A Year Later: Robin Williams’ Family is Still at Odds


Robin Williams with his son, Zak, and his wife, Susan in 2012. Photo from New York Times

Many wealthy people die having done inadequate estate planning, or none at all. This was not the case with late comedian Robin Williams, or so we thought. It seemed that Mr. Williams attempted to spell out his wishes in great detail to avoid family problems and probate court, by creating a sophisticated, tax-efficient estate plan, that included trusts to be managed by people in whom he had confidence. So why, if everything was spelled out clearly, has his family been in an out of court fighting over 300 items, including “memorabilia,” watches, and bicycles?

In his documents, Mr. Williams left an estate estimated at more than $50 million mostly to his wife of three years, Susan Schneider Williams, and his three children, Zak, Zelda, and Cody, from his first two marriages. His estate plan covered everything from his mansion in Napa Valley to his “memorabilia” and awards in the entertainment industry. It provides that his children were left “clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan,” and his “memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry.” His widow, on the other hand, is be able to live in their mansion in Tiburon, California, retain most of its contents, and will be given money for “all costs related to the residence.”

Since it seems everything is covered, why is the Williams’ family still fighting in and out of court? Let’s look at both sides.

Williams’ children claim:

• that the home contents include memorabilia items are designated for them;

• that Susan has refused to allow them to collect the personal belongings left to them in the will, challenged the trust’s definition of certain words, and started expensive renovations on her home;

• that Susan has continued to block their access to the Tiburon home, even as she has allowed others inside. Those others included appraisers who estimated the value of items that the children contend are rightfully theirs and workers who helped design and complete a $30,000 renovation, the court papers contend.

Susan Williams claims:

• The fund dedicated to expenses associated with the residence is being restricted by his children and that “all expenses associated with daily upkeep as well as unexpected renovations and improvements” should come out of the children’s share.

• She had no claim to items like the distinctive suspenders her husband wore on “Mork & Mindy,” because they are “related to Mr. Williams’s acting career in the entertainment industry.” But, she should be entitled to other items, like the tuxedo that he wore at their wedding, as well as “Mr. Williams’s personal collections of knickknacks and other items that are not associated with his famous persona.”

• She “became frightened of the co-trustees invading her home,” which is why she blocked their access.

Now, Robin Williams’ estate is tied up in court as the heirs argue the meaning of “memorabilia”.  They are also asking for clarity regarding “jewelry” and whether this includes his watch collection or if it is a “collection.”  In addition, the sides also need to resolve the value of a reserve fund to allow Susan Williams to maintain the home that the actor left to her.

What it all really means

The current legal issues of the Williams’ heirs probably say more about their relationship than the thoroughness of his estate planning (although it would have been helpful if his trust included a specific dollar amount to be held in trust as a fund to maintain the house that the spouse was allowed to reside in). However, their situation points to the potential problem with tangible personal property. Cash and other liquid investments can be easily divided equally among multiple heirs.  A wedding ring, antiques, and other types of tangible personal property that may have sentimental value cannot be divided equally. Therefore, items of considerable value (whether monetary value or sentimental value) should be listed in your estate planning documents with clear directions on how they are to be distributed.

How can you plan for your estate?

A Revocable Living Trust can help anyone who wants to help their loved ones avoid the pain, cost, stress, and publicity of probate, as Mr. Williams had intended.  No matter how modest your estate might be, having the right documents in place, and your financial house in order, can make a huge difference to your heirs if something happens to you.

• As with a Will, Revocable trusts can give you flexibility in making changes to your estate plan as needed.

• Revocable trusts also give you the ability to control how and when your loved ones will receive your assets.

• A Revocable Living Trust provides the best way to bypass probate because the Trust owns the property the day it is transferred to the Trust, and Trusts don’t die. Therefore, upon your death, the ownership in the property simply passes via the terms of the Trust, rendering probate unnecessary.

Keep in mind that a Revocable Living Trust does always not eliminate the need for a Will. A Pour-Over Will is still important to pass on any assets you have not transferred to the trust.

In addition, to avoid similar family issues that the Williams’ family is experiencing, it may be wise to supplement your will or trust with side letters of final instructions or guidance memos to clarify your intentions.  A side letter of instruction is a non-legally-binding document that provides your family with guidance upon your death on things that wouldn’t necessarily go into a legal document.  Guidance memos would include anything that your heirs might want or need to know that wasn’t outlined in your estate plan.  The memo could help your heirs avoid hassles and save your family a lot of stress and confusion.

The type of trust that makes the most sense for your family depends on the specifics of your particular family situation. Call us to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation to discuss strategies to fit your family’s situation:

Fairfax Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law Attorney: 202-587-2797

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