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Questionable Planning, Terrible Reporting

James Gandolfini  of Sopranos fame was survived by a 13 year old son, an infant daughter, and his second wife.  His estate is reported to be worth $70 million.

His will, prepared in December, was filed in probate court yesterday.  It leaves his property in Italy equally to his children in trust, his clothes and jewelry to his son, bequests totaling $1.6 million to various individuals, and leaves 30% of the remainder to each of his sisters and 20% each to his wife and daughter.   The share for his daughter will remain in trust until she reaches 21.  The will states he has provided for his son elsewhere.  However, almost all media outlets have incorrectly reported that his son is the major beneficiary of his estate.

Many points:

1.  He should have used a funded living trust to ensure privacy of his net worth and his intentions which avoids Cincinnati attorneys from critiquing it .

2.  Giving the daughter unrestricted access to her share at 21 is a recipe for disaster.  He should have staggered her distributions over 10 or 15 years with the earliest one at 25.

3.  The testamentary trust will be expensive to administer for the next 20 years.  A living trust would be easier, less costly, and private.

4. Estate taxes will be painful and could have been delayed/minimized. The federal tax bill will be nearly $20 million while the NY bill will be over $4 million.  He could have delayed the payment of taxes by leaving assets in trust for his wife and giving his daughter her share from the same trust after the death of his wife.

5.  Odd to leave 60% of the remainder to his sisters and none of it to his son.

6.  Unless the clothes/jewelry and  Italian property comprise the majority of the assets, all media outlets from Fox News to HuffPo and from ABC to NY Post, and all others, are incorrect in reporting that the son receives the bulk of the estate.

7.  The linked article also states that it is unclear who will receive the proceeds of other properties once they are sold.  It must be too difficult for reporters to ask an estate planning attorney to read the will and inform them that the proceeds are the remainder and will be distributed to his sisters, wife and daughter.

8.  When the mainstream media ignores big stories like Benghazi and Presidential debate moderators get their facts wrong when interjecting themselves into debates (i.e. Candy Crowley), we should not be disappointed when they can not accurately report the contents of a will.  We should trust them less, though.

9.  I hope that Mr. Gandolfini provided generously for his son in a life insurance trust or some other vehicle.  Otherwise, the son’s trauma of finding his dying father will be compounded by receiving much less than his sister, step mom, and aunts.   Maybe someday he will grow into the clothes if he uses food as comfort.

Into the Ground, Then into Thin Air

A Pennsylvania attorney and his wife, a successful dentist, perished in a private plane crash in 2007. They had no children so they left their assets to various relatives in their wills.  The estates were comprised of a law practice, dental practice, various real estate holdings, and medical businesses in South Carolina and initially estimated to be worth $40 million.  After six years and a will contest action, the estate has incurred administrative fees of $3.75 million and has $3 million remaining.

Several points:

1.  With their varied investments, the couple should have used a trust to minimize probate administration expenses.

2. Legal and medical practices are personality dependent and are not worth much without the contribution of the individual who built the practice.

3.  $3 million left after an initial $40 million estimate?  The 2008 financial crash was brutal on everyone.

4.  Private planes are known as doctor and lawyer killers for a reason.

The Art of Estate Planning

Merton Simpson – a NY artist , pre-eminent collector of African art, and gallery owner – died 2 weeks ago.  His body remains unburied at the funeral home due to a family dispute.

Prior to his death, a guardian was appointed to manage Mr. Simpson’s affairs.  His estate is valued “in the millions” but the assets are illiquid.   The guardian does not have enough funds to pay for a funeral and the executor of the estate has not been appointed yet and will likely also have insufficient liquid funds in the near term.

The primary lesson is that Mr. Simpson should have included a trust in his planning and transferred his assets to it prior to his death.  The trustee could have sold art pieces as necessary without outside supervision.  Mr. Simpson would have avoided avoided the guardianship, the delay caused by waiting for the court to officially appoint an executor, and the Sherman Hemsley-esque burial fiasco.

Even without estate taxes, trusts are still necessary.

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All Posts By Jay Brinker

I am an attorney located in Cincinnati, Ohio who practices in the areas of estate planning, probate, asset protection, and small business advice. I make a difficult and bewildering process as simple as possible. Most importantly, I provide "more for less" for my clients.