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Downton Abbey & Financial Planning

Whelan Financial Planning - Wednesday, January 06, 2016

I’m a fan of Downton Abbey.  I eagerly awaited the season premier on Sunday evening.  I love the ladies’ fashions and the Dowager Countess’ (Maggie Smith’s) caustic remarks.  I also enjoy seeing the impact of historical events on individual lives.

Sunday’s episode included a British aristocrat’s garage sale.  The Crawley’s neighbor, Sir John Darnley, had to downsize.  He sold the family’s country estate, Mallerton, and will maintain only one residence, in London. Unfortunately for the Darnleys, self storage lockers and PODS (Portable on Demand Storage) had not yet been invented.  As a result, the Darnleys were hoping to sell a extremely large oil portrait of grandmother, among other things.  (I got the impression that Darnleys were relying on the proceeds from their sale to maintain their standard of living in London – so it wasn’t simply a matter of not having a place to store their “stuff”).

Apparently the Darnleys had not adapted the management of their country estate to reflect the economic realities of post World War I Britain.  Agricultural income, generated by tenant farmers had declined. Cash was needed to pay higher income and estate taxes, yet wealth was tied up in illiquid land.  Fortunately for the Crawleys of Downton Abbey, their middle class cousin (the now deceased Matthew Crawley) and lower class Irish chauffer (now uncomfortably upper class son-in-law Tom Branson) had the foresight to argue for diversification and greater efficiency.  Diversification came in the form of livestock (and a comical scene from season 4 depicting Lady Mary watering pigs in a muddy pig pen).

Here we are, almost 100 years later.  Like Matthew Crawley and Tom Branson, I encourage my clients to diversify investments and keep cash available for emergencies.  But there may be a subtler lesson to be learned from the Earl of Grantham’s grudgingly taking the advice of his sons’ in law.  The younger men had different life experiences, education and in Tom’s case, lessons from the school of hard knocks.  We don’t know the specific mistakes of the Darnley family – had they refused to acknowledge the changing times?  Were they afraid to look at their situation, seek advice, and make adjustments, until it was too late? 

I'm very clear with clients – I can’t predict the future.  But we can discuss what might happen (e.g., higher taxes in 10 or 20 years), and the steps you can take today so you don’t have to resort to selling granny’s portrait if you don’t want to.  I’m a fresh set of eyes, a different perspective.  I’ve observed numerous clients face their fears, ask questions and make changes.  In almost every case, the end result was a sense of relief that a plan was in place and that there was someone available when the impact of current events suggested the need for change.