James Gandolfini’s Estate Plan – Lessons in Privacy for the Common Man

I will preface this post with the admission that I have never seen an episode of The Sopranos.  Mr. Gandolfini may have been a great actor, but I was generally unaware.  What I have seen is a tidal wave of articles since his death dissecting his estate planning and the alleged “mistakes” that were made.  I had determined not to join the chorus as many of the alleged “mistakes” are based on presumptions which may or may not be accurate.  I also thought; how many people reading this blog are likely to have estates purported to be worth nearly $100 million or anywhere near that amount.  Do most of us really benefit from knowing about these alleged “mistakes.”  But as I read another article recently it occurred to me there is actually something we can all learn from this untimely death and the sea of publicity surrounding his plan – the benefit of keeping things private.Last year when Joe Paterno passed away, I searched the internet to see if I could find a copy of his Will.  Not surprisingly, I found it.  But all it told me was that any assets in his estate at the time of his death would pass to a trust.  This is known as a pour-over will and really left me with no greater knowledge of how his estate would pass and to whom.  Mr. Gandolfini’s Will is likewise available online.  However, his Will sets out certain gifts to his son and others.  There may be other trusts set up and other assets passing other ways, but I am left wondering why choose to tell the world you are giving certain individuals specific gifts?  The same gifts could have been given under a trust without any such publicity.  A Will that is probated becomes part of the public record.  ANYONE can retrieve it from the Court and see how your estate has been distributed.  While most of us will not generate the same level of interest as Mr. Gandolfini, there is no doubt that individuals troll the public records looking for just this type of information.   If you choose to publicize your plan, the beneficiaries may become a target.Whether you are a famous actor worth millions or you have a relatively small estate a trust can benefit you by avoiding probate and the attendant loss of privacy that comes with it.  The benefits of a trust based plan are not just about the taxes.