When Robin Williams committed suicide last August, he left behind a wife, several children, and a large estate. He also left behind a rather sophisticated estate plan that protected his assets and which, initially, appeared to be bulletproof. Unfortunately, a dispute has arisen between Williams’s children from previous marriages and his widow, Susan Schneider Williams, concerning some of the actor’s personal property. The dispute has made its way to a San Francisco probate court, which has scheduled a hearing to resolve the matter in early June.
The center of Williams’s estate planning efforts focused on his real estate holdings. Williams owned at least two homes, one in Napa Valley worth almost $30 million, and one in Tiburon, California worth about $6 million. These homes were owned by a real estate holding trust, a type of trust specifically designed to protect real property.
When Williams married Susan Schneider Williams, he modified the terms of his real estate holding trust to allow his wife to remain in the Tiburon home until she died. Though the trust owned the home, Schneider Williams can live there, as well as control all the personal items that are located within the property.
As part of the inheritance given to the three children from his two previous marriages, Williams left them his personal property, including his jewelry, awards from the entertainment industry, and personal memorabilia.
The dispute largely centers on the definitions of memorabilia, jewelry, and tangible personal property. Schneider Williams is asking the court to exclude items, such as Williams’s watch collection, that are located in the Tiburon home. She is also alleging that the children removed some property from the Napa Valley home to which she was entitled.
Avoiding Problems and Learning from the Williams Estate
Disputes that arise because of disagreements over personal property or family heirlooms are very common when it comes to estate planning. Even though the Williams estate plan appears to have been comprehensive in how it protected his larger assets, the current dispute at issue appears to have arisen because of ambiguity about personal property.
To avoid such potential conflicts, it’s often best to be quite clear about your inheritance wishes. Avoiding legalese and including inheritance terms that state what your wishes are as clearly as possible is often effective in preventing potential conflicts.
Beyond being clear in your inheritance planning devices, you can also do a lot to prevent disputes by making your wishes known as soon as possible. Simply by telling your family what you want, and telling them what they are entitled to after you die, you can ensure that all of your loved ones are clear about your wishes. This is especially important in blended family situations or where family members might already have pre-existing tension between them.