• Jeff Sproul

Lessons Learned from Robin Williams

Updated: May 9, 2020

Robin Williams Continues To Impact a Generation.

By most standards Robin Williams created a thorough, sophisticated, tax-efficient estate plan before his tragic death by suicide in August 2014.

Structured in a manner that appeared to be uncontestable, with specific trusts covering everything from his mansion in Napa Valley, valued at $29.9 million, to his “memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry” Williams carefully outlined in detail how his estate was to be distributed. However, attorneys for the estate and his heirs recently appeared before a probate judge in San Francisco Superior Court as the result of an ongoing battle between Williams’ widow and his three children from previous marriages. How could a plan seemingly well thought-out have gone so wrong?

Kids fight over the china and silverware. These are the things that get people upset.

In addition to entertainment industry memorabilia, Williams also left his children “tangible personal property” in his Napa Valley home. Williams’ widow, in a court filing, requested clarity on the meaning of “memorabilia” and asked that jewelry left for his children exclude his watch collection. After they married in 2012, Robin Williams had amended one of his trusts to enable his wife to live in their 6,500 square foot waterfront home in Tiburon, California, valued at $6 million, for the rest of her life and retain most of the home’s contents in the event of his death. In the court filing, however, she asked for all property in the Tiburon home, including items the trust specifically designated for Williams’ children. She also filed a suit in December alleging that his three children had taken some of his clothing, photographs and other possessions from their home. To avoid a jewelry-watch-photo challenge, an estate needs to be specific. This uncontestable estate has amounted to anything but.

Lawyers try to be very clear in the drafting of estate documents however everything is left up to interpretation.

Spousal Trusts are often recommended for blended families because they provide for the surviving spouse, while retaining control of the trust’s assets after the surviving spouse’s death. A surviving spouse could remain in the family home, for example, but the house and assets ultimately belong to the children. Spousal Trusts safeguard situations like that of the Williams family. Although they may not make everybody involved happy, they avoid this type of division where people are using sticky notes on everything they are claiming.

Supplementing a will or trust with side letters, guidance memos or video messages provides further clarity by expressing in very clear language, not necessarily legalese, the intentions for carrying out the estate plan, thus reducing the potential for conflict. Nobody likes a movie spoiler, but a spoiler alert for a will is not a bad idea. Give your children and other loved ones an indication of what you plan to leave them. Set expectations, so those involved, in this case the widow and children, have some idea of what the plan might call for so they are not learning about it for the first time following a tragic event. After people lose a loved one, they’re going to be grieving. They don’t want surprises.

A recent court appearance of Williams’ heirs probably says more about the relationship between his widow and his three children than the thoroughness of his estate planning. The judge apparently agreed: He gave the heirs two months to resolve the dispute by themselves.

For more information on how Northland Wealth can assist you in your estate planning please contact our office.

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