This is Part 3 of a series of posts analyzing the legal issues in the hit podcast S-Town, produced by the creators of Serial and This American Life. For more background, check out the introduction to the series. Although the events in S-Town occur in Alabama, for the purposes of this series, the legal analysis will be based on general principles of law and Pennsylvania law, since we’re Pennsylvania lawyers.
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t listened to the series yet and want to avoid spoilers, proceed beyond this point with caution.
Prior to John B.’s death, he tells host and producer, Brian Reed that Tyler Goodson and his brother Jake Goodson are each going to receive some gold when he dies. He makes various other promises throughout his recorded interviews with Brian about someone getting something when he died. John also had an elaborate suicide note that he kept on his computer. He even showed it to Brian during one of their times together. Surely with such planning, most people would assume John made a Will to ensure his final wishes were carried out. Unfortunately, once John is dead, no Will is ever found.
So now what? Do Tyler and Jake still get the gold? It’s clear that John told Brian that is what he wanted to happen while being recorded. Sadly no. John can talk about what he wants to happen all he wants. But if he doesn’t write it down, and the Will isn’t found, it does no good. John’s wishes are not followed. So, as an estate planning attorney, I immediately thought of the things John should have done differently to ensure his expressed wishes were carried out.
First, John should have written a Will, detailing exactly what he wants to go where. Secondly, he should have made sure someone knew where the Will was so that it could be located after his death. It seems rather odd that John never took the time to write a Will. He talked about it all the time to Brian and to others in the area. He even had a list of people to contact upon his death.
It is possible that John actually did have a Will but that no one ever found it. A Will that is never found does no good. In the state of Pennsylvania, there is no recording or registering of Wills. This is why I stress to all of my clients that simply making a Will is not enough. They also need to keep the original in a very safe place AND let someone know where to find. Many law firms, including Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, offer to keep a Will free of charge to ensure its safekeeping.
As an estate planning attorney, listening to S-Town was at times a frustrating experience. Of course, the lack of proper estate planning made for a more interesting story, but there were simple steps that could have been taken to ensure that John’s wishes were implemented. Unless you are hoping to be the subject of an interesting podcast after your death, make sure your wishes are properly documented and carried out upon your passing. My best advice is to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state.