3 Lessons About Estate Planning You Can Learn from the Robin Williams Dispute

Actor Robin Williams’ widow and three children recently settled a dispute over his estate that began just months after his death at age 63. At the heart of the matter was a question over the meaning of specific words in the trust paperwork – including which personal items should be considered “memorabilia” and “jewelry.” Questions over how to execute the trust and appraise the estate’s effects also complicated matters.

Fortunately, the family resolved the matter without extended court drama; however, the battle over the actor’s memorabilia offers important lessons for those seeking to create estate plans. Here are three things we can learn:

  1. Be as specific as possible when it comes to defining your possessions and creating instructions for their distribution.

The word “memorabilia” in Williams’s trust plan raised confusion among his wife and children and ultimately led to an argument. Did “memorabilia” constitute items like the actor’s cherished bicycle collection – or did it only cover things like his Academy Award?

Prevent disputes by making specific provisions for items like collections, family heirlooms, and items that pertain to family traditions. Otherwise, arguments over who might be entitled to emotionally-charged items can provoke costly and abrasive disputes between loved ones.

  1. Clarify the details of any support you leave to your spouse, children or other dependents.

Williams’s estate left the couple’s home in Tiburon, California to his wife – an arrangement his children did not dispute. However, his widow had to raise the issue of funding with the actor’s trust after his death, when she found herself staying in the house but without adequate funds to continue maintaining the residence or paying the bills.

If you intend your estate to support a loved one, a family business, or a charitable cause, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about strategic ways to establish this process. Your instructions can provide timelines and guidelines for paying support in a timely manner, so your loved ones have what they need when they need it. In addition, depending on the tools you use, you may be able to shield any assets set aside from so-called predators and creditors – e.g. future plaintiffs in a lawsuit, credit card companies, careless or venal family members, etc.

  1. Think through likely contingencies and plan accordingly.

As part of the dispute over Williams’s personal possessions, the actor’s trust found itself facing a pivotal question: who would appraise his possessions? The trust felt it had that responsibility; his widow considered hiring an independent appraiser for the same purpose.

If your personal possessions or other belongings will need to be appraised, name someone to handle this task, or specify who is authorized to choose an appraiser and under what circumstances. More broadly speaking, work with your attorney to anticipate potential issues like this one that the Williams family faced, and identify how to handle such contingencies.

Please call our team at (501) 221-7776 for highly qualified and experienced guidance with your estate planning.