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The Very Public Discussion of James Gandolfini's Estate

3 September, 2014

Actor James Gandolfini, best known for portraying mob boss Tony Soprano in HBO’s hit series The Soprano’s, died of a heart attack on June 19, 2013, at the age of 51, while vacationing in Italy. The passing of a celebrity is newsworthy, but two weeks after his death, the media refocused its attention on Gandolfini for a very unusual reason: his will.

 Remarried and expecting another child, Gandolfini had rewritten his will in December 2012. On July 2, 2013, representatives for his estate filed the 17-page document with the New York Surrogate’s Court. Because probate court records are public documents, anyone can go to the courthouse and ask to see a will. Or, with today’s technology, anyone can read a copy online – for free. The New York Times even posted the .pdf of Gandolfini’s will on its website.

Some commentators estimated Gandolfini’s net worth at $70 million, and the combination of a lot of money, celebrity status, and public disclosure has been an irresistible topic for the tabloids, bloggers and even “high-brow” financial publications like Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. A few details:

  • The property governed by the will’s instructions was valued between “$1 million and $10 million,” which leads legal experts to conclude that Gandolfini may have done other estate planning that did not require public disclosure.
  • An affidavit filed with Gandolfini’s will revealed the actor had an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust (ILIT) for the benefit of Gandolfini’s 13-year-old son from a previous marriage. The ILIT owns a $7 million life insurance policy on Gandolfini’s life.
  • Twenty percent (20%) of James Gandolfini’s estate was left to his 8-month old daughter, Liliana. Under the terms of the will, she will receive this inheritance at the age of 21.
  • Gandolfini owned a home and land inItaly; the will places these properties in a trust for the benefit of both children.

While the media’s interest is primarily about who gets what, quite a few experts from the legal and financial arena have taken to critiquing Gandolfini’s estate plans. They question the advisability of making an inheritance available to a 21-year-old. They wonder whether a document filed in New York will run afoul of legal statutes inItaly. They try to determine if the two children were treated equally, or fairly. And they speculate on the potential problems that may arise down the road.But mostly they wonder: why did Gandolfini decide to make his financial affairs a matter of public record, when it could have been avoided? Estate planning attorney Julie Garber posted a commentary on about.com:

“(I)n Episode 44 of The Sopranos, the fictional Tony Soprano is advised by his fictional CPA to create a Revocable Living Trust to keep his estate plan away from “prying eyes.” Apparently in James Gandolfini’s case, art didn’t imitate life…

Now everyone knows who is getting what from James Gandolfini’s estate. On the other hand, a Revocable Living Trust would have allowed this information to remain a private matter that would only need to be revealed to the beneficiaries and Trustees who are named in the trust agreement. Aside from this, a properly funded Revocable Living Trust will avoid the very public probate process altogether.”

Most of us, regardless of our net worth, don’t want our finances made public, even after we’ve passed away. On the other hand, since most of us aren’t celebrities with $70 million in assets, how much attention would the general population give to our finances, even if they were given a public airing? More than you might think, and not for the relatively benign purpose of critiquing our decisions.

Consider these comments from Attorney Daniel Purtell, from his May 2009 article “Grave Robbery: Identity Theft of the Dead and How to Prevent it:”

Even the dead are not safe from the nation’s fastest-growing crime, identity theft. Scam artists and thieves like to target the deceased because it can take longer for fraudulent activity to be detected than if the victim were alive… Scammers troll through obituaries and probate files for names and addresses. Then they buy Social Security numbers and other personal data—such as credit histories—of the recently departed for as little as $15 on the Internet.

Purtell explains that if the identity of the deceased is stolen, existing accounts may be accessed and new accounts opened for fraudulent activities. The identity thief might sell the information to individuals with bad credit, allowing them to buy property, open credit accounts, even file false tax returns for refunds under the deceased’s name. If the deadbeats default, the outstanding debt appears on the deceased’s credit history. Although surviving family members are not usually held liable for these debts, undoing the damage can be time-consuming and aggravating. A person like Gandolfini, due to his fame, is probably a less-likely target for identity theft. But those less well-known make inviting targets. 

In addition, a listing of assets in a probate record makes a nice shopping catalog for unscrupulous con artists looking to prey on vulnerable heirs and beneficiaries. And now they can shop online!

As Ms. Garber mentioned in the excerpt above, the public exposure of one’s finances can be greatly diminished through the implementation of a Revocable Living Trust. As recent news events have shown, privacy in the digital age is an evolving technology tussle; we have greater access to information, and this requires greater sophistication to keep our privacy.

The privacy provisions contained in specific legal agree-ments, such as trusts, merit thoughtful consideration. If you want to protect your assets and your heirs, Mr. Purtell declares:

“The very best defense is proactive estate and financial planning prior to death or disability.”