Celebrity Examples Highlight How Wills and Trusts Affect Your Privacy

Many people follow the lives of their favorite celebrities through tabloids, magazines, and Reality TV shows. However, when a deceased celebrity leaves behind a will, the interest of knowing what they left behind (and how much!) rises for fans and professionals alike. Recently, wills left by James Gandolfini and Michael Jackson highlight some of the differences in privacy that can be obtained through the use of a will and/or trust.

One common misconception is that wills are private. Actually, wills are public in nature. Most states, North Carolina include, have laws that require a will to be deposited with the courts so that any creditors or heirs (or long lost cousins for that matter) have the opportunity to review the document. A second area of confusion is that if a person holds a revocable living trust, they should not have a will to supplement it. That may be true in certain situations, but it’s usually a good idea for a person with a revocable living trust to also have a “pour over will.” A “pour over will” is a catch-all document which leaves to the trust anything not specifically held in the trust.

Not to panic, there is light at the end of the tunnel for those who wish to maintain privacy over what the public can see in their will. The “king of pop,” Michael Jackson, held a revocable living trust which itself is private. The only document that had to be deposited with the court was his “pour over will,” which didn’t have to mention any names or dollar amounts to be given away. Although fairly anticlimactic for his fans and gossip columnists, Mr. Jackson didn’t disclose any names and numbers in his “pour over will,” and ultimately he was able to keep his affairs private upon his death.

On the other hand, James Gandolfini wasn’t so lucky. Mr. Gandolfini didn’t have a revocable living trust (or any trust for that matter), so the public was able to view his will. Readers learned from his will that, among other things, Gandolfini gifted $200,000 to his personal assistant and left 20% of the residuary – or whatever amount the estate was worth after specific gifts and estate taxes were paid, to his wife. Interestingly, if the estate has nothing left after specific gifts and taxes are paid, residuary beneficiaries won’t take home a dime. Fortunately for the widowed Ms. Gandolfini, that won’t be the case here.

By looking at these fun celebrity examples, we see the different levels of privacy that wills and trusts provide. If privacy is a priority for you, a revocable living trust with a “pour over will” may best suit your needs. Then again, your will may not get as much attention as some world famous celebrities when it is deposited at your local courthouse.