What Robin Williams’ Estate Planning Fiasco Can Teach Us

Category: Estate Planning

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On August 11th of last year, fans across the country were heartbroken to learn of comedian and actor Robin Williams’ suicide. The 63-year-old Oscar and Grammy winner was discovered in the home he shared with his current wife, Susan Schneider, in Tiburon, California.  The actor left behind a world of bewildered fans and a grieving family.

For Robin Williams’ family, the months following his death should have been time to mourn, heal, and honor the comedian’s life. Instead, his family has spent the last six months involved in a heated legal battle over the Williams’ estate.

The dispute is between Robin William’s widow and third wife, Susan Schneider Williams, and his three children, Zelda, Zak, and Cody Williams. Both sides are fighting over Williams’ belongings, including his clothes, photographs, comic books, and action figures.

A Deeper Look into Battle Over the Williams’ Estate

Before Williams died, he crafted what he probably believed to be a solid last will and testament. And indeed, it was an excellent example of a carefully designed, comprehensive, and sophisticated estate plan – but it failed to account for a few minor details.

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Williams created a trust that allows his wife to live in their home near Tiburon, California for the remainder of her life. The late actor charged an estate planning attorney with control of a trust to establish a fund to pay for all the expenses of the home. Williams also left the furniture and some of the belongings within the home to Susan.

To his children, Williams left his Napa Valley home, along with all of its contents. Williams included precise instructions on what he wanted to leave to his children in his trust, which included his clothing, jewelry, and photographs taken before his marriage to Susan, and his memorabilia and awards. He indicated that everything in his Tiburon residence should pass to Susan—with the exception of the items he specifically left for his children.

While Williams’ estate plan sounds carefully considered and fairly straightforward, it was not enough to prevent doubt, confusion, and conflict among his surviving family. His wife Susan filed action against Williams’ children last December, claiming his children were trying to take certain possessions from their home in Tiburon that she believed were left to her. Susan asked a probate court to take jurisdiction over Williams’ trust and interpret various provisions she believes are being violated. In response, the three children filed opposition through their own attorneys.

Susan asked the California probate court to make decisions on how the fund left to pay for the expenses of the Tiburon home should be valued. Since the fund was intended to cover all costs related to the home, Susan argued that this should include expenses related to renovations.

Susan also claims that Williams’ personal knickknacks and other items should be left to her if they were not associated with his acting career. This would include a variety of collectibles, including a collection of valuable watches.

Estate Planning Strategies That Could Have Prevented the Mess

Robin Williams’ family’s messy legal battle is an unfortunate, but all-too-common experience for families dealing with death.Click To Tweet

The Williams’ situation can teach us a lot about estate planning if we consider the steps he could have taken to prevent it.

Be as specific as possible. When planning your estate, make a list of all belongings and property of both monetary and sentimental value. After determining the possessions that mean the most to you and your family, stipulate which member should receive each item. You can avoid confusion and conflict among your survivors by being as specific as possible, rather than grouping possessions together in broad categories such as “belongings in our Tiburon home” or “memorabilia,” as Williams did.

Talk to your family about your estate plan. As hard as it may be, it’s important to talk to your family about your estate plan so everyone is on the same page. During this conversation, you can make your intentions and reasoning clear, and answer any questions your family might have. Had Williams spoken to his family about his estate plan, he could have helped clarify which belongings were to be left to whom.

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Consult with an estate planning attorney. An estate planning attorney can serve as a knowledgeable and impartial mediator, who can point out any holes, inconsistencies, or unclear provisions in your estate plan. An estate planning attorney can help facilitate your estate planning discussion with your family, answering questions and providing guidance during this sensitive time. And if court proceedings do arise, your estate planning attorney would be able to protect your wishes. If the Williams’ estate plan execution had been witnessed by a professional estate planning attorney, this lawyer would be able to clarify his true intentions.

For more advice on crafting an estate plan that avoids conflict and ensures your property is passed smoothly to your heirs, contact a Florida estate planning attorney.

About the Author:

Christopher Q. Wintter is the founder of Wintter & Associates, P.A. and a board-certified expert in Trust and Estate matters by the Florida Bar. With more than 24 years’ experience as a practicing attorney, he also serves as an instructor and faculty member for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)—the nation’s leading provider of legal advocacy skills training to practicing attorneys—and has earned the AV® Preeminent™ rating with LexisNexis Martindale Hubbell. He was also selected for inclusion in Florida Super Lawyers for 2011 and 2012 in Estate and Trust Litigation.