We are going to talk about estate planning tips for our favorite Sopranos characters. I mean what’s better than the Sopranos and some estate planning?
Back in the day, The Sopranos was a must-watch in my house. My kids were a lot younger, so we didn't have to worry about all of the "adult" moments in the show, and it was fun to chill on Sunday night with my wife and watch it. If you don't know me or my family, I am 100% Italian. My kids are only 50%, but if you ask them what they way, they'll both yell "Italian"! That means growing up we had dinner at my grandmother's every Sunday, and that the WHOLE family showed up. Aunts, Uncles, cousins, grandchildren, you name it. Everyone showed up and ate together.
My grandmother cooked for 20 people, EVERY Sunday. Sometimes it was more than 20 people because members of the extended family could show up at any time, and they all got fed too. It was great to bring my wife, and then my children, into the Sunday dinner tradition. Those are cherished memories.
Anyway, during many of those Sunday dinners, we talked about the Soprano family since they were just like us! Well, apart from the murder, crime, and drugs of course. Their family dynamic matched ours - loud Italians, together for dinner, laughing, eating pasta, and just being together. In my family, much like Tony Soprano's, we were always all wrapped up in each other's lives, and we still are.
I heard there was going to be a Prequel movie released, and it got me excited about my favorite characters, all over again. Due to COVID, the 2020 movie premiere was pushed to 2021, but that will give me time to re-watch the whole series. I'm psyched about it, and James Gandolfini's own son is going to be playing the young Tony Soprano in the movie. They may even use some CGI to paste him into the film, as they did with an episode of the show that included Tony's (awful) mother Livea, after the actress who played her passed away. I was thinking about the new movie, and naturally, the lawyer in me started wondering about how estate planning would look for one of my other favorite "Families".
Let's start with the godfather himself, Tony Soprano, and his wife Carmela.
For those people familiar with the show, Tony and Carmela have two children, Meadow and A.J. They are both college-aged. Given what we know about Tony and Carmela, I have a lot of estate planning advice for them.
First of all, being in the mafia is what I would consider a dangerous job. When clients come to me that have dangerous jobs, I like to recommend life insurance be put in place so that the family is taken care of if anything happens to the primary wage earner. Tony definitely needs it. Then I would recommend Tony and Carmela start with the Big Three. The Big Three consists of a Last Will and Testament, a healthcare proxy, and a power of attorney. Those documents are the centerpieces for almost any estate plan. For Tony and Carmela, we would start there.
I would also suggest that they place their home in a Trust. We all know that Tony and Carmela have money from all of their illicit activities. It is also very likely that most of that money is not claimed on their taxes or on anything that they file with the IRS. For that reason, they may still be able to qualify for Medicaid. However, their home could be subject to Medicaid liens for long-term care if the home is in their names. A Medicaid Trust would take care of that, and protect their home from long-term care liens.
A family trust would also be appropriate for Tony and Carmela so if anything happened to the two of them, their children would be taken care of. I think both of the children, or at least the younger child, A.J., has demonstrated over the course of the show that he is not financially responsible, nor is he very bright. I would suggest a family trust where a third party, somebody who is good with money, were to manage the inheritance for A.J., as opposed to giving it to him. If the money was given to him directly, he would no doubt waste all of it, buying a dance club or on some other ridiculous business scheme.
Tony does have a boat as well (and many characters met their end on that boat). The name of his boat is the Stugots. That's an Italian word - I won't tell you exactly what it means. For folks that have boats or classic cars, those types of vehicles could be placed into what we call a "car trust". Even though we call it a car trust, it can work for boats! It makes sure that if something happens to you, the boat or the car stays in the family and is left to whomever you would like it to go to. For example, Tony might want the boat to go to Meadow if something happened to him, but he might not want it to go to his idiot son-in-law. Tony might not be thrilled about the idea of his son-in-law sitting out on his boat in the middle of the ocean.
Lastly, I would suggest a gun trust for Tony and Carmela. In Massachusetts, we have very specific rules regarding firearms and how firearms can be passed down to beneficiaries if you were to pass away. Anyone that has seen the show knows that Tony has quite a large collection of firearms of different sizes and types. A gun trust would allow him to leave those weapons to a person of his choice, whether it's his son or somebody else. It ensures that the firearms are properly cataloged and left to somebody that is licensed to carry them.
I'm sure the Sopranos didn't really care about being licensed to carry, but I'm trying to make recommendations within the bounds of the law here. From the show, we know that following the rules isn't necessarily very important to Tony Soprano, but let's assume that he wants to at least do this right so that the kids don't get pinched on a gun charge.
Next is Paulie Gaultieri, aka Paulie Walnuts
Paulie is single and has no children. However, he does take care of his mother who lives in a retirement community. We would suggest for Paulie the standard Big Three so that he has a Will, a healthcare proxy, and a power of attorney. Since he does not have children, he would want to name a separate person, possibly Tony, to be his healthcare proxy and power of attorney. Given his mother's advanced age and condition, he would not want to name her for those positions.
On the show, his mother did eventually pass away, but for purposes of this article, let's assume that she's still alive and that he is still taking care of her. If the time were appropriate, I would have suggested long-term care insurance for Paulie's mom. Also, if she were able to qualify for Medicaid or MassHealth, I would suggest a Medicaid or MassHealth application and assistance with putting their assets in order so that she could qualify and ease some of the financial burden associated with living in a nursing home. When she did pass, I don't believe that she left him any inheritance. I would have suggested life insurance for her in at least an amount that would be sufficient to cover her burial and final expenses.
Now we have Tony's cousin Christopher.
For those who watched the show, they know that Christopher did not survive all the way to the finale. He and Tony were in a car accident, and Christopher died as a result (with a little help from Tony!). Christopher was married and had a young daughter. Once again, I would start with the Big Three for him. I would also suggest a family trust to make sure that his young daughter is taken care of. If Christopher had life insurance, we would likely suggest a life insurance trust to help reduce Christopher's estate tax burden. If you have life insurance and it is placed in an appropriate life insurance trust, you can remove the value of that life insurance death benefit from your taxable estate and help keep your estate tax liability very low.
Since he was married, and because it appeared he had substantial assets, including a big house and some fancy cars, I would also suggest a credit shelter trust for Christopher. The credit shelter trust would help ensure that Christopher's estate tax deduction would not die with him. Every person, we're going under Massachusetts rules now, is entitled to a $1 million estate tax exemption. If you pass away without any planning, your exemption dies with you. Instead, we use the credit shelter trust. It makes sure that each person is able to use their entire $1 million tax exemption from estate taxes. That means that we could help keep the estate tax bill that would have to be paid by Christopher's wife and daughter very low. In Massachusetts, it would mean we could exclude up to $2 million from his taxable estate and leave that estate tax free if we plan appropriately with the credit shelter trust.
As I mentioned, he did have at least one fancy car. If he chose to, he could put that car into a classic car trust to preserve it for his daughter. If he did not have any strong feelings about the car itself, then it could easily be liquidated or simply granted to his wife upon his passing
The consiglierie, Silvio Dante.
Silvio was Tony's consigliere. That's an Italian term often associated with mafia characters - it is like an advisor to the family. For Silvio, I would once again suggest the Big Three. I might also suggest the credit shelter trust for him so that we could minimize his estate tax burden. For those familiar with the show, Silvio was shot in the final season, but he did not pass away. He ended up being in a vegetative state, and it appeared to be permanent. He was in a coma and it looked like he was never going to wake up. That is a perfect example of why a healthcare proxy is necessary.
A healthcare proxy document allows you to name someone to make healthcare decisions for you. In this case, Silvio could name his wife, Gabby. There are ancillary documents that go along with the healthcare proxy, such as what we call a Living Will, that would have helped here. A living Will allows you to express your wishes in the event that you were in a vegetative state, being kept alive on machines, such as respirators and feeding tubes, and whether or not you would want to be kept alive in that fashion. If you did not want to be kept alive like that, the document allows you to express to your healthcare proxy that you want them to pull the plug. A living Will and healthcare proxy would be very important for Silvio and his wife, Gabby, especially in light of what happened to him.
If Gabby were to consult with an estate planning attorney, because Silvio was in this vegetative state and the plan or the possibility of him staying in that vegetative state for a long time was likely, she could set up what's called a supplemental needs trust for him. That's a trust that allows money to be left for a person with special needs, and it is done so in such a way that having this trust does not count against them when applying for government benefits. If we were to leave money to a special needs individual, directly, it could disqualify them for benefits. Instead, we set up a supplemental needs trust. Sadly, that could be very appropriate for Silvio.
Our last and final character is Sal Bumpansero, also known as Big P.
For those of you familiar with the show, you understand why I didn't want to write out his whole nickname. Sal did not survive into the second season. It turned out that he was working with federal agents and became a rat. He often wore a wire and spied on The Sopranos and reported their dealings back to the FBI. Eventually, Tony Soprano figured out what Sal was doing. They took him on a boat ride and he never came back. Let's just say that he was met with gunshots, a plastic bag, and some heavy chain heaved off of Tony's boat into the ocean, never to be seen again. Like the others, I would hope he had the Big Three.
In a last Will and Testament, there are provisions for disappearances. If you were to disappear and never be seen again, at what point would you want your family to consider you as being passed away so that they could access your death benefits?
Obviously Sal took a ride and never came back, but there was no way for anybody to know whether he actually died or just ran away. I can put provisions in a Last Will and Testament that say that if you are missing for a period of 60 days or 90 days or longer, or whatever the case may be, you could be declared dead and allow your family to have access to your assets and probate your estate. That way things like life insurance benefits entitled to your home do not get held up by the fact that you're missing. Everybody that watches the show, in this case, knows that Sal was long dead, but his family would not be able to prove it.
As an additional bonus, there is one more character that I'd like to mention, and that is Tony's Uncle, Junior.
Uncle Corrado "Junior" Soprano suffered from dementia towards the end of the show, to the point where he mistook Tony for another gang member and Uncle Junior shot him. Tony did recover and Junior did end up in a nursing home. Before entering the nursing home, he ran away and was lost several times, only to be found by police and brought home. On the show, Junior was not married, but he did have many helpers and caregivers, including his close relationship with Bobby Bacallieri (a/k/a Bobby Backa-lah). He could have named Bobby as his power of attorney and his healthcare proxy so that Bobby could take action on behalf of Uncle Junior, to make sure that Uncle Junior's affairs were handled appropriately.
Those are the estate planning tips I would give to my favorite Sopranos characters.
You may notice that we spoke a lot about trusts. If you are interested in learning more about trusts and learning what they do, we have a new report on trusts you can download for free here. You can also request a hard copy from my office, where you can see the ways to use trusts properly and the ways that trusts can really screw up your estate plan if they are not done right. It's a great resource that we provide at no charge, and you can request a copy of my free estate planning book as well.
If you have any questions about The Sopranos, their estate planning, or any other estate planning questions in general, please reach out to us at 978-657-7437! If you're ready to start your estate planning, schedule a Strategic Planning Session with us!