by Justice William W. Bedsworth
I have not maintained a firm grip on current events.
Oh, I can converse confidently about climate change and voting rights initiatives and Israeli politics, but the really important stuff—stuff like the name of the newest Fast and Furious sequel or how many people per hour will be allowed into Disney’s Avengers Campus attraction or what chef is moving on to the semifinals of Rutabaga Dishes of the Rich and Famous—that stuff eludes my grasp every time.
Which is embarrassing because, judging from my newspaper, that’s what really matters in Twenty-First Century America.1
Actual breakfast conversation at the Bedsworth home this morning:
Me: “Wow! Nick Cannon and Abby De La Rosa had twins!”
Kelly: “Wow. 2 Didn’t see that one coming.”
Me: “Me neither. I didn’t even see Nick Cannon and Abby De La Rosa coming. Who are they?”
Kelly: “Well, he’s a comedian and she . . .”
Me: “Wait a minute, wait a minute . . . forget who they are. Wait’ll you hear who the twins are!!”3
The twins are Zion Mixolydian Cannon and Zillion Heir Cannon.4
Honest. Those are their given names.
Think about that for a minute. Go ahead; I’ll wait.
Wow. That’s all I got: Wow.
I mean, I have gotten used to the fact that the process of naming children has changed considerably since I was doing it. Kids today do not learn to read with books about the adventures of Dick and Jane and Sally. Today it’s “Look, LaDainian, Dweezil, and Amon-Ra are coming to play. Tarquin and Wilder are with them.”
My youngest is lucky she was born before I knew Plaxico was a name.
You gotta admit, Mixolydian and Zillion are names you have not previously encountered. At least not as names.
But I worry that there’s a problem here.
I was a prosecutor for fifteen years, and I’ve spent much of my time since then reviewing criminal conduct. That has a negative effect on your confidence in human beings. I often express my expectations about my fellow man as, “He who expects nothing shall not be disappointed.”
And my twenty-four years on this bench have enlightened me to one of the least attractive aspects of our citizenry: familial greed. So help me, trusts and estates cases have often reduced me to wondering if there’s a way to resign from my species and re-classify as a golden retriever or a woodchuck.
I’m not the first to recoil from the spectacle of brothers and sisters throwing grenades back and forth about how much the lake house is worth. Dickens’ famous Jarndyce v. Jarndyce case, a subplot in Bleak House, is a decades-long inheritance bloodbath in which the entire estate is eventually swallowed up by legal fees.
But I was amazed to learn this sort of thing is still common today. The bigger the estate, the more likely its division is to be contested. If there’s a lake house, you’re destined to decades of struggle—much of it in the court of appeal.
That’s counter-intuitive to me. Seems to me if there’s a lake house there should be plenty of money for everybody. Silly me.
My naïveté is probably based upon the fact there has been very little inheritance to squabble over in the Bedsworth line. My family arrived here before the Revolution (they were deportees) and has spent the ensuing four hundred years singularly unencumbered by material goods. I’m pretty sure my children will be the first Bedsworths to have a lake house to argue about.
Yet we see it regularly in our court. Inheritance disputes are a regular feature of our calendars. And they go on for years. They come back more often than July.
In fairness, we’re not talking lamps and ashtrays here; there is usually a sizeable amount of money at stake. And the fact I have only one brother may cause me to overvalue sibling relationships.
But when you go to war with your family about who should get how much, you’re pretty much waiving—or forfeiting5—any familial feeling. Thanksgiving dinner just isn’t gonna be the same anymore.
And it’s difficult for me to understand how someone can spend his life and $200,000 in legal fees to contest Mom leaving him only two million dollars in stock when his sibling got a house worth three million and some charity that helps dyslexic dolphins got a million. But they do.
My fear is that this might be the Ghost of Christmas Future6 for Zion Mixolydian and Zillion Heir. Here’s my concern.
In 2060, after their parents’ tragic skiing accident in Wichita, 7 the boys stand to inherit their parents’ large estate. 8 It’s a sizable amount, and they’ll each get half.
Or will they.
Here’s what some future appellate court judges will have to deal with. It looks like a simple matter. Two children. Simple law, simple math.
Zillion says Zion takes nothing. “It was obviously the intent of my parents that I should inherit to his exclusion,” he says. “That’s why they named me heir. I mean, how much clearer could you get? It’s right there on the birth certificate: Zillion Heir.”
“Zion gets a musical middle name to help point him down a lucrative career path, and I am designated as the heir. Easy peasy.” 9
Zillion finds a lawyer willing to argue this position all the way to the court of appeal. He files fifty pages of perambulating prose advocating this to a flabbergasted panel of three.
Zion’s lawyer, not yet fully recovered from actually having to fight this argument in the trial court, files a thirty-page brief, the thrust of which, in technical legal terms, is, “You gotta be kidding me.”
Zillion responds by pointing out that the even clearer proof of his parents’ intent that he be the heir is that his first and middle names combined—Zillion and Heir—establish beyond cavil that his parents meant him to be a “zillionaire.” 10
Zion hires a new lawyer because the first one has run screaming from the room after reading this.
The new lawyer can’t stop laughing but explains to Zion that she can’t work for free.
While Zion’s contemplating the fee, Zillion asks leave of the court to amend his briefing to include the fallback position that if he doesn’t get all the estate, the fact that he’s gone through life as “Zilly” at the very least entitles him to a larger share of the estate than Zion, “who got the cool name.”
Zion’s second lawyer withdraws from the case on the technical legal ground that, “You can’t pay me enough.”
The new lawyer responds to Zillion’s nickname argument by pointing out that Zion got no nickname, so he should get the bigger piece of the pie.
Zillion’s lawyer asks to remand the case because this is the first he’s heard of there being pie in the estate, and the division of said pie will have to be determined anew by the trial court.
Two justices of the court of appeal resign, explaining, “You can’t pay me enough.”
The new panel rejects the request for additional briefing. Zillion’s lawyer petitions the supreme court for a writ.
Two members of the supreme court resign. It’s not because of this case; they say they just want to have more time to spend with their families. They admit, however, that cases like this made their families look better than they had in a while.
The case gets bounced back to the court of appeal.
Zion asks for a continuance to find a new lawyer who will charge less. He hires Plaxico NoSurrender Jarndyce. Jarndyce says he’ll need six months to prepare. He also wants a contract that makes not only Zion, but Zion’s children, his clients. This doesn’t augur well.
The great legal philosopher Johnny Cash has observed that, “Life ain’t easy for a boy named
Sue.” Well, it’s not gonna be a day at the beach for Zion Mixolydian and Zillion Heir, either.
Vaya con Dios, boys.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. A Criminal Waste of Space won Best Column in California in 2018 from the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA). And look for his latest book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Vandeplas Publishing. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.