Poor James Gandolfini. Actually, poor everyone involved in the Gandolfini case. That is, except for the IRS. Due to the fact that Gandolfini (of The Sopranos’ fame) had some major missteps in creating his estate plan, the IRS could easily be the lucky recipient of up to 55% of his $70 million estate, leaving little left for his wife and daughter.
We can’t fault the guy too much—at least he had a will to speak of. However, he is probably the victim of bad advice because his will really is what everyone says—a tax nightmare. His will left 80% of his estate to his sisters and infant daughter, which doesn’t sound terrible, but it actually is. Gandolfini could have left 100% of his estate to his wife tax-free by taking advantage of the marital deduction. Instead, the widowed Mrs. Gandolfini will only be left with something in the neighborhood of $10-14 million. Sadder still is that the federal government will walk away with $30 million of what Gandolfini’s daughter and sisters were promised. The worst is that this could have been easily avoided by putting the proper documents in place.
How exactly, then, does one go about creating an iron-clad estate plan? Foresight is first and foremost, obviously. Beyond that, however, here are some great steps Gandolfini could have taken* that would have saved his family millions:
- Use trusts to protect your family and your privacy. Trusts don’t have to be complicated (they can be as simple as a common will), but they can really pay off since trusts are private. By having a will, your family will be forced into Probate Court and your will is going to become a part of the public record. Even if you are not in the public eye, your family will appreciate the simplicity that trusts can offer as they grieve.
- Remember that tax implications will make a difference. Even if you are not a Sopranos star, you should have taxes in mind. Otherwise, you may be giving your hard earned money away to the government when you’d really like your family to enjoy it. By setting up various trusts or by leaving the lion’s share of his estate to his wife tax-free, Gandolfini could have instructed either the trustees of his trust or his wife to make small cash gifts to various named individuals over time (the government allows each person to give $14,000 per year per person untaxed). By giving large lump sums of cash to individuals that were not his spouse, Gandolfini opened the door for the devastating 55% death tax.
- But Remember, Taxes Aren’t Everything. Like Gandolfini, if you want to give a large sum of money to a non-spouse, taxes might be inevitable. However, by working with a knowledgeable estate planning professional, there are ways to make sure your family will get the best bang for your buck perhaps by moving funds through a trust which will disperse money as necessary for living expenses, education, and travel without the pain of estate taxes.
- Take The Age of Your Child Into Consideration. Does your eight-year-old know what to do with $10 million dollars? Of course not, and she probably won’t know how to invest her money or protect her wealth at age 16 or 21, like Gandolfini’s daughter, either. There are ways to set conditions on how and when your beneficiaries can receive their wealth. Perhaps you can add a clause to your will or trust which states your child can receive part of their inheritance for college expenses but will receive the remainder after graduation. With a trust, you can leave the tough decisions and investment strategy up to an experienced trustee who may be able to stretch your child’s inheritance further than you ever imagined.
- Foreign Property Can Be Complicated. Gandolfini’s wish was to leave a fifty percent interest in his Italian property to each of his two children. However, Italian inheritance laws may trump American laws in this situation, forcing a share of the property onto his wife. Of course, this outcome could be worse, but it is imperative to get sound local advice so that you cover your bases incase foreign law comes into play.
This abbreviated list highlights the sticky issues that can come about if your estate plan is incomplete. You’ve spent your life working hard for your money; do what you can now to make sure your money is available to provide for your loved when you no longer can.
Estate plans can have a lot of moving parts; make sure you get the best advice possible. The attorneys at Lonich Patton Ehrlich Policastri have decades of experience handling complex estate planning matters including wills and living trusts. If you are interested in developing an estate plan or reviewing your current estate plan, contact the experienced estate planning attorneys at Lonich Patton Ehrlich Policastri for further information.
Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results. While this post may detail general legal issues, it is not legal advice. Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.
*Originally found on Forbes.com, “6 Estate Planning Lessons From James Gandolfini’s Will,” used with permission by author Robert W. Wood found at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwood/2013/07/20/key-lessons-from-james-gandolfinis-will/