Estate planning failures of the rich and famous

The establishment of a solid estate planning package is essential, even for the rich and famous. Although adored by fans and showered with swag at ceremonies like the Oscars, celebrities as a whole seem no different than the average American when it comes to making estate planning mistakes. Just like many people who lack celebrity status, famous people make mistakes or fail or refuse to create documents that assist in the administration of their estate upon their death. For the following deceased celebrities, their unfortunate decisions, or lack thereof, led to unfortunate results for their friends and loved ones.
1. Actor, James Gandolfini a/k/a “Tony Soprano” executed a Last Will & Testament and a separate and unrelated Revocable Trust before he died. His estate was thought to be approximately $70 million. While the execution of a Trust was a positive event, Gandolfini narrowly tailored the Trust to address only his 13-year-old son who received approximately $7 million in life insurance proceeds. The rest of his $70 million dollar estate was not so lucky as only the Will controlled its administration. Twenty percent went to his spouse who had an unlimited exemption, but all other amounts exceeding the $5.25 million estate tax exemption in place at the time in 2013 was exposed to federal and state estate tax to the tune of a 40 percent tax penalty. Published estimates put the total estate tax bill at approximately $30 million. Gandolfini’s daughter receives her portion of the valuable estate at age 21 but consider the implications of a 21-year-old woman receiving millions and you can imagine the issues that may arise. A Trust could have staggered those installments to the daughter with the final payment occurring when she was fully mature.
2. Actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman died on February 2, 2014 in his Manhattan apartment at age 46 with a needle in his arm. He was survived by his longtime girlfriend, Marianne O’Donnell, with whom he had three children out of wedlock, to wit: Cooper born in 2003, Tallulah, born in 2006 and Willa, born in 2008. At his death, Hoffman had an estate estimated at $35 million, but he also had a large tax debt. Hoffman executed a Last Will & Testament and Revocable Trust after his first child Cooper was born, but neither were thought to be updated thereafter. Because they were never amended, the documents excluded Hoffman’s daughters who were born thereafter. Only the first $5.34 million escaped federal estate tax at the time. New York taxed all amounts exceeding the first $1 million. Because Hoffman was not married and because he failed to fund a Trust with the remainder of his wealth, his girlfriend did not benefit from the additional spousal deduction of $5.34 million free of taxes.
3. Actor, Paul W. Walker, IV of the “Fast & Furious” movie series, was killed after the Porsche Carrera GT in which he was riding as a passenger crashed into a tree near a charity event in Santa Clarita, California, on Nov. 30, 2013, and burst into flames. Prior to his death, Walker executed a Trust but thereafter he unwisely failed to fund it. Consequently, Walker’s Pour-Over Will poured his $25 million estate into the Trust but at great expense, delay, and subject to public scrutiny. Had he taken the step of funding his Trust properly and timely, the administration of his estate would have been private and less expensive. According to an article on the dailybeast.com, having already collected $10.1 million from the estate of the driver of the Porsche, Walker’s only daughter recently settled a claim against the car maker. The daughter’s suit against the car company claimed her father initially survived the crash but was unable to escape and burned alive.
4. Daredevil, Evel Knievel: When this famous stuntman died at 69 in 2007, his second ex-wife was listed as his sole beneficiary in most of his estate planning documents. Because Evel was not a good steward of his assets, the beneficiary only inherited approximately $12,500 in assets. To his five children, he left only wonderful memories of Snake River Canyon and the potential of royalties and income from his likeness. But even if the children profit from his image and royalties from the sale of merchandise including Evel’s likeness, a $12.75 million court judgment may take most of it. A gentleman named Shelly Saltman helped promote Evel’s famous Snake River Canyon jump. Thereafter, he wrote a book about the experience of promoting Snake River and he included details of Evel’s alleged abuse of family members and drugs. Evel did not take kindly to that sort of notoriety and clubbed Saltman with an aluminum baseball bat one day in the parking lot of a studio in Southern California. Saltman managed to block blows to his head but one swing of the bat shattered Saltman’s arm. A judge awarded Saltman $12.75 million for his injuries. While Evel declared bankruptcy and never paid the judgment amount, Saltman was last thought to be chasing the estate for his judgment amount. According to sources, the events inspired the following quote in an Associated Press article: “Of all the bones Evel Knievel broke over the years, the costliest may have been the left arm of a PR man by the name of Shelly Saltman.”
5. Slugger, Ted Williams: The corpse of baseball legend Ted Williams will stay frozen indefinitely in a cryonics chamber in Arizona under a settlement reached by his three children. A former executive at the cryonics company was heard to say that Williams’ head was severed from his body and is kept in something akin to a lobster pot. The story goes that within hours of his death, Williams’ son, John-Henry, had his father’s corpse frozen at the cost of $120,000.00. Various stories abound that he did it in the event someone wanted to purchase the DNA of a legendary slugger or if someone wanted to clone the deceased. As luck would have it, soon thereafter, many of Williams’ friends appeared and said they distinctly remembered hearing Williams say he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes sprinkled over the Florida Keys where he loved to fish. Once found and probated, Williams’ 1996 Last Will and Testament confirmed his wishes of cremation. Thereafter, Williams’ son, John-Henry produced a note that he said proved that his father had changed his mind about cremation after signing his Will. A subsequent legal case to address Williams’ wishes began with children on each side of the argument. Ultimately, his children settled the dispute when the trustees of a $645,000 irrevocable insurance trust executed by Williams agreed to distribute the funds to the children.
Attorney, Todd Miller is a monthly contributor and regularly writes and speaks on various legal topics including estate planning, probate, and elder law. He formed the Law Office of Todd Miller, LLC, 1305 Southwest Blvd., Ste. A, Jefferson City, Missouri in 2006. He was recognized as 2016 Adviser of the Year by GolfInc; he received the Substantial Contributor Attorney Award by the Missouri Bar in 2017; and has received the Martindale-Hubbell Client Distinction Award multiple times. Mr. Miller earned his juris doctorate degree from the University of Missouri School of Law in 1999 and graduated with honors from Lincoln University in 1991. You may find him at www.toddmillerlaw.com (573) 634-2838 or on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.