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Robin Williams | Blended-Family Estate Tragedy

Robin Williams Estate Litigation.jpgAs an attorney who has spent many decades working in the area of trusts and estates, I wish I could say that it's possible to create an iron-clad trust document that will do precisely what the maker intended. Sadly, even when the best attorneys draft such documents for intelligent, practical, and thoughtful clients, there will always be unintended and unforeseen circumstances. That is especially true when there are blended families that may include ex-spouses, step-children, half-children, and unmarried partners. In such cases, Murphy's Law is almost certain to prevail.

A prime example is that of the late, great, comedian and actor, Robin Williams, who committed suicide in 2014 after he was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia.

With an estate valued at more than $100 Million, and with access to the best legal and estate planning professionals a person could reasonably hope to have, Williams' attorneys were still unable to foresee everything that might go wrong.

As we've seen with many celebrity estate battles, his problems stemmed from complications in his personal life. Williams was married three times, first to Valerie Velardi in 1978, a marriage that lasted for 10 years, then in 1989 to Marsha Garces, a marriage that lasted for 11 years, and finally to Susan Schneider whom he married in 2011, and who ultimately became his widow. Along the way, Williams had three children from his first two marriages.

His estate plan was, by all accounts, thoughtful, well-reasoned, and generous, and included multiple trusts set up to benefit his children and widow. Had it been foolproof, however, we would never have known the details, but the actor and his attorneys failed to anticipate everything his heirs might care about, which ultimately led to a dispute and court battle.

We now know that The Robin Williams Trust was amended in 2012, shortly after Williams married his third wife. By provision of that document, his new wife was to be able to live in their Tiburon house for the rest of her life, while his children would inherit his Napa Valley estate and its contents. In that document, he explicitly described the possessions he wanted to leave his children which were "clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan," and also "memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry and the tangible personal property located" in the Napa Valley house.

The problem stemmed primarily from the interpretation of a single word in the trust, namely "memorabilia." What constitutes memorabilia?

Although his widow, Susan, was well taken care of by provision of the trust, allowing her to live in a grand house with all of her expenses covered, she nevertheless felt cash poor and decided she needed to sell some of Williams' possessions to raise capital. In her opinion, those possessions were not 'memorabilia' they were items she believed she had inherited. Williams' three children disagreed.

When she put his collection of bicycles, watches, and family photos up for auction, Williams children tried to block the sale. Those series of actions caused an otherwise confidential trust document to wind up in a Probate Court in California.

Susan's attorneys argued, among other things, that "memorabilia" should only be items that were specifically related to her late husband's acting career, and also that his collection of watches should be excluded from property his children would inherit because they were in storage outside of either the Tiburon property and the Napa property.

A year later, the trust challenges and lawsuits were settled out of court, the terms for which were confidential. Susan's lawyer released a statement saying, "Mrs. Williams is able to keep the few emotional items she requested, such as their wedding gifts, selected clothing items, a watch Robin often wore, plus the bike she and her husband bought together on their honeymoon."

Unfortunately for her, however, it sounds as if her stepchildren got the greater part of the settlement. In a statement, she noted, "While it was painful to have truckloads of his belongings removed from our home - it's the few sentimental items I get to hold onto that mean everything to me. I thank God for this."

The lesson for all of us is to remember that trust and estate documents are never foolproof or iron-clad. If someone feels that they have been given a raw deal, and if the sums are large enough, a legal challenge is nearly always possible. I often counsel people who ask me about drafting trust and estate documents that communication with all interested parties, before, during, and after the process, even if those conversations are difficult, is the best way to avoid future conflict.

Before you go, please let me know if you'd like to receive a free copy of my book, The Wolf at the Door. Just send your address in an email to me at [email protected], and I'll be glad to put one in the mail.

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