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Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Will Provides Insight Into Estate Planning Process

Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died on February 2, 2014. His last will and testament was recently filed in a New York City probate court. Curiously, the will directed Hoffman’s executor to distribute his estate according to the provisions of New York intestacy law, which normally applies to estates in which there is no will. In this case, that presumably means Hoffman’s entire estate will be equally divided among his three minor children. Hoffman had a longtime partner, Marianne O’Donnell, but they never married and, according to media reports, separated shortly before his death. O’Donnell, however, was still named executor of Hoffman’s estate.

Distinguishing Desires from Directions

A number of media outlets mentioned a particular clause in Hoffman’s will, in which he asked that his son-he and O’Donnell only had one child at the time he signed the will-be raised in New York City, or alternatively in either Chicago or San Francisco. In reality though, the will made no such demand, and O’Donnell will presumably retain full custody of all three children. Had she died before Hoffman, however, his will nominated a guardian-O’Donnell’s sister-to assume custody. In that event, the will asked the guardian to take into account Hoffman’s “strong desire, but not direction” that his son be raised in either New York, Chicago or San Francisco. Nothing in the will though restricts O’Donnell’s right to determine where her children should live.

It’s not unusual for individuals to make these types of “last requests” in a will. As we noted last year, another famous actor, the late James Gandolfini, made a request in his will that his children retain a piece of property “in our family for as long as possible.” In California, such “precatory” language has no legal force. They are not commands to the executor-or in the hypothetical case raised by Hoffman’s will, a guardian-but simply words of advice.

Update Your Will Regularly

It’s also notable that Hoffman signed his will in 2004, almost 10 years before his death. The will failed to account for his two children born after 2004. That does not affect their right to inherit under the will, but it does highlight the all-too-common neglect demonstrated towards estate planning.

Such neglect can prove costly. Just recently in California, another high-profile actor, Paul Walker, died and left an estate with an estimated value of over $25 million. Like Hoffman, Walker signed a will many years before his death. In Walker’s case, it was also before he became a major star for his role in the “Fast & Furious” films. His 13-year-old will failed to include common estate planning devices designed to reduce federal estate tax liability. As a result, his estate may owe the U.S. Treasury a significant tax payment.

Even if you’re not a Hollywood star who goes before his time, it’s important to review and update your will on a regular basis. Life events, such as the birth of a child, divorce or financial success, can alter your estate planning requirements. If you’re looking to make or revise a will, consult with an experienced California estate planning attorney. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today with any questions.

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