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Lessons Floridians can learn from actor's will

The untimely death of well-known actor James Gandolfini may have come as an unpleasant surprise to many Florida residents. The passing of someone at the relatively young age of 51 can be an uncomfortable reminder of our own mortality. It might be helpful to confront that fact in this case, however, because the public nature of the distribution of Gandolfini's assets can be a lesson for anyone considering an estate plan.

The actor left behind a wife, a daughter, two sisters, and a son from a prior marriage. He also left an estate valued around $70 million, of which $30 million or so ended up going to the government in taxes. His will left 20 percent of his assets to his daughter in trust until she turns 21, and alluded to a life insurance policy worth $7 million of which his son was named beneficiary.

The first thing that should be obvious from this structure is that there is no requirement that children be treated equally. Gandolfini may have had personal or financial reasons why he left more wealth to his daughter than his son. Of course, if he had neglected to leave a will, his estate would have passed via a state intestacy statute, and both would have likely received an equal share.

Secondly, the fact that the actor's estate was will-based means that the value and types of assets it involved are public record. If he had wished that they be kept private, he likely could have had the assets held in a revocable trust instead.

Finally, there are several ways he could have left more of his wealth to his family, and less to the government. Through various estate planning methods, trusts and other instruments, the estate tax impact on his estate could have been minimized. Florida residents may want to contemplate these lessons when they are making their estate plans, and explore all legal options to ensure that they can leave what they want, to who they want, in the way they want.

Source: Florida Today, "Stephen J. Lacey: Lessons from the rich and famous can be an asset," Stephen J. Lacey, Sep. 9, 2013

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