Paul L. Caron

Monday, July 22, 2013

NY Times: Was James Gandolfini's Will Really a 'Tax Disaster'?

SopranosFollowing up on my previous post, James Gandolfini's Will Is a 'Tax Disaster':  New York Times, A Public Debate Over the Wisdom of Gandolfini’s Will, by Paul Sullivan:

[A] few weeks after he died, the discussion shifted to his will, which, unlike the wills of most wealthy people quickly became public. Almost immediately, many experts found fault with its contents, saying it was so unwisely constructed it could lead to lawsuits from his heirs.

And then there was the estate tax bill — estimated at a whopping $30 million, nearly half of his reported net worth of $70 million all because of supposedly bad tax planning.... [I]t seemed downright bizarre — at least to me — that he might not have had sound financial advice.

Was this true? Were the numbers accurate? Did any of these commentators know what they were talking about? At first blush it certainly seemed to me that there indeed were serious problems with the will. But before I formed my final opinion, I decided to call Roger S. Haber, Mr. Gandolfini’s lawyer, who drafted the will and is one of its executors. In “Sopranos” parlance, he was Mr. Gandolfini’s consigliere in life and was the man, after his death, who was bearing the brunt of the estate tax ire. ...

He told me that Mr. Gandolfini knew the difference between a probate asset — which is governed by his will — and a non-probate asset, like a retirement account, life insurance policy or asset held in an irrevocable trust. Although Mr. Haber would not elaborate, the implication was that perhaps Mr. Gandolfini had assets in other vehicles that would mitigate his tax liability. The prospect was intriguing.

But I sought outside counsel to examine Mr. Gandolfini’s will and two affidavits that were filed after it. ... The burning question is, does Mr. Gandolfini’s estate have an enormous tax bill? The $30 million figure that was floating around is based on two assumptions that could be wrong. The first was that he was worth $70 million; the second was that his will guides how all that money is disbursed....

Another expert agreed that taxes might not always be the most important consideration. “All these people who are out there talking about the taxes, they don’t get it,” said Leiha Macauley, a partner and head of the Boston office at the law firm Day Pitney. “The person who is trying to provide for the children from the first marriage, the second marriage, and a wife who may be the same age as his sisters, he doesn’t care about estate taxes. He wants to provide for them equally.” Had he wanted to avoid federal estate taxes, he could have left everything to his wife, Ms. Macauley said.

The one thing Mr. Haber could have saved Mr. Gandolfini from was this column and every other article or blog written about his will. They would not have been possible if Mr. Gandolfini had had a revocable trust. Such a trust, which is easy and cheap to create, would have enabled him to have a simple “pour-over will,” which would have said that his possessions had been put into the trust. No one would know anything more about his assets or his intentions. ... “Why would a guy with this much notoriety have a will in the public record?” Mr. Scroggin said. “I have high-profile clients and we do pour-over wills as much as anything to avoid this media brouhaha.”...

Mr. Haber said that Mr. Gandolfini’s children would be fine because the actor had focused on their guardians and trustees more than the money they might inherit.“Jim was a very smart guy and he took all of this seriously,” he said. “He did what he wanted to with full awareness of the laws.”If that is the case, then his estate plan accomplished its purpose, regardless of what others think.

(Hat Tip: Mike Talbert, Bill Turnier.)

UpdateJames Gandolfini’s Lawyer Comments on the Will Controversy

Celebrity Tax Lore, Tax | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference NY Times: Was James Gandolfini's Will Really a 'Tax Disaster'?:


Has anyone considered that disclaimers might be used to lower the estate tax burden?

Posted by: Jack Bogdanski | Jul 22, 2013 5:45:06 PM

Maybe the issue is pretty simple - Gandolfini was only 51 with as it turns out, an undiagnosed heart condition - he simply did not see the need to do estate planning with an eye to inheritance taxes. Most people don't start thinking about that 'til they are say 61.

Posted by: MacK | Jul 22, 2013 3:34:09 PM