Keeping Your Estate Plan Private – A Lesson From Buffalo Bills Owner Ralph Wilson

It appears that Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. did his estate plan right because the public doesn’t have a clue about Mr. Wilson’s final wishes regarding the future of his football team.

Mr. Wilson, a long time resident of Detroit, died in March 2014 and just last month his last will and testament was filed for probate in Wayne County, Michigan.  Since wills are public court records, several reporters were quick to snatch up a copy of the will.  But much to their dismay, the will reveals very little about the late NFL owner’s estate because the will is a short “pour over will.”

A pour over will is a simple type of will that is used in conjunction with a revocable living trust.  It states that anything not transferred into the name of the revocable living trust prior to death gets “poured over” into the trust after death.  So it is the revocable living trust, not the pour over will, which spells out all of the details about who will get what and when they will get it.  And since revocable living trusts are private documents that only those mentioned in the trust – beneficiaries, trustees and their respective legal and tax representatives – are allowed to read, the public is left in the dark about all of the intimate details of the trustmaker’s final wishes.

Buffalo Bills fans were hoping that the filing of Mr. Wilson’s will for probate would give them a clue about the fate of their beloved team.  But even though multiple bids have been received for purchase of the Bills, including offers from Donald Trump, Terry Pegula (owner of NHL’s Buffalo Sabres), and a group headed by rock star Jon Bon Jovi, Mr. Wilson’s will does not reveal if those bidding must agree to keep the team in Buffalo.  Of course this is something that Mr. Wilson clearly wanted and may have included in his revocable living trust, but only the beneficiaries and trustees of the trust know for sure.  Having been born and raised in Pittsburgh I’m of course a lifelong Steelers fan, so I can certainly feel for Bills fans – if the Steelers ever left Pittsburgh it would be a catastrophe – and I’m actually pulling for the Bills to stay in Buffalo too.  But in the end money may talk and the team may walk and Bills fans won’t know for sure until after the deal is done.

What estate planning lesson can be learned from this situation?  Let’s contrast Mr. Wilson’s smart trust planning against the very public wills of actors James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  In the latter two cases the public has been allowed to take a very close look at each actor’s final – and in both cases unusual – wishes and how much each beneficiary will get and when they will get it.  That’s the real beauty of using a revocable living trust and not a will as the governing document of your estate plan – it keeps all of the intimate details of your final wishes confidential.

Photo:  Bills Steelers joint training camp, August 14, 2014, Latrobe, PA

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