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Inheritance: how the actors fared

And the Oscar (for estate planning) goes to…

It’s Oscar weekend and while I am usually most interested in who is wearing what, this year I am looking at some estate planning winners and losers.

Heath Ledger won his Oscar in 2009, for his performance in The Dark Knight. Due to his sudden death in 2008 his award was accepted by his sister and parents. These family members were also the beneficiaries under his will which he had prepared three years earlier and not updated to reflect the birth of his daughter.

The family settled matters out of court but the lesson to be learned is that it is critical for everyone to update their wills to reflect changes in circumstances such as the birth of a child, a new marriage, divorce, or even buying or selling a business.

Elizabeth TaylorElizabeth Taylor was known for her marriages, her business acumen, as well as her movies. The administration of her estate was straightforward and private. She created a trust which held her assets for the benefit her children, grandchildren, and charities. As a trust deed is not a public document, unlike a will, the contents of her estate have never been made public.

Taylor’s estate planning should receive another award to add to her two Oscars (Best Actress in 1961 and again in 1967).

There were many mistakes and pitfalls with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s estate including no tax planning but, Hoffman, whose portrayal of Capote earned him the Best Actor Oscar in 2006, didn’t do everything wrong. The planning he did do was bespoke as he took on board that estate planning is a not a “one-size fits all” exercise.

Singer Frank Sinatra won his Oscar award for Best Supporting Actor, in the 1954 movie, From Here to Eternity. Another talent of his, it transpired, was estate planning.

Sinatra did what many people in subsequent marriages fail to do — plan ahead to avoid a family dispute. Battles between adult children and a step parent can be avoided with a properly drafted Will.

Marlon Brando won two Oscars in recognition of his acting skills. Unfortunately, he wasn’t so skilled in estate planning and as such his estate was involved in more than 20 court actions, including claims of former employees saying he had promised them certain assets even though the verbally made gifts were not reflected in his estate planning documents.

Many people make the common mistake of assuming their family members will carry through their wishes, as expressed verbally, even if they don’t update their will to reflect these wishes. This is not always the case.

Julie McMahon, is senior associate, Gilson Gray (tax, trust and succession planning lawyer)

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