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Legacy and Estate Planning: When Acting and Reality Collide

A well-designed estate plan is worth the time and effort – it protects your legacy and ensures abundance and peace in your family’s future.

By Michael Thomas

The world mourned the passing of James Gandolfini on June 19, 2013. Many were introduced to the 51-year-old actor through his Emmy-winning portrayal of mob boss Tony Soprano in the acclaimed HBO series, The Sopranos. We can only assume that there were numerous differences between the man and his fictional persona, but what we do know is that Gandolfini didn’t heed the advice given by the Soprano family’s fictional CPA to create a Revocable Living Trust; Gandolfini left a Will instead. Gandolfini’s legacy lives on, but at what expense?

In my previous column, we looked at the basics of estate planning and identified three types: the Do Nothing Estate Plan, the Will-Based Estate Plan, and the Trust-Based Estate Plan. This month, we will determine the advantages and limitations of each.*

 Three Estate Plans

The most basic form of estate planning determines who will receive your assets at the time of your death, and how and when your loved ones will receive those assets.

The Do Nothing Estate Plan: It literally means you have chosen to do nothing — there is no Will or Trust in place. This means that your assets will go to your closest relatives under state intestate succession laws.

Without a Will, your estate is subject to probate, the process of changing title of [1] assets. Probate is a public court proceeding. Not only can this take years to resolve, but it will cost your heirs money and provide a platform for anyone making a claim against your estate, including creditors and ex-spouses. Estimates show that the average American family loses up to 25% of their assets in probate.

The Will-Based Estate Plan: Having a Will designates recipients of your assets. However, as with the Do Nothing Estate Plan, Will-Based Plans subject your estate to probate.

The Trust-Based Estate Plan: This means you have chosen to set up a Revocable Living Trust, or an RLT. An RLT is a private document that protects your assets and aids your beneficiaries by carrying out the instructions of your Trust document; it is designed by you, and you appoint your trustees. While you’re alive, you become the Trustee of your own Trust by retitling your assets in the name of the RLT. In the actor’s case, it could have been The James Gandolfini Revocable Living Trust.

 A Trust-Based Estate Plan is a “living” trust in that you can change or revoke it at any time during your lifetime. For example, you can leave more money and/or assets to specific individuals or disinherit individual family members without worrying they’ll challenge or fight your decision in probate court. Furthermore, a Trust keeps your affairs private[2] , and reduces the costs and delays associated with probate. One of the greatest advantages of a properly-designed Trust-Based Plan is that your beneficiaries can enjoy all the rights, privileges, and pleasures of the assets held in Trust without actually receiving them outright. This means that the assets left in Trust can be protected from lawsuits, medical expenses, bankruptcy, divorce, and premature death. Your beneficiaries can have access to the money in the Trust for their health, education, maintenance, and support, as well as to buy a home or start a business. In essence, they can have their cake and eat it, too.

Maybe now you can see the mistake that James Gandolfini made? His Will is public, which opens it up to prying eyes. His Will-Based plan gives his heirs the opportunity to challenge his decisions in the probate proceeding. Ultimately, costs will mount, and unnecessary time and money will be lost to settle his estate.

 *This article is intended as an overview of an extremely complex topic. Feel free to email Michael at [email protected] for further information.


Michael Thomas Robinson II is a Certified Estate and Trust Specialist. He assists individuals and families with their financial and estate planning needs, and provides personal and business coaching. Michael also teaches Yoga and meditation: pureplanning.org.

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