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Financial Planning > Trusts and Estates > Estate Planning

Lessons from the Robin Williams' estate plan mess

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When Robin Williams took his own life last August, he appeared to have all his affairs in order. His estate plan was clear about what he intended to leave to each of his three children, as well as to his wife, to whom he had been married for just three years.

But Susan Williams, Robin’s widow, started legal proceedings just before Christmas, contesting some of the provisions of his plan. What went wrong? And what can other estate planners and their clients learn from Williams’ missteps?

Williams’ estate plan was carefully and deliberately drawn up, including various trusts to benefit his three children and Susan. The trust established for his wife permits Susan to reside in the couple’s home in Tiburon, California, for the remainder of her life.

The trustees — Williams’ accountant and his estate planning attorney — were instructed to establish a fund to pay “all costs related to the residence,” for the rest of her life. She was also to receive the furniture, furnishings, and the contents of the Tiburon house, with the exception of items gifted to his children.

Robin Williams also owned an estate in Napa Valley, and he left that home and all its contents to the three children, in trust. The trust also listed items that he wanted to pass to his three children. Among them: his “clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan;” “memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry; plus tangible personal property located” in the Napa house.

That all seems reasonable and clear – except that in December, Susan Williams asked a probate court in California to take jurisdiction over the trust and interpret various provisions that she believes are in dispute. The three children filed a response through their own attorneys in opposition to Susan’s court filing.

Susan has asked the court to determine how to value the fund that will be created to pay for the expenses of the Tiburon home. She claims that “all costs related to the residence,” which the estate plan is supposed to guarantee, also include “all expenses associated with daily upkeep as well as unexpected renovations and improvements.” Williams’ children say she just completed a $30,000 renovation on that house.

Susan Williams acknowledged that the memorabilia from his career, most of which happened well before their marriage, should rightfully belong to his children. But she did lay claim to “Mr. Williams’s personal collections of knickknacks and other items that are not associated with his famous persona,” “as opposed to “specific items of tangible personal property as it relates to Robin Williams’s acting career.”

That includes a wide array of collectibles that Williams’ children feel rightly belong to them, as well as a valuable collection of watches. Mrs. Williams also feels entitled to not just the contents of the Tiburon home but items in storage elsewhere.

“These collections were carefully amassed by Mr. Williams over his lifetime and were precious to him,” the children’s legal response says. “As the Williams children grew, so did their father’s collections and they shared in their father’s excitement as additions were made to his collection.”

Clearly, this is a mess. How could any of it have been avoided?

  • Be very specific about who gets which items. Rather than lump together “memorabilia” or “items in the Tiburon house,” Williams could have made a list of all his collections and valuable property, stipulating who was to get each item. For a collector like Williams, that would have been a heroic task, but most clients don’t have nearly as much inventory to distribute.

  • Have a conference involving all the heirs, so everyone is on the same page. Such a conference would have helped make it clearer which items went to Williams’ children and which to his widow.

  • Have professional witnesses to the execution of the plan. If Williams had had that family meeting with an estate planner present, the planner might have had the presence of mind to ask questions like, “Does the perennial upkeep of the Tiburon house include renovations?” The presence of such a professional in these discussions would also prove invaluable if court proceedings ever arose.

  • Insert poison pill language to deter challenges to the plan. If a client is nervous about one of his or her heirs challenging the estate plan, there are ways to insert language changing the bequests if anyone initiates a suit involving the plan.


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