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Some question wisdom of James Gandolfini's estate plan

Earlier this summer, James Gandolfini, a popular actor known by many for his role as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, died while on vacation in Italy. Because Gandolfini was only 51 years old, his death came as a surprise to many of his fans.

Many experts also found it surprising that the details of the actor’s will were made public not long after his funeral, particularly because most famous or wealthy individuals take steps to ensure that their estate plans remain as private as possible. Those in the media were quick to criticize Gandolfini’s will for many reasons, but these criticisms may not have been justified.

First, some believe that the structure of Gandolfini’s will is such that it is likely to cause disputes among his heirs. Second, some have said that his will shows poor planning for taxes, which means that the final tax bill for his estate could reach $30 million, approximately half his reported net worth.

These criticisms may not be warranted, however, because they fail to take into account the entire picture of Gandolfini’s estate plan. For example, several years ago, Gandolfini purchased a $7 million life insurance policy for his son and placed it in an insurance trust. Unlike other assets, this policy is not subject to estate taxes. It is also likely that he took advantage of the gift tax exemption that expired at the end of 2012 to finance trusts for his other family members.

Overall, despite unfounded criticism, Gandolfini’s will serves as an important reminder that a properly drafted will is only one part of a well designed estate plan.

Source: The New York Times, “A Public Debate Over the Wisdom of Gandolfini’s Will,” Paull Sullivan, July 19, 2013

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