51-year-old actor James Gandolfini tragically died of a heart attack on June 19th, 2013. He was vacationing in Italy with his family at the time. Gandolfini is perhaps best known for his role as Tony Soprano, a crime boss balancing his roles as family man and Mafioso. It turns out Gandolfini’s Italian alter-ego was much more concerned about privacy than he was. Avid viewers of The Sopranos might recall that Tony Soprano once directed a nameless CPA to establish a trust, to keep his assets protected from “prying eyes.” In comparison, Gandolfini’s 17-page Last Will and Testament has been filed with New York’s Surrogate Court, posted online, and is accessible to the public.

Lessons we can learn from Mr. Gandolfini

Trusts keep your estate plan private and avoid probate. Wills do not.

When you die, your Last Will and Testament must be filed with the local probate court. The function of probate is twofold. First, it creates a public record of your assets, so that creditors can make claims against the estate before it is distributed to your heirs. Second, it ensures that your assets are distributed according to the will or, in the absence of a valid will, according to the state law.

Trusts can avoid the mess of probate and keep the details of your estate private. The trust is a private document that does not need to be filed with a probate court and does not become public record. An estate planner can help you design a trust with rules stating how, when, and to whom your assets are distributed. The beneficiaries of the trust and the Trustees are the only people who ever need to know the details of your estate plan.

It is now public knowledge that Mr. Gandolfini left his jewelry to his son and gifted his long time assistant, Trixie Flynn, a sum of $200,000. But you can utilize a trust to keep your estate plans shielded from “prying eyes.”

Update your will!

At the time of his death, Gandolfini had been once divorced, had a son from his first marriage, and had a 9-month-old daughter, Liliana, with his second wife, Deborah Lin. Fortunately, the actor had the foresight to update his will each time his family’s situation changed. Failing to do so could have had a disastrous impact on his loved ones. For example, had he failed to update his will after Lilian’s birth, his daughter would have effectively been disinherited from her father’s fortune.

The actor’s careful estate planning is a reminder to us all that we must be vigilant about updating our estate plans after any major change in life circumstance (ex: marriage, divorce, birth, death of a family member, a significant change in an inheritor’s debt, etc.).

Lifetime trusts can be established for young children

James Gandolfini left approximately 20% of his estate to his infant daughter, Liliana Ruth Gandolfini. Liliana will inherit the sum, estimated to be about $14 million, outright on her 21st birthday. If you, or a loved one, intend to gift a significant sum of money to a young adult, it is recommended that you establish a lifetime trust for the child.

The trust creates a useful set of checks and balances for the child. For example, the trust can distribute the funds over a period of 10, 15, or 20 years, as opposed to all at once. You could also appoint the child and a trusted adult to act as co-trustees. This allows the child to use the fund, but requires any major spending decisions (ex: houses and cars) to be approved by both trustees. The adult can teach the child the financial skills necessary to manage such a large sum of money.

Property located abroad needs a separate foreign estate plan

According to his will, each of Gandolfini’s children inherited a 50% stake in his Italian villa. If you own any property abroad, you are advised to speak with an estate planner in the country where the property is located. Often times foreign laws do not mirror American laws. For example, most European countries, including Italy, have forced heirship laws. Under these laws, you cannot freely dictate to whom your property is left to. The heirship laws require the property to be inherited by one or more blood relatives. Gandolfini’s will is most likely fine in this regard; however, this nuance between American law and Italian law highlights the importance of seeking the counsel of a local, well-informed attorney when dealing with property abroad.

Have additional questions or concerns?

If you have any additional questions about creating an estate plan, please call our office at (919) 443-3035 for a free phone consultation. At the end of the call, you’ll know the next step and at a minimum, we’ll point you in the direction of resources that can help you.   There is no obligation to you.  The consultation is completely free. Our goal is for you and your loved ones to have peace of mind and a pleasant ongoing journey.

Jackie Bedard
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Attorney, Author, and Founder of Carolina Family Estate Planning
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