Robin Williams Estate Battle Carries Lessons for Clients

Jackie Bedard
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It's been about six months since the world lost beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams to suicide. Amidst their grief, his surviving family are now in the spotlight for fighting over his estate. We wrote about his estate plan in September, outlining the thoughtful system in which he designed trusts for his children and real estate.

Since then, a legal dispute has erupted over personal belongings between Williams' widow, Susan Schneider Williams, and his three children from previous marriages, Zak, Zelda and Cody Williams. According to CNN.com, they are fighting over the deceased's clothing, collectibles, and personal photographs. ( http://tinyurl.com/n8tj78o

Before Williams died, the star seemingly had done his due diligence in putting together a solid estate plan. He and his wife of less than three years had a prenuptial agreement, and he had an updated will and specific trust agreements. However, as CNN points out, all that preparation wasn't enough to spare his family the infighting that he most likely had hoped to avoid.

There's a lesson here for our clients, especially those in blended families. When people first think about developing an estate plan, they often focus on big ticket assets, like a house, bank accounts and investments. Sadly, they often overlook personal items like mementoes, collections and items with sentimental value. 

According to the New York Times, court papers were filed by family members regarding memorabilia, including Williams' impressive collections of bicycles, toys and fossils. 

Most personal belongings cannot be disbursed equally to more than one beneficiary. A sculpture, a coat, a handmade quilt, or a musical instrument - none of these can be split into percentages the same way you can split a pile of cash. These things carry emotional value, which is difficult to measure and divide.

The NYT reported Williams' widow filed court papers saying she was only given three days' notice that trustees intended to enter and remove from the home certain items the trustees asserted were bequeathed to the star's children. The children countered her filing by saying their step-mother blocked their access to the home but had appraisers inside to estimate the value of items that they contend are rightfully theirs.

As attorneys, we want to help our clients protect their families from the sort of squabble Robin Williams' heirs are suffering. CNN's article recommended three steps that we agree on.

First, clients should decide what's being given and to whom. Non-titled property can become sticky issue if it has sentimental or monetary value. Clients should identify belongings that mean the most to them and to their family and declare in writing who should receive them. 

Second, clients should create a fair system for connecting their goals to their bequests. Personal belongings don't have to be divided equally to be considered "fair," just thoughtfully and with consideration. Who gets to pick first? The oldest child? Should there be a rotation system? In addition, clients should be clear about who is to be involved or in charge of decision making about disbursement of those items. It might help to have an outside arbiter to determine disputes when two people want the same item, CNN says.

Thirdly, clients need to announce their wishes. In doing so, they should not only tell loved ones what they are leaving to whom but also why. While some heirs might not agree - or be happy about it - they will at least have been given the reasons behind a decision, and court battles will be far less likely. 

We encourage clients to write a letter of instruction for their wishes regarding the disbursement of personal belongings, to sign and date the letter, and to keep it with their will (which should contain a provision mentioning the letter's existence). The letter should be detailed in describing items, and it's a good idea to include photos of specific belongings to eliminate any confusion.

To learn more about common estate planning issues, check out our free guide, Estate Planning Pitfalls: The 12 Most Common Threats to Your Estate & Your Family's Future, or to discuss your estate planning concerns, please call our office at 919-443-3035 or use our contact form.​