In her role as Philadelphia Register of Wills, Tracey Gordon has often heard people say they don’t want to discuss wills and estate planning with their relatives because they’ll think they’re out to get them, like it’s some elaborate and sinister plot torn straight from a Hollywood movie.
“A lot of times people say ‘I try to ask my mom or grandfather about a will and they shut down or think I’m trying to kill them,’ ” Gordon said. “They say it will take care of itself, but it doesn’t.”
And the 17,000 tangled titles in Philly — properties that remain in dead people’s names — are proof of that, Gordon said.
“That’s hindering people from transferring generational wealth, and that’s increasing homelessness and poverty in Philadelphia,” she said.
In an effort to inform the public, the Register of Wills office is turning to Hollywood and humor to help demystify estate planning and promote positive conversations around wills through a new online video series called The Register Reacts.
Based on a popular video format on social media in which individuals record themselves reacting to movies, music, and TV shows, The Register Reacts features Gordon and the office’s solicitor, Sharon Wilson, reacting to clips about death, wealth, and wills from movies like Boyz N the Hood to TV shows like Game of Thrones.
In the first episode, Gordon and Wilson react to a clip from the sitcom Parks and Recreation, in which Ron Swanson, a deadpan machismo outdoorsman, reveals he wrote his will at age 8 on a tiny piece of paper he keeps in his wallet.
“Upon my death all of my belongings shall transfer to the man or animal who has killed me,” reads Swanson’s will, which ends with unrecognizable symbols that only “the man who kills me will know,” he says.
“Hilarious,” Gordon comments while watching the clip. “Well first of all, you can’t have a will at 8 years old. Wills are invalid until you turn 18 years old.”
Wilson says that if you can fit your will into your wallet, it’s probably a little too short, but she adds that symbols can be added to a will, if someone desires.
“I do know what Ron’s symbols mean and I can tell you, but I’d have to kill you,” Wilson says in the video.
The six-part series, which premieres July 1 on all of the office’s social media channels, was the brainchild of John Zimmerman, the Register of Wills communications specialist who said he picked the clips based on his “35 years of television watching.”
“This format is very popular on Facebook and YouTube right now,” he said. “We want to teach people about estate planning and generational wealth, which is often a little dry, so I think it’s good we can use pop culture to draw people’s attention to what we’re doing.”
Wilson said when topics like wills and estate planning come up, people’s eyes tend to glaze over because they think such matters only relate to the wealthy, and not to them.
“This kind of stuff helps. If you notice, in all those clips nobody was rich except for in Game of Thrones,” she said. “I spent the last 20 years educating people in trusts and estate issues. I focus on communities not getting this done and, for the most part, it’s women of all shades and people of color. I wanted to emphasize you can do this, it’s not beyond you.”
In episode four, Gordon and Wilson use a scene from the movie Boyz N the Hood to talk about how not having a will can lead to gentrification, something Gordon says we are undergoing “here in Philadelphia.”
“I know you’re probably saying ‘What does gentrification have to do with making wills?’ A lot,” she says. “Because when you do not make a will you subject your property to be either getting stolen by some developers or shady figures, or you leave it susceptible for devaluation.”
Wilson and Gordon both said the most uncomfortable episode for them to shoot was the one in which they had to comment on a scene from Buried, a 2010 movie where actor Ryan Reynolds gets buried alive in a coffin and uses a lighter to illuminate himself as he videotapes what he believes to be his will.
“This is really stressful, being buried alive and having to conduct a will and testament with a lighter,” Gordon says. “Unfortunately, it’s for naught because there are no such things as valid video wills and verbal wills.”
Wilson suggests that if Reynolds had something in his pocket he could use to etch his will onto the side of the coffin, that might be admissible, but she stresses planning a will before you find yourself being buried alive is always a better bet.
“This dramatizes, in spectacular fashion, how leaving these kind of things till the end is just not a good idea,” she says. “Would you really want your child to have to rely on something you said in a dirt box right before your death in order to be fully protected? I’m sure the answer is no.”
One of the reasons Gordon is proactive about informing the public about wills and estate planning is because of all the drama she sees play out off the screen, in front of her at her office when people die without a will and their family members come before her to argue their claim to the estate.
“Sometimes they will bring in the criminal background history of their siblings. Sometimes they come into the hearing and haven’t spoken to each other at all,” she said. “People don’t realize the confusion they put their families through. I think people just think ‘I’ll be dead,’ but if you knew in your grave, if you could hear the testimony and arguments, you’d think twice.”
The first episode of The Register Reacts will premiere at 6 p.m. July 1 on the office’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and TikTok accounts. Subsequent episodes, which run about nine minutes each, will air every Thursday through Aug. 5.
While the series may not result in the first Emmy ever awarded to a Philadelphia row office, Gordon does hope it leads to greater awareness and more open conversations between family members about wills and estate planning.
“Who hasn’t watched Game of Thrones, Soul Food, or Boyz N the Hood? Who hasn’t watched that eye candy Ryan Reynolds? Even in a coffin he looked fine,” she said. “We’re making light of it because we want you to talk about it, think about it, laugh about it, and not cry about it.”