The Fight over the Personal Effects of Robin Williams

When people think about estate planning, and specifically about who they would like to receive their assets when they are gone, they tend to concentrate on the things that have a high monetary value, like bank accounts, investments, or real estate.  But dividing up cash or other liquid assets is the easy part.  What is much trickier and likely to instigate intra-family disputes is the distribution of items of personal property that tend to have heightened sentimental value.  That is precisely the nature of the dispute that has broken out between the widow and the surviving children of Robin Williams.

Prior to his death this past August, it seems Williams had extensive estate planning in place to address his roughly $50 million estate.  The precise contents of his plan are not public but there are fairly good indications he created legacy trusts to protect the assets he wanted to leave to his three children and an irrevocable real estate trust designed to shelter his posh home in Tiburon and his ranch property from estate taxes.  He had also entered into a prenuptial agreement with Susan Williams, his third and surviving wife, who was not the mother of his three surviving children.

However, despite Williams’ fairly reasoned foresight, we have learned lately that a fierce legal battle has erupted between Susan and Robin’s three children.  The indications are not that the dispute has focused on the allocation of large portions of that $50 million estate.  Rather, the current dispute involves contesting claims on items of personal property such as bicycles and his personal collections of fossils, graphic novels, and action figures.  Granted, the fair market value of those particular items is undoubtedly heightened because of their connection with the beloved actor/comedian.  But the key point to observe is that distributing those personal items probably was not the main focus of his planning.

In a marriage where the surviving spouse is not the parent of the surviving children, the likelihood of acrimony is increased.  We have no idea whether Susan Williams and the children got along well before the death of Robin Williams but it is quite clear that their respective interests are not well aligned now.

The best way to deal with the allocation of personal property is to provide instructions for what is to happen to each and every item of personal property.  Of course, that may be burdensome if the list of items is lengthy.  So a practical compromise is to provide specific instructions for the distribution of particular pieces that stand out due to sentimental value or family history. Then, there should be instructions to the Executor or Trustee to use their discretion to distribute the other items in an equitable manner.  Sometimes when there is no good way to divide a single item amongst multiple beneficiaries who will inevitably fight about it, it may be a better approach to instruct the Executor or Trustee to sell the item and divide up the cash proceeds.  Depending on the circumstances, it may also be a good strategy to gift items to loved ones while you are alive.  When seniors are downsizing their home is an excellent time to do that.

In the trust planning we do for our clients, we often include provisions requested by clients to deal with the distribution of specific items like jewelry or musical instruments or items of furniture.  But apart from such specific language in the trust, we also customarily include a simple document we term the “Personal Property Memorandum.”  That is just a blank list where clients are invited to add whatever instructions they want, to direct their Trustee to distribute specific items of property.  We think that is a solid approach to deal with the issue.

Please call us at 860-769-6938 if you have any questions about the issues presented above or if you care to discuss any other planning issues with us.

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