James Gandolfini’s $30 million estate mistake

The late actor, James Gandolfini died and left an estate worth an estimated $70 million. Now thanks to bad estate planning, the IRS may take up to 50% of that estate.

The larger-than-life actor gave $1.6 million dollars to various friends and relatives. He split the rest up among the following people: his two sisters-30%, his wife-20% and 20% to his daughter. His son was the benefactor of a life insurance policy which is not subject to taxes.

The New York Daily News quotes William Zabel, the estate lawyer for the stars, , as saying,

“It’s a nightmare from a tax standpoint.”

Zabel said the “big mistake” was leaving 80% of his estate to his sisters and his 9-month-old daughter. That makes the money subject to death taxes at rate of 55%.

You can read Gandolfini’s will here.

So, even being a rich celebrity doesn’t mean you can’t get bad advice.  With that in mind, here are six tips that will help you pick the right probate/estate planning attorney.

  1. Look for an estate attorney with a customized web site, rather than one with a prepackaged generic site with lots of pretty pictures. Pick a custom site loaded with informative wills, trusts or probate articles about the area of law that pertains to your situation. Content-heavy sites are prepared by experienced wills and trust lawyers, not web masters. Avoid those slick sites with lots of flash. You want an old-school law firm with knowledge, not glitz.
  2. Look for an estate planning law firm that specializes in the area of law that you need. A general law firm that says they do everything cannot possibly do everything well. The content on the web site will give you an indication of what the firm does best.
  3. Contact the NY estate lawyer directly and try to speak to the probate attorney who will be handling your case. Don’t settle for being diverted to a paralegal or an assistant. If the estate planning lawyer is too busy to speak with you initially, ask for a call back. If he or she is too busy to give you the attention you need, maybe you should try someone else. When you speak with the estate lawyer, make sure he/she is a good listener. They can’t help you if they don’t listen. It is important that you feel comfortable with your estate planning lawyer. First impressions are critical.
  4. If the New York probate attorney has client reviews on their site, read them all. You will be able to differentiate between honest reviews and canned ones. Don’t be put off by a single bad review; it will only legitimize the others. After all, you can’t please everyone all the time.
  5. Ask the NY probate lawyer to explain the entire process to you. Do not be shy; you have the right to know. A good estate lawyer should be able to explain even the most complex matter in simple, easy to understand terms. Remember, you are the boss since you are paying the bill.
  6. Finally, go with your gut. Picking the right wills, trusts or estate lawyer can be a challenge. Once you find the right person, the rest of the process will be much easier.