Robin Williams' Estate Planning Earns Praise

Jackie Bedard
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Attorney, Author, and Founder of Carolina Family Estate Planning

Williams' estate planning earns praise

By now, the American public has become accustomed to stories of Hollywood actors' deaths and their various financial missteps. 

There was James Gandolfini, who left his wife with only 20 percent of his estate, meaning the other 80 percent didn't qualify for the unlimited tax-free transfer of money to a spouse. The cost of that was nearly $30 million to taxes.

There was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who left his three children nothing in his will. And because he wasn't married to his long-time partner and the mother of his three kids, more than $30 million of his estimated $35 million wealth was fully taxable.

So for estate planning attorneys and financial experts, it's refreshing to see the example of planning Robin Williams left behind when he died August 11.

Doing it right

In his career, Williams won an Oscar, two Emmys and five Golden Globe awards, and the movies in which he was a leading actor grossed more than $6 billion worldwide. Two years ago he was worth an estimated $130 million, according to Forbes. Between two previous divorces and the single-season run of his recent television comedy The Crazy Ones, Williams' wealth was near $50 million at his death, Forbes says, adding that the estimate may be high.

According to published reports, says DailyFinance , Williams created at least two trusts, one for his real estate and one for his children.

The first obvious benefit of setting up a trust is that it is not subject to the probate process, meaning Williams' affairs will not be part of the court record. Meaning that, unlike Gandolfini and Hoffman, it will remain private.

In his real estate trust - called Domus Dulcis Domus Holding Trust, which is Latin for "Home Sweet Home" - Williams reportedly placed his Napa Valley mansion that rests on 643 acres; it has been listed for sale since April for $29.9 million, according toInvestmentNews. He also owned a 6,500-square-foot house in Tiburon, California, worth an estimated $6 million. Although both are subject to mortgages, the equity left behind is around $25 million. 

The other trust, which TMZ obtained and leaked, was created in 2009 when Williams was in the midst of divorce to his second wife, Forbes says. The trust names his three children as beneficiaries, with benefits to be paid out when they reach ages 21, 25 and 30. This trust passes the money to his children whether he was dead or alive, so it likely was executed as part of his divorce, Forbes says, adding that it is not known how much money was in the trust.

The benefits

Forbes says that regardless of Williams' motivations for setting up his real estate trust, it shows he used sophisticated estate planning to protect his family. It appears that the holding trust was executed, in part, to minimize estate taxes. Irrevocable real estate holding trusts, when established and used correctly, often can place valuable real estate holdings outside a person's taxable estate, Forbes says. And with an estimated $25 million in real estate holdings, it could mean generous savings for Williams' family. 

Forbes says that the children's trust funds, the real estate and any life insurance will not technically be part of Williams' estate. However, ongoing royalties from his movie and television work, earnings from new deals that use his image and likeness, and future releases of new material would be managed through his estate unless he had assigned those rights to another trust or corporate entity. These, Forbes says, should be worth a significant amount. 

And that's one more way Williams did things right when setting up his affairs before his death.

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.