What can Paul Walker, James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman teach us about Wills?

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A little update on the story that went live in local papers recently came with the announcement of the most recent of tragic and too-soon passings. Revealed last month was the will of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who shocked the world with his sudden death in February.

In it, he left his fortune to his ex-partner and mother of all three of his children along with explicit instructions on the caretaking of his eldest son.  Though detailed, even down to the cities he’d like his son raised in, he made no mention of his two younger children. 

While is can be surmised simply that Mr. Hoffman failed to update his will since its initial writing, it did raise some questions which I put to our Estate Planning expert Lynne Butler.

In Lynne’s popular book, ESTATE PLANNING THROUGH FAMILY MEETINGS, she addresses the consequences of not planning in Chapter 3, and the reasons why people don’t plan in Chapter 2.  Further to this, and on her well-read blog, she specifically writes, “The problem with his will was that it was written in 2004.” Ms. Butler cites the tabloid knowledge that Mr. Hoffman had recently become estranged from the woman he left his fortune to.

“This raises the question of whether he would have still wanted to leave his estate to her, or whether he would have preferred to leave it in trust to his children” Ms. Butler explained. 

We will never know his intentions, and sadly, his family is left to pick up the pieces of his loss and his fans to mourn his muted voice. 

It does seem like it’s been a very bad time to be a famous person. We’ve witnessed too many untimely deaths lately and yet only a few of the recent famous and sudden passings were followed up with announcements of estates well planned out.

To understand the process of wills writing, I turned to noted author and academic Tom Carter. Mr. Carter is the legal instructor at The School of Business, MacEwan University in Edmonton and the author of WRITE YOUR LEGAL WILL IN 3 EASY STEPS.

Mr. Carter explained the nuts and bolts of wills with this; “Everyone already has a will. They just don’t know it.”

Mr. Carter went on to explain that every province in Canada has general rules for the distribution of your assets, and they typically go in the order of spouse, children, then parents.  If there’s no spouse your assets automatically go to your kids. If there is no spouse or kids, everything you own, and everything you owe, automatically lands on your parents’ doorstep.  

“Each province is different, but that’s the general rule.” Mr. Carter added.

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What we learned from the recent release of Paul Walker’s will, was that he took the time to craft his plan for his daughter, even if he wasn’t there to raise her. 

In a clean and well thought out estate plan, Mr. Walker left his entire estate to his grieving teenage daughter Meadow, and he left the management of those assets and the guidance of his only heir to his parents.   

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James Gandolfini’s will, on the other hand, left behind a predicament for his grieving children. In his will released in August of last year, just a few months after the actor’s shocking death, Gandolfini indicated different plans for his children from different marriages.

I talked with Emily Bouchard, the San Francisco based co-author of ESTATE PLANNING FOR THE BLENDED FAMILY, and she explained that Gandolfini’s decision was ‘fair but not equal’. 

“To resolve the issue of the disparity between what he left his teenage son from his first wife and what he left his newborn daughter with his widow.” Ms. Bourchard said, “There might be private documents which explain to those children the difference in the estate plan.”

These are the estate planning cases which allow families to get a sense – or very clear direction – on where their loved one wished their assets to go, often during the emotional aftermath of their traumatic loss. However, what can we learn from those who didn’t plan for the worse?

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Both 27 year old Amy Winehouse and 31 year old Cory Monteith died without wills, and in the case of Miss Winehouse, this caused her grieving parents to seek her assets through the court system. 

What does this teach the average person who might not have the sizeable assets of a celebrity?

“Anyone who has assets and anyone who wishes for those assets to go to a loved one when they die, needs a will.” explained Mr. Carter. 

Both Mr. Carter’s, Ms. Butler’s and Ms. Bouchard’s books can be found in major retailer and local bookstores across Canada on right here on the Self-Counsel website.

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