The Importance of Conservatorship as Seen in Killers of the Flower Moon

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Conservatorship with Killers of the Flower Moon

How the Osage Murders Shed Light on Estate Planning and Conservatorship

In Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ we discover the shocking history of the Osage Murders as well as its insights into estate planning and conservatorship.

It is a journey back to the early 1900s to a chilling chapter known as the Osage Murders. This is a real-life story of greed, power, and injustice — a story that holds up a mirror to issues that stand today surrounding estate planning and conservatorship. Hopefully it will encourage you to take action on issues that could impact your future and legacy.

Adapted from the critically acclaimed book of the same title by acclaimed journalist David Grann the story sheds light on an infamous series of murders that took place in the wake of the oil boom on Osage Indian Nation lands in early 1920s Oklahoma. The newfound wealth of the Native American tribe caught the attention of unscrupulous individuals, leading to a chilling series of murders known as the Reign of Terror. At the heart of this story is a tangled web of deceit, greed, and struggle for power, making it a pertinent reflection of the potential pitfalls surrounding estate planning and conservatorship.

This dark chapter in American history serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of greed and the misuse of power, particularly in matters of wealth and inheritance. The murders serve to highlight the importance of estate planning. While it may not be evident at first, there is a strong connection between the Osage Murders and estate planning.

In the 1870s, the U.S. government forced the Osage people to leave their land in Kansas and move to a reservation in Oklahoma. They became one of the few Native American nations to purchase their reservation land. The reservation, which was presumably worthless and ill-suited for farming, turned out to be rich in oil. Because the Osage owned the land, they retained sovereignty and other rights to this property.

There are two key estate planning concepts that help explain how the legacy of the Osage people went horribly wrong: Headrights and Guardianship.

  1. Headrights and heirship

In 1907, each of the 2,229 members of the Osage nation became entitled to a headright. These are equal shares of oil royalties which could equal roughly $232,000 per tribe member today. This means that a family could earn close to a million per year in today’s dollars. Headrights can only be inherited; they cannot be sold or purchased.

Greed led to unscrupulous estate planning schemes where beneficiaries of deceased Osage members were manipulated or altered to ensure that wealth would flow to conspirators. Non-Osage men would marry into these wealthy tribal families and murder them to make sure they would inherit and take possession over these lucrative oil royalties.

  1. Conservatorship

In 1921, Congress passed a law that required these payments to be channeled through court-appointed Guardians. They deemed the Osage people incompetent to handle large sums of money, which created a host of issues.

In their pursuit of fortune, white prospectors manipulated the Guardianship system to exploit the Osage tribe’s wealth. This system, which was managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, required Osage members to obtain approval for each and every financial transaction from their assigned white “Guardian.” These Guardians, driven by greed and racial prejudice, misappropriated funds and oppressed the native people, regardless of their level of education or military status.

The importance of proper & ethical estate planning

The “Reign of Terror” highlights the importance of proper and ethical estate planning. It serves as a cautionary tale, reminding us of the potential vulnerabilities that can arise when the right safeguards are not in place. It underscores the need for transparency, protection from undue influence, and ensuring the wishes of the individual are upheld. Modern-day estate planning has evolved to incorporate these principles, aiming to protect the rights and wishes of individuals and their beneficiaries.

The Guardianship system that was signed into law in 1921 is extremely similar to the Conservatorship system that exists today. A court-appointed conservatorship is a legal framework wherein a person or organization, known as the Conservator, is appointed by a court to manage the affairs of those who are incapable of doing so on their own due to incapacities. Minors, seniors with dementia, or individuals with mental disabilities are such examples. The conservator could be responsible for various aspects of the person’s life, including financial matters, healthcare decisions, or both. This arrangement requires regular reporting and accountability to the court to safeguard against potential abuses.

There are several alternatives to a conservatorship that can provide vulnerable individuals with support and protection. One such alternative is a power of attorney (POA). A Power of Attorney is a legal document that enables a person (the principal) to appoint someone they trust (the agent) to handle their affairs if they become unable to do so.

The historical events portrayed in “Killers of the Flower Moon” offer a haunting glimpse into the misuse of conservatorships and estate planning. Whether you read the book or watch the film sharing the incredible story of the Osage people, you will hopefully learn the importance of educating yourself regarding estate planning. Further, you will also hopefully become motivated to take action to protect yourself, your loved ones, your rights, and your family’s legacy.