Even a Carefully Drafted Estate Plan Can't Prevent All Family Fights

Susan Schneider Williams, the third wife and widow of entertainer Robin Williams, has filed an action in a California Probate Court asking that Court to take jurisdiction over her husband's estate, and to interpret various provisions of the trust agreement he left for each of his family members.  Williams left 3 adult children by 2 prior marriages.

Last fall, I and many other estate planning attorneys wrote extensively about how well Robin Williams prepared for his death by establishing these trusts. This dispute, while somewhat limited in nature, provides an additional new lesson: Sometime people are going to fight no matter what you do to avoid it.

Sometime people are going to fight no matter what you do to avoid it.

Robin Williams had married Susan Schneider Williams only 5 years before his death.  They executed a prenuptial agreement.  His estate plan was updated in 2012.  Williams owned 2 homes, one in Tiburon, California, when he died, and another larger ranch estate in Napa Valley.  The Napa Valley estate, according to his plan, was to remain in his trust for the benefit and use of his 3 children exclusively.  The Tiburon home was likewise to remain in trust, but for the exclusive possession of his wife.  Robin Williams named his accountant and estate planning attorney to act as trustees of these trusts, and directed them to established funds to pay for all of the expenses of the respective homes.

What is at issue in petition filed by Susan Schneider Williams is what should happen to Mr. Williams' personal property.  Her trust specifically provided for her to receive the furniture, furnishings, and some of the contents of the Tiburon house.  The plan also provides that his three children are to have all of his “clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan” as well as Robin’s “memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry and the tangible personal property located” in the Napa Valley property.

Michigan estate planning attorneys Danielle & Andy Mayoras, authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, who write extensively on the estates of various celebrities, wrote the following on this dispute: "Susan’s court filing claims these provisions require court intervention because they are unclear.  She presents several arguments.  First, she contends that the word “memorabilia” should be read to include only “specific items of tangible personal property as it relates to Robin Williams’s acting career.”  Susan also feels that the term “jewelry” should exclude his collection of watches and that the contents of the Tiburon home should include items that are not actually located in the home, but may be in storage elsewhere.  She additionally asks the Court to determine how to value the fund that will be created to pay for the expenses of the Tiburon home.  Surprisingly, Susan includes a request that the court interpret the list of property  going to children to exclude all items in the Tiburon house, even though the trust specifically states otherwise."

Robin Williams and his second wife, with his 3 children Zak, Cody & Zelda

Robin Williams and his second wife, with his 3 children Zak, Cody & Zelda

Robin Williams’ children hired their own team of attorneys, and responded to the court filing.  They have said, in court documents, that the action brought by their step-mother has left them “heartbroken,”  contradictory to their father's wishes, and a blatant attempt to alter the trust provisions.

I see most of these fights started by 1 of 3 reasons

Anyone that has heard me speak about the family fighting that often occurs after a parent dies knows that I see most of these fights started by 1 of 3 reasons: 1.) Division of Personal Property; 2.) Loans to Adult Children; and 3.) End of Life Care.  True to form, the battle lines in Williams' family relate directly to the first reason.

According to author Helaine Olen, "Williams also appears to have done his best to divvy up his personal possessions without resorting to listing each and every one. All clothing, jewelry, and photos he owned prior to his 2011 marriage to Schneider Williams? They go to the children. His awards and other career “memorabilia”? The kids get them. His possessions at a home he owned in Napa? The three children again. The Marin County home Robin Williams shared with his wife? Schneider Williams. The possessions in that residence? Well, excluding all of the above, those are hers. So where does that leave the tuxedo Williams wore at the couple’s wedding? Or his many collections of things like graphic novels, walking sticks, Japanese anime, and movie posters? In court, that’s where."

Now, most families - when arguing over personal property - are doing so for control or sentimental reasons.  The Williams' family dispute is undoubtedly far more about money.  The personal items in dispute have tremendous value in the memorable collector market.  

Bottom Line

How does this dispute effect you?  First, do and maintain a proper estate plan - just like Robin Williams did. But you might say he did this, and still his family ended up in court.  That's right - but the estate plan will give the judge tremendous structure and insight into resolving this dispute.

When it comes to personal property, I recommend that you take the time to take a simple picture of all items of monetary or sentimental value in your family.

Second, even though you have done your estate plan - it is still important to communicate your wishes to your family.  When it comes to personal property, I recommend that you take the time to take a simple picture of all items of monetary or sentimental value in your family.  Then simply write on each picture to whom that item should go to.  This helps in many regards. Besides solving estate disputes, it is also helpful to your insurance agent if you ever suffer a loss. Additionally, we see many problems with missing items by the time the family gathers to settle the personal property after someone dies.  These pictures create another way to verify what assets you own.

I suspect the Williams' estate problems are far more driven by relationship issues between Mr. Williams' surviving spouse and his adult children from his prior marriages.  I also expect this matter to be quickly resolved - because of the estate plan Robin Williams took the time to prepare.