Estate Planning in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow: A Spooky Tale of Inheritance and Legacy

Tim Burton’s 1999 film, Sleepy Hollow starring Johnny Depp, is one of my favorites to watch this time of year. It is a dark and captivating film with Burton’s eerie style and gothic visuals. One of the other reasons I really enjoy this movie is because it revolves around the central theme of inheritance and legacy – something the attorneys at Wagner Oehler, Ltd. spend all day every day thinking about! In this blog post, I explore how Sleepy Hollow provides valuable insights for estate planning attorneys and our clients.

The Enigmatic World of Sleepy Hollow

Set in 1799, Sleepy Hollow follows the character of Ichabod Crane, a forensic investigator, who is sent to the remote and mysterious village of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of gruesome murders. The film offers a captivating narrative that is filled with secrets, deceit, and dark family histories, all of which are intimately linked to the core theme of estate planning.

Inheritance and Legacies

At the heart of Sleepy Hollow, the concept of inheritance and legacies is omnipresent. The plot unfolds with the death of several prominent villagers, all of whom leave behind substantial estates – curiouser and curiouser. As the investigation deepens, it becomes evident that the motives behind these murders are intricately tied to the victims’ fortunes, properties, family secrets, and (wait for it) their estate plans! This offers reminders and fearsome-filled guidelines for how crucial estate planning can be in preserving one’s legacy and protecting the assets left behind for future generations.

The Importance of a Well-Structured Will

The film emphasizes the need for a well-structured will and testament. In fact, in the very first scene we see the red wax dripping onto the Last Will and Testament of Peter Van Garrett. It is his death, shortly after, that sets off the chain of events that sets up the whole movie.

But why did Van Garrett update his will? Later in the movie, we find out that Van Garrett updated his will just prior to his death at the hands of the Headless Horseman due to a significant change in his life – he secretly got married to the Widow Winship. And what’s more? She was with child…

State Law May Dictate Your Estate Plan

We often advise clients to update their estate planning documents when there is a significant change in their family, their lives, or their plans. However, upon getting married it is especially important since Minnesota law automatically imposes its own estate plan on married couples and, in fact, even presumes that you made no will at all if you did not provide for your spouse in the premarital will. See Minnesota Statutes 524.2-301 and see Estate Planning Tips for Newlyweds.

Peter Van Garrett’s estate planning ultimately led to his demise, but it was well-thought out and the proper thing to do. By making this updated will, he intentionally and effectively disinherited Baltus Van Tassel, next of kin and inheritor to Van Garrett’s substantial fortune.

Without a clear and legally binding document outlining how one’s assets should be distributed, the potential for conflict and disputes within the family is amplified. Even worse, in some cases, state law will take over to presume your intentions if you do not take intentional and proactive steps to guide the disposition of your own property. In the case of Sleepy Hollow, these themes were amplified theatrically to raise a demon to do the bidding of our central villain – Lady Van Tassel.

The Slayer Rule

While it turns out that Lady Van Tassel is the main villain of Sleepy Hollow, it is a chain of events that we must trace out to determine her motives – greed and revenge. Lady Van Tassel was wronged by the Van Garretts as a child. She seeks revenge by directing his vast fortune to herself through her husband’s inheritance and then her inheritance of her husband’s estate upon his death. Of course, she must dispatch a few people in the way, but Van Garrett’s late-in life secret marriage could have wreaked havoc on the entire plan.

In estate planning, we not only want to plan for your best thought out plans, but your estate planning attorney will also poke and prod to help you sort out all kinds of contingencies. One of those is what we call the “ultimate contingent beneficiaries,” or the “nuclear clause.” These are the people or charities that would inherit if you and all of your descendants are no longer living. Oftentimes, it would be listed as “heirs at law”, which means that the estate will keep passing on to next of kin until it finds someone living. In the case of Sleepy Hollow, Baltus was next of kin to Van Garrett (assuming he had not married), and Lady Van Tassel (after the planned murder of Baltus’s daughter) would have been sole heir and next of kin to Baltus.

Had Lady Van Tassel been successful in leaving herself as the sole ultimate contingent beneficiary, while covering up Van Garrett’s secret marriage and unborn child (yes, children in utero are considered born and heirs), she would still have been at risk of the slayer rule. The slayer rule is encapsulated in Minnesota state law but is often included in estate planning documents as a precaution. Under the slayer rule, a beneficiary that intentionally kills the decedent is not entitled to any benefits under the will or estate. See Minnesota Statutes 524.2-803. The slayer rule would have prevented Lady Van Tassel from inheriting anything from Baltus Van Tassel had she been successful in her devious plot.


Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow is a film that delves into the darkness of secrets, inheritance, and the power of estate planning – whether intentional or not. While the movie might not be the typical reference for estate planning attorneys or clients, it certainly serves as an engaging and unconventional reminder of the critical role intentional and up-to-date estate planning plays in ensuring your legacy is preserved and protected. By drawing parallels between the movie's narrative and the real-world implications of estate planning and application of Minnesota estate planning law, we can appreciate the importance of a well-thought-out and legally sound estate plan. To schedule your estate plan review or to get started, contact our office at (507) 288-5567 or email

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