We all know about the estates of Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith, right? But what about Elizabeth Taylor, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, Heath Ledger, Elvis Presley, and John F. Kennedy, Jr.? This week, the Reelz Channel premiered a new television series called Celebrity Legacies. The documentary series explores a different celebrity each week, discussing their legacies, estates, and what they left behind: Feuding heirs? Mounting debt? Or a golden legacy glittered with fame and fortune?
The premiere episode delved into James Gandolfini. The late Soprano’s star died shockingly in 2013, leaving behind two young children — from two different marriages — and an estate plan that was, well, not exactly perfect.
We appear on each of the 26 episodes of Celebrity Legacies, providing legal and financial commentary and analysis. On the premiere, we talked about how James Gandolfini’s will was initially done as a Band-Aid measure, after his daughter was born. Instead of using a revocable living trust to keep his affairs private and outside of probate court, Gandolfini relied primarily on his will.
That means his family was subjected to media scrutiny over his estate. Wills must pass through probate court (called Surrogate’s Court in New York), which means they are more expensive, stressful, and prone to family fighting than when legacies are protected through revocable living trusts. This is especially risky when there are children from two different marriages involved.
In Gandolfini’s case, we learned how his estate (estimated between $70 million and $80 million) was divided among his family members and others close to him, but he did not properly address his Italian property or think through whether his children would be ready to inherit millions of dollars when they are in their early twenties. His daughter, for example, will receive 20% of the balance of his assets that pass through probate court at the young age of 21. What if she’s not mature enough to handle it? It doesn’t matter; that’s what the will says, so that’s when she gets the money.
While we always like talking about celebrity legacies and estates, celebrity estate stories can be used to educate people (including families and financial professionals) about how celebrity errors can help them protect their heirs. Many people mistakenly believe that estates of the rich and famous could never relate to them. In reality, we see the very same mistakes that celebrities make with their estate planning with regular families — often ending up in the exact same type of estate court battles — on a regular basis.
Celebrity Legacies Premiers James Gandolfini
So, each week when an episode of Celebrity Legacies airs, we will share our thoughts about the lessons that you can learn from each featured celebrity estate. These are great conversation starters to share with stubborn loved ones who may be reluctant to do their estate planning, or — for financial and legal professionals — opportune times to spark new dialogues with clients and prospects to help them.
What can you learn from Gandolfini’s Estate (even if you don’t have 70 million dollars)? Gandolfini was only 51 years old. He started his estate plan before he left for vacation, intending to complete it later. Six months passed by and he never completed his planning. Then, tragically, Gandolfini suffered a sudden heart attack while in Italy with his son. His incomplete estate planning led to the complications, publicity, and estate taxes that he could have (and should have) avoided.
Far too many people make the mistake of thinking they can worry about wills, trusts, and other estate planning documents down the road. Why wait until someday? Gandolfini’s heirs would have been much better off if he had completed his estate planning the right way and not procrastinated.
Does this seem obvious? For too many people, it’s not. In fact, studies show that as many as two-thirds of adults in our country don’t even have a simple will. So Gandolfini was actually ahead of the curve, even though his planning left much to be desired.
Celebrity Legacies airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. and Sunday afternoons, on the Reelz Channel.
Danielle and Andrew Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter and Google+.