Feb 4, 2015

Robin Williams' family tangles over his estate

Millions of dollars. Many marriages. Several children from those marriages. Mix in a dash of estate plan ambiguity, stir well and voila: The perfect recipe for an estate battle. It occurs in middle class families after the death of a loved one. But when it happens in the family of the rich and famous, headlines ensue. And that is just what is happening now in the family of the late Robin Williams.

The comedic genius and award-winning actor died by his own hand in August 2014. Family members are now butting heads over his assets, and in the process making public the details of his trust that otherwise would have remained private.

Williams is survived by three children from two prior marriages, and his third wife, Susan Schneider Williams, whom he married in 2011. She reportedly signed a prenuptial, but its provisions are unknown. Williams' will refers to a trust he set up that gives his three children the bulk of his estate, including most of his personal effects and memorabilia from his long entertainment career. Those items include bicycles, fossils, jewelry, photos, sports memorabilia, graphic novels, action figures, statuettes for his Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy wins, and his famous "Mork and Mindy" suspenders. The trust also calls for his widow to continue to reside in the Tiburon, California home they shared. The actor owned a second, larger home in Napa, California, which is to go to the children. 

In December Schneider-Williams petitioned the court, asking for clarification on just what personal effects and memorabilia she was entitled to. She alleges that the trustee for the children's trust entered her Tiburon home just days after Williams' death and removed many items that were not intended for the children. She contends that since Williams wanted her to continue residing in the home, its contents should pass to her. Only items related to Williams' career in entertainment, and those located in the Napa home, should go to the children, she argues.

The children fired back in January. They claim that Schneider-Williams is acting against their father's wishes "by challenging the plans he so carefully made for his estate,” and attempting to "prevent them from receiving what their father wanted them to receive." The children contend that their father placed no geographical restrictions on the personal items he wanted to pass to them.

The two sides also differ on how to identify the items that are specifically related to Williams' career. While the suspenders that were part of his "Mork and Mindy" costume are indisputably related to his career, what about his collection of action figures and other toys? Did those items spark his imagination and contribute to his success as a performer - and might it be reasonably argued that they are related to his career? 

We do not know how the conflict will be resolved, or when. My guess is that we will hear much more about it in the months, and possibly even the years to come. The conflict serves as a valuable reminder that your estate planning documents must express your intentions with unassailable precision. Ambiguity may be tolerable when you can clarify yourself, but it has no place in your estate plan, which must speak for you when you are gone. Any provision that is open to interpretation might just be the match that ignites a family feud.

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