James Gandolfini – A Soprano’s Legacy?

James Gandolfini created a legendary character in his role as Tony Soprano on the HBO series “The Soprano’s.” From the opening scene of the 1st show, where Tony was in his therapists office, to the last scene when the screen just went blank leaving us to wonder what happened, Gandolfini was must watch TV. When the news of his passing came I was shocked and saddened as like most fans of the show we were hoping for a movie at some point but more importantly to see a man cut down while still in his prime is always an eye opening experience.

And heart issues are nothing to joke about. Gandolfini was the same age as I am. Over the last two years I have become acutely aware of how possible heart issues can be as I have had three friends my age have heart attacks. In the end it seems that Gandolfini had lived a full life and his true legacy to the world can be seen in the incredible characters he leaves behind.

But what about his financial legacy? Being Tony Soprano on television made Gandolfini a very wealthy man. As it turns out his sudden death came before he could do the proper planning and the biggest beneficiary of his wealth will be the IRS. In this article we can see what happened and what could have been done. We talk about this in our training, but to see it on paper is a real eye opener. I will always remember James Gandolfini for his work on screen…but as professionals let us remember him as a lesson of why we need to be planning now.

Gandolfini’s $30 Million Estate Tax Mistake

by Dan Caplinger Jul 8th 2013 4:28PM

In “The Sopranos,” the IRS didn’t stand a chance against Mafia boss Tony Soprano. But thanks to poor planning, the IRS will be the biggest beneficiary of actor James Gandolfini’s estate. Gandolfini died with an estate worth an estimated $70 million. But in what estate lawyer William Zabel referred to as a “catastrophe” in an interview with the New York Daily News, Gandolfini’s will left about 80 percent of his estate unprotected against estate taxes, with rates that will add up to about 55 percent when you consider both the federal and state portions. What’s worse, some well-established estate planning techniques could easily have avoided much of that bill while still achieving most of what Gandolfini was trying to accomplish.

What the Will Said
You can read Gandolfini’s will for yourself, but on the whole, it has fairly simple provisions. After giving $1.6 million to various friends and relatives and making provisions for his personal property and his house and land in Italy, Gandolfini split the remainder of his estate among four people — 30 percent each to his two sisters, 20 percent to his wife, and 20 percent to his daughter. His son received the proceeds of a life insurance policy that isn’t subject to estate tax.  As ordinary as those provisions might sound, Gandolfini’s will represents a missed opportunity in estate planning terms. By leaving only 20 percent of his estate to his wife, Gandolfini missed out on what could have been an unlimited deduction for estate tax purposes for gifts made to a surviving spouse.

How to Handle Complex Family Situations
Of course, one complication is that Gandolfini’s surviving spouse, Deborah Lin, isn’t the mother of his son, Michael. Often in situations involving and children of previous marriages, parents are reluctant to leave all their money to a surviving spouse, as they want to ensure that their children won’t have to rely on their step-parent to provide for them.  However, even in cases involving children of previous marriages, the use of marital trusts can usually take advantage of the marital deduction while still ensuring that children will eventually receive the bulk of the estate.  A typical marital trust will provide for income from trust property to be paid to the spouse, and for the assets that remain after the surviving spouse dies to go to the children or other desired heirs.  You have to be careful in drafting the marital trust so that it qualifies for the marital deduction while still providing protection for your kids, but proper planning can reach a beneficial result that could have cut tens of millions of dollars off Gandolfini’s estate-tax bill.

Don’t Make a Celebrity Mistake
Gandolfini’s estate-planning errors are far from the only tax mistake among celebrities. Some are basic missteps, like Wesley Snipes having failed to file income tax returns and Nicolas Cage having an unpaid seven-figure tax bill outstanding. Lauryn Hill failed to pay taxes for years, and on Monday began serving a three-month sentence for tax evasion. Moreover, Gandolfini at least had a will. Many celebs who died unexpectedly, including Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, and Barry White, didn’t have valid wills at all, an issue which can raise a host of other complications and unintended results. So in reviewing your own estate-planning situation, be sure you’ve taken care of the following issues:

  • Make sure you have a will. Doing so is the best way not only to make sure the right people get your property after your death but also to name someone to take care of minor children in your absence. Without a will, long court battles can ensue, and that will not only create emotional stress but also sap financial strength at a most difficult time.
  • There are a number of other vital documents to have. A living will lets you make your wishes known about life-preserving treatment, while a health-care power-of-attorney will let a loved one act more broadly on your behalf when you’re unable to make your own decisions about medical treatment. Similarly, a durable power of attorney will let someone take financial action on your behalf if you’re incapacitated, saving a huge amount of complications.
  • Finally, financial planning can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it. With the federal estate tax exemption currently at $5.25 million, few people have to worry about tax considerations, although some states have estate taxes that kick in at levels as low as $675,000. Make sure to coordinate your will’s provisions with your investments, life insurance, and other financial planning to ensure a smooth transition if something happens to you.

No one likes to contemplate their own death. But the expensive lesson that the IRS is about to teach the Gandolfini family is one that you don’t have to learn the hard way, as long as you take some easy steps now to avoid a big IRS bill later.

About Jeffrey Berson

40 years in and around the industry has made Insurance a part of my DNA. I have had the pleasure of working with and for some of the greatest minds in our industry. My "Bersonal" View is an attempt to capture some of the best ideas, the best concepts and the best practices in a way that can lead to success for others. It will certainly be my point of view, so please...don't take it "Bersonal".
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