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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - James Gandolfini - Episode 114


Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. We’re back to the “celebrity estate planning” topic and for today’s episode, we’re going to dive into what happened following the death of the famous Tony Soprano actor, James Gandolfini. He was definitely best known for his time on the Sopranos, but he also was in a number of movies, too, that we’ll into in a few. Now, I have to admit something – I’m an older millennial. I’m 35 and I feel like I should be embarrassed by what I’m about to say. I’ve never seen an episode of The Sopranos. I know, shame shame! I’m not sure if this helps or hurts my cause, but I just didn’t really watch a lot of shows … I didn’t watch Friends, Sex and the City, Cheers, … I know there are so many more, but I didn’t get into them. I feel better now that I’ve admitted I’ve actually never seen an episode, but nonetheless, here we are – we’re going to talk about James’ Estate, what happened, what we can learn from it, etc. but before that, as always, let’s talk a little bit about James personally-speaking first.

According to his Wikipedia page … hailing from New Jersey, James was born in September 1961. A little fun fact … you know those senior superlative things? Like, best hair, best car, most likely to succeed, etc. Well, ol’ James was the “class flirt.” Funny! James graduated high school and went on to attend and graduate from Rutgers University in 1983. He also attended an acting school as well. Shortly after, he started getting into some acting … some smaller stuff and ended up landing some bigger stuff later. Then came The Sopranos, which was pitched in 1995 and ultimately first released in 1999…which we’ll get to in one second … but it’s worth noting that while James is really, really known for The Sopranos, he was also in plenty of movies, shows, and associated with many other notable things too. I don’t want to do him a disservice and tie his name and identity to ONLY The Sopranos. So, I wanted to mention that nugget.

David Chase, the television writer and producer, pitched his idea for The Sopranos to major networks like Fox and CBS, but finally HBO picked it up. The show, as described by the Wikipedia page, “revolve[d] around Tony Soprano, a New Jersey-based Italian-American mobster, who tries to balance his family life with his role as a boss of the Soprano crime family.” James Gandolfini was invited to audition for the part of Tony Soprano after the casting director saw his performance in the movie, True Romance. Tony got the part and the show kicked off in 1999 and went on for six seasons ultimately ending in 2007, and James played Tony all six seasons. The show itself and Tony, as the actor, won many, many awards, including Emmy Awards and Golden Globes. To bring things full circle … David Chase, who was the writer and producer, said after James’ death that “without Jim Gandolfini, there is no Sopranos. There is no Tony Soprano.”

Personally-speaking, James first married a lady by the name of Marcy in March 1999. They had a son named Michael. Though, they ended up divorcing in December 2002. Some time later, James met model and actress Deborah Lin and ended up marrying her in August 2008. Together, they had a daughter named Liliane. So, in total, James had two children – Michael and Liliane. While James was traveling with his family in Rome, Italy in mid-2013, they did some sight-seeing in some terrible, terrible heat. After that, his son, Michael, walked into their hotel’s bathroom to find his Dad unconscious on the floor. James ended up dying very shortly thereafter and according to his autopsy, it was due to a heart attack. That was on June 19, 2013 at the age of 51 years old. Way too young, right?

According to many sources, his estate ended up being north of $70 Million Dollars. So, what kind of estate plan, if any, governed his estate? Well, I can share that he DID have an estate plan, but his estate only consisted of a Last Will and Testament. Interestingly, because he had a Will only, it had to go through a public court process called probate. Well, since it’s public, I found a copy of it and linked it in the source links for this episode. Since I found it, I can go through it with my own eyeballs and give you the lowdown… so first and foremost, his Will had things called “specific bequests” which, as I explain them to my own clients, are super specific requests that occur “off the top” before money and assets are distributed. Oftentimes, they are “things” … like personal property (think jewelry, tools, guns, etc.). So, first he had his clothing and jewelry distributed to his son, Michael. Everything else personal property-wise, besides his clothing and jewelry, went to his wife, Deborah.

He also had some specific bequests that were money/specific gifts too, which included the following:

- $200,000 to his assistant, Paulette (a/k/a Trixie)

- $50,000 to his friend, Fatima

- $500,000 to his niece, Laura

- $500,000 to his niece, Jenna

- $100,000 to his godson, Robert

- $200,000 to his friend, Thomas

- $50,000 to his friend, Doug (with the express provision that he hopes he uses it for his son)

Very generous gestures to people clearly near and dear to him!

Furthermore, he had a specific provision, which is called a “right of first refusal” in my little world that basically gave his son, Michael, the “first dibs” option to purchase a condo in New York. I looked and looked and looked to see if Michael took the option and purchased it – but I doubt he did because in 2013, when James died, Michael would not have been 18 yet – so it’s very likely that his legal guardian, probably his mother, would not have seen the benefit in keeping it, especially since he would have to “purchase it” off the estate. Though, I don’t know for sure. I couldn’t find a solid answer. Yet another specific bequest was to have his house and land in Italy to be held in trust for the benefit of his children, Michael and Liliane. The Will said that the properties in Italy could go to the two of them once they both turned 25. Currently, she’s like 10 years old – so that trust holding the properties is likely still in existence holding it for the kids’ benefit.

The final provision, as in where everything else went, says that the remaining of the estate was to be split like this: 30% to his sister Leta, 30% to his sister, Johanna, 20% to his wife, Deborah, and 20% to his daughter, Liliane. Now, you may have noticed that he did not include his son, Michael, but the next article in his Will reads like this: “I have in mind my beloved son, Michael, but I am not providing for him other than as set forth in this my Last Will and Testament because I have made other provisions for him.” Now, some may think, “OH the shade! He didn’t get anything!” Well, in my professional opinion, that language right there is not James disinheriting Michael from everything else – I think what that means is James had alternative things going to Michael OUTSIDE the Will, whether through beneficiary designations, a trust, other assets, etc. If someone is getting disinherited, the language is usually fairly harsh because it has to be to protect the document and the purpose of the document. So, that, to me, is him saying, “Michael is not disinherited … he’s getting other things not through this Will!”

Now, if you look up the Estate of James Gandolfini, there was little to no arguing involving, which is super great and refreshing to see and read because blended families, whether you want to believe it or not, are ripe for disagreements. But here, no one was fighting with each other, but where the slip-up happened was … by James himself. Truth be told, he should not have JUST had a Last Will and Testament. If you google James Gandolfini Estate, you won’t see articles about fighting family members, what you’ll see is many, many articles about how James was very generous with many family and friends, but we haven’t talked about the biggest beneficiary of EVERYONE. Want to guess who? If you are thinking Uncle Sam and the IRS, you are correct. Taxes.

It is has been said that due to James only having a Last Will and Testament, he didn’t live his estate in a way to avoid estate taxes and for that reason, his estate had to cough up around $30 Million Dollars (yes, you heard that right) in taxes. What is super crazy and sad is that it’s totally avoidable with some good estate planning. The thing about it is that there has to be trusts involved to avoid paying estate taxes, and for whatever reason, James elected to do, by far, the most basic estate planning document there is out there – a Last Will and Testament. Was it better than nothing? For sure! Without it, many of the people he provided for would not have gotten anything (like his assistant, friends, sisters, godson, etc.). So, he was at least able to accomplish his very specific wishes, but without more planning, he let taxes become the biggest beneficiary of them all, which is just sad and stinky, right? I’m just going to sit here and hope that whatever attorney drafted this Will explained ALL of the estate planning options, including trust planning. There’s no way I’d NOT explain trust planning for someone with that type of net worth!

This seems like a lovely time to mention a little shout-out in my estate world. Currently the federal estate tax exemption amount is like $12.92 Million Dollars PER PERSON, so as a married couple you get over $25 Million Dollars. What that means is if you have an estate worth MORE than that, you NEED more planning that a Will, okay? Otherwise, you’ll be in the exact same seat as our friend, James Gandolfini, here. I admit like a heavy, heavy, HEAVY majority of my clients aren’t anywhere close to those numbers, so for my normal client, it’s a non-issue. The reason I bring this up is because these numbers are supposed to drop down to the $5-6 Million Dollars PER PERSON range in 2025/2026, unless they pass further legislation to keep it high like $12.92 per person. So, something to just know and watch out for!

Alrighty, I think we’re ready to wrap this episode up. Next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases that I, or my office, have worked on. Always good stuff on those episodes! So, tune in for that next week, my friends ,and until then, take care and be well!


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