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Contest over Robin Williams Estate – a Sad Lesson on Disputes Over Personal Items

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

The death of comic genius Robin Williams in 2015 from an apparent suicide sent shock waves throughout the entertainment world. He 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. Williams had commented he had to change his lifestyle because of how much money he lost in his two divorces (reportedly $30 million). He had said he returned to TV because he had “bills to pay”.

HOW MUCH DID WILLIAMS LEAVE BEHIND?

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 Susan Schneider 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 then 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.

WHAT DID THE TRUST PROVIDE THAT WILLIAMS HAD SET UP IN HIS WILL?

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 William’s children saying 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 THIS DISPUTE?

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 COURT PROCEEDINGS?

Robin Williams’ widow and his three children from previous marriages thankfully 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 Robin Williams often wore, a bike bought on their honeymoon, and their wedding gifts. She also got to enforce Robin’s wishes in that she got to stay in the house as Robin wanted, with the trust being created to pay the expenses.

WHAT LESSONS CAN WE LEARN FROM THE WILLIAMS ESTATE?

The Robin 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 Robin 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.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU NEED ADVICE SURROUNDING THEIR ESTATE PLAN AND IN PARTICULAR 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 Mr. 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.
The grieving period is only made worse when family members fight over the deceased’s assets. 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.
While family heirlooms may range widely in financial value, they are often considered some of the most precious assets in an estate by close family members. It’s natural for people to want to be connected to family history, and heirlooms are a tangible way to do that. Moreover, deaths understandably stir up a lot of emotions and family nostalgia, so even people who didn’t previously have an interest in family genealogy often find themselves suddenly wanting their own piece of family history. For items that have been passed down from generation to generation, fights are sure to erupt if you haven’t clearly specified who the item is to pass to next.
Some of the most cherished sentimental assets in a person’s estate which have absolutely no financial value or historical significance whatsoever also cause disputes. These items that are closely associated with the deceased and take on personal value purely through that sentimental connection. Something as simple as a $5 necklace or a hand-knit scarf can spark more heated disagreements than precious jewels if emotional ties are involved.
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.

Attwood Marshall Lawyers offer a complimentary estate planning review at our Robina Town Centre, Coolangatta and Kingscliff offices. Phone 1800 621 071 to book today.

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Melissa Tucker

Melissa Tucker

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