I read an article recently about the premier episode of “Celebrity Legacies”, a television show on the Reelz channel that investigates the legacy of a different departed celebrity each week. I was first concerned about my choice in reading material, but later realized that the discussion had some value. This episode explored the case of James Gandolfini, who died suddenly at the age of 51, with an estimated estate of 70 to 80 million dollars. He had begun preparing his estate plan six months prior to his death, but only a hastily prepared will that left everything outright to his family and friends was ever completed. The will requires millions of dollars to be paid to his two young children when they reach their early twenties. I wonder if they will be prepared to handle this sudden wealth at such a young age. Although many of us struggle to relate to his life and the wealth he accumulated, I agree with the authors that we can all learn from Mr. Gandolfini’s mistakes. A few of the lessons that come to my mind are as follows:
- Nobody is immortal and we are never guaranteed another day on Earth. If you died tomorrow, would your estate be distributed according to your wishes? If you are uncertain about the answer, please take the time to review and adjust your estate plan with a competent professional as soon as possible.
- A properly planned estate, including the appropriate use of a trust, would never be subject to the publicity of Probate, an entertaining television episode, an article, or this blog post. When done right, an estate plan gives you the power to keep your private affairs private.
- How you leave money to your heirs can be just as important as how much you leave them. History is full of examples where having too much money too early in life leads to a disastrous outcome. The tools are available to eliminate this risk in your family.
I would urge you to consider your own situation in light of Mr. Gandolfini’s, as it can and does happen to ordinary people. I recently settled the estate of a man who talked with me frequently about the wisdom of updating his estate plan, but he never quite got around to signing the documents to make the changes. Consequently, his estate was distributed with significant inequalities among his heirs. I never knew if this was his true intention, but the results were predictable. Where there was once close family ties, there is now hurt feelings, mistrust and damaged relationships. I wonder if it had to be this way, or if he just procrastinated too long. Please don’t let this happen in your family. If you are uncertain about how to get started, Legacy Trust would be happy to assist you.