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Robin Williams’ contested estate raises important issues about estate litigation over personal items, writes Estate Litigation Senior Associate, Melissa Tucker.

The death of comedic genius Robin Williams  (July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014) from suicide, caused an outpouring of grief throughout the world. The cherished American actor was lauded by critics as one of the funniest comedians of all time. Revered by child and adult audiences alike, Williams was much-loved for his improvisation skills, voice caricatures, and depth as a dramatic artist.

Williams starred in many films which achieved critical and commercial success, including Patch Adams (1998), Aladdin (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Jumanji (1995), The Birdcage (1996), and Good Will Hunting (1997) for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In his personal life, Williams’ favourite books included The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Williams was a philanthropist, long-time supporter of the Democratic Party and later in life devoted his time to cycling, having taken up the sport to overcome a cocaine addiction.

Williams was survived by his third wife, Susan Schneider, to whom he was married for three years, and three adult children from his previous two marriages, whose ages ranged from 22 to 31. His wife attributed his tragic suicide to severe depression and a struggle with Lewy body disease, which causes symptoms of anxiety and paranoia not too dissimilar to Parkinson’s.

What was included in Robin Williams’ estate?

Williams was reportedly worth around $130 million two years ago, however that figure seems well off since Williams later said that he was close to bankruptcy. Recent estimates have pegged his net worth at about $50 million.

Soon after his death, Williams’ widow and his children went to court in a fight over the late comedian’s estate. In what was filed in the court, Schneider accused the comedian’s children from his two previous marriages of taking items without her permission and had asked the court to exclude the contents of the home shared with Williams from the jewellery, memorabilia and other items he said the children should have.

The children counter-claimed that Schneider was adding insult to injury by trying to change the trust agreement and rob them of the late actor’s clothing and other personal items.

The Williams children were heartbroken that proceedings by, Williams’s wife of less than three years, had acted against his wishes by challenging the plans he so carefully made for his estate.

The attorney for Schneider said that his client was only seeking guidance from the court about the meaning of certain terms in the trust.

Robin Williams wearing the suspenders part of the estate dispute.

What did the Trust provide for Robin Williams’ personal items?

Williams’ trust granted the children his memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry and some other specific personal items, according to court documents. Schneider said that because he wanted her to continue to live at the home they shared in California it makes sense that he intended only for his children to have the specific personal items delineated that were kept at another home he owned in Napa. Any other interpretation would lead to Schneider’s home being stripped whilst she still lived there.

This interpretation was disputed by Williams’ children, who argued there were no specific limits on the items.

The two sides also disagreed over items in storage, watches Williams owned and his memorabilia.

Schneider agreed that the rainbow suspenders he wore on the television comedy Mork and Mindy should go to his children from previous marriages but she did want the tuxedo the comedian wore at their wedding. Simple, it might seem but not in the complicated world of blended families.

What did the court look at in trying to resolve litigation over personal items?

The probate court in California had to look first at both Williams’ Will and the documents that established the trusts for the children. The court had to seek to determine if those documents delineate who gets exactly what. If neither document contains either an inventory of each item of personal property with instructions as to who shall receive it or a broader instruction perhaps suggesting “all other property contained at the Tiburon residence or the Napa residence,” then the court would have to engage in a more difficult analysis to determine what Williams’ wishes were when he set up the trusts and executed his will.

What was the outcome of the litigation over personal items

Williams’ widow and his three children from previous marriages were able to reach a settlement in their legal fight over the late actor’s estate, ending a public dispute following the beloved comedian’s suicide some 12 months after his death.

Exact terms of the out-of-court settlement were not disclosed. But representatives for Schneider said she would remain in the San Francisco Bay Area home she had shared with Williams and receive living expenses to maintain the home for the rest of her life.

She also received a watch Williams often wore, a bike bought on their honeymoon, and their wedding gifts.

 

What lessons can we learn from Robin Williams’ Estate?

The Williams’ estate underscores the need to specify exactly which personal items you are giving to family members by Trust or will so there is no ambiguity once you pass. It’s this ambiguity that causes family in-fighting and costs excessive amounts of time, money and energy, even (and maybe even especially) when the estate is of small value.

Especially in a blended family situation, like with Williams’ family, it’s important to be exceedingly clear about whether children from a prior marriage should receive any money or other assets at the time of your death or if they should wait for all inheritance until the death of your spouse.

This is one of the situations that is most likely to result in strife and complication after death, and it’s so straightforward and easy to deal with ahead of time.

Robin Williams’ Oscar for his role in Good Will Hunting was the subject of estate litigation.

Robin Williams wins an Emmy.

What to do if you need advice for estate litigation over personal items

For most families, a desire for personal effects — a father’s watch, a necklace, a set of earrings a mother wore — is less about what they are worth and more about their sentimental value. In the case of Williams, some of those personal items — like an Oscar for his role in the film Good Will Hunting or those suspenders — have real monetary value to collectors.

In this case stripped of its Hollywood glamour, is of no difference from the many cases I see of children from previous marriages battling their parent’s last spouse over the smallest things. The loss of a loved one is often an unbearably sad and stressful time. Between making funeral arrangements and dealing with the distribution of the estate, the weeks and months that follow can feel overwhelming.

Thankfully, you can help avoid family disputes by making arrangements for the distribution of your assets while you’re still alive. It’s particularly important to address the items that are the most common sources of infighting.

While every estate is different and there’s no guaranteed way to avoid disputes, providing for the distribution of these specific types of assets will go a long way toward mitigating future disagreements among your family members.

The best way to avoid fights among your loved ones after you’re gone is to adopt a clear estate plan while you’re still here. Whether you opt to gift items while you’re still alive or transfer items through a will, clearly designating who is to inherit what is the only way to minimize disputes and ensure that your property is distributed according to your wishes.

The best way to learn about protecting your family assets and your intention to leave specific assets to a certain beneficiary is to talk with us about estate planning circumstances, where we can identify the best strategies for you to provide for and protect the financial security of your loved ones.

How can Attwood Marshall Lawyers Help

If you are an executor defending a contested will and have been threatened with legal proceedings, it is imperative you get quality legal help for an experienced lawyer. A good defence requires not only the solid understanding of the role of the executor but also expertise in estate litigation and Succession Law. Many clients come to Attwood Marshall Lawyers after having used their local generalist solicitor or the lawyer who prepared the will, only to find their time and money has been wasted. Do not risk the estate. Seek expert legal help early.

Established in 1946, Attwood Marshall Lawyers is the leading estate litigation law firm. Unlike generalist firms, our highly experienced team of lawyers and paralegals are dedicated to the specialist field of estate law and will contests. We are reputed for our legal expertise, the delivery of exceptional client services, and are proud of our renowned intent to help people. Our offices are in every capital city and we can provide you with a complimentary initial consultation today.

Please contact Estate Litigation Senior Paralegal, Amanda Heather, on direct line: 07 5506 8245, email: aheather@attwoodmarshall.com.au or Freecall: 1800 621 071

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Melissa Tucker

Melissa Tucker

  • Senior Associate
  • Wills and Estates
  • Direct line: (07) 5553 5803
  • Mobile: 0411 046 805