlikely friendship with fellow Oxford student Oliver Quick, whom he invites to stay at Saltburn over the summer after pitying Oliver’s apparent emotional and financial struggles.

However, as the summer unfolds, it becomes clear that Oliver had been deceitful about his background, and his obsession with Felix and strange fixation on the lifestyle of the Catton family had been a strategy to inherit Saltburn all along. Towards the end of the film, Oliver reveals to Elspeth whilst unresponsive in a coma, that he had murdered Felix, leading to the eventual death of sister Venetia and father Sir Richard. In the final scene, the audience see Oliver parading around the Saltburn home after he finally kills Elspeth, alluding to the idea that he had influenced Elspeth to change her will so that he could inherit Saltburn and the wealth of the Catton family.

Part 1: How the Catton family could have planned during their lifetime.

Although the ending of the film most likely uses artistic license to its advantage, it is powerful in demonstrating the potential repercussions if families aren’t careful to set up provisions that protect their assets for the future.

Here are two simple ways the Catton family could’ve protected the heritage and legacy of the Saltburn Estate from Oliver Quick:

1. Set up a trust

As the legal owner of the estate, Sir Richard Catton could’ve settled the Saltburn estate into a trust and all together avoided Oliver’s wrongful inheritance. The role of a trust is to give power to trusted individuals (ie the trustees) appointed by the settlor (ie Sir Richard) to manage and distribute the assets, in line with the terms of the trust and any wishes the settlor sets out. This ensures that a level of control is maintained by the settlor, even after death.

Sir Richard could have settled a trust with a defined class of beneficiaries (not including Oliver!), for the primary benefit of Elspeth and, following the event of her death, the next descendants of the Catton family. As we know, both Sir Richard’s two children Felix and Venetia die, but a well-drafted trust would have included long-stop provisions for the benefit of the wider family – perhaps Farleigh. By settling Saltburn into trust, it would not have been within Elspeth’s power to give it away. Oliver would not have been able to benefit from the trust as he wouldn’t be a named a beneficiary.

2. Set up Lasting Powers of Attorney

Lasting Powers of Attorney (LPAs) are documents which allow a donor to appoint attorneys who can make decisions on their behalf in relation to either their health and welfare and/or financial affairs. These can be a useful legal tool to ensure that only trusted individuals can make decisions for you, should you lose the mental or physical capacity to do so.

By appointing an attorney in a Health and Welfare LPA, you can ensure that any decisions made on the care and treatment you receive has been in your best interests, by someone that you trust. If you wanted to be more specific, you could even identify how you would like to be cared for by creating a supplemental letter of wishes for your attorney to reference, if their power came into effect. Though likely Elspeth would have appointed her husband or either/both of her children to be her attorney/s, there are also provisions to set out replacement attorneys if the named attorneys are unable to act, which could have consisted of other family members or trusted friends, such as Duncan the household butler. Ultimately, this would have prevented Oliver from having authority over the care and treatment of Elspeth when she fell into the coma, and potentially saved her from her own death at Oliver’s hands.

Elspeth would also have been well advised to execute a Financial Decisions LPA alongside her Health and Welfare LPA, which similarly would have allowed her to appoint a trusted attorney or attorneys to make decisions on her behalf in respect of her personal assets. Assuming Sir Richard had taken our advice and settled the Saltburn estate into trust, a Financial Decisions LPA would be less important given that the estate would not have been Elspeth’s personal asset. Nonetheless, she may have had her own wealth from her successful modelling career which an LPA would have allowed her attorneys to manage, rather than Oliver.

Part 2: Potential post-death claims to Oliver’s inheritance

Although the Catton family did not sufficiently protect Saltburn whilst alive and well, all hope is not lost. Given that we see Elspeth in a poor physical and mental condition at the end of the film, it is likely that Oliver manipulated Elspeth into changing her will, using undue influence. As Farleigh (a close family friend of the Cattons) eventually realised Oliver’s manipulation, he could contest the validity of the will on these grounds.

Undue influence can be claimed when there is reason to believe that the testator has been pressured into making a will. Usually, undue influence takes place when the testator is vulnerable, whether physically or emotionally, and a motivated individual uses this to their advantage. In Oliver’s case, Elspeth was extremely emotionally vulnerable following the loss of her children and husband, distorting her view of Oliver perhaps as she was reliant on him.

In order to challenge the validity of the will on the grounds of undue influence, a reasonable claim must be made which is supported by sufficient evidence. As the testator is deceased at this point, this evidence is often inferred from the will itself and the circumstances surrounding its execution. For example, alterations to a will that appoint a beneficiary unexpectedly at the last minute or any significant changes in how the estate is distributed can be signs that the testator has been influenced to alter their will. In this context, Oliver had pressured Elspeth into changing her will before her sudden and unexpected death, appointing himself as the primary beneficiary.

If Farleigh were to claim, he would have to testify about Elspeth and Oliver’s strange relationship, and recount Oliver’s manipulative and dishonest behaviours during his time at Saltburn with the Catton family. Farleigh’s claim may also be supported by Duncan testifying, as a trusted friend to the family who oversaw the turn of events in Saltburn since Oliver’s arrival. Farleigh may also wish to consider claiming that the will is invalid because Elspeth did not have capacity to make the will (ie was not of sound mind) or possibly failed to have knowledge and approval of its contents. Considering these alongside Elspeth’s emotional and physical fragility and the unexpected appointment of Oliver as the sole beneficiary of the will, there is a high chance that Elspeth’s will could be proved as invalid, and Oliver’s inheritance would be taken away.

Alternatively, if Oliver is found guilty of Elspeth’s murder, he will be prevented from benefitting under her will under the Forfeiture Act 1982.

However, if all else failed and the challenge to the will were to be unsuccessful or Farleigh did not claim in fear of Oliver, at the very least the Catton family could rest well in the knowledge that Oliver will soon have to pay the forty percent inheritance tax that is now due on the Saltburn estate and so might not be able to afford to keep it!

Charles Russell Speechlys