In March I wrote a post about the estate litigation involving Robin Williams’ children with his 3rd wife, Susan Schneider Williams. The lawsuit was initially filed by Susan just a few months after Williams committed suicide in August of 2014 in his Tiburon, CA home. According to the NY Times, Susan claimed she was not left enough money to manage their Tiburon home, which had been left to her in a trust set up by Robin, along with the contents of the home. She also claimed that several valuable items had been removed from the house by Williams’ children, Zak, Zelda, and Cody. The three adult children (all in their 20's) had a separate trust, which contained the majority of Williams' financial and real property assets. So where did Williams go wrong in his Estate Planning?
It appears Robin had carefully planned for his death, creating two separate trusts (one for Susan & one for his children), each with meticulous details regarding the trusts’ administration. Perhaps, given the nature of the family dynamic - a stepmother and three children who lost a father in such a tragic and shocking manner - estate litigation may have been inevitable. As an attorney who frequently litigates Trust and Estate matters in the SF East Bay, I have seen how emotions surrounding the death of a loved one can lead to miscommunication and fighting between family members. And when there is a second, third, or 4th spouse involved, managing the administration of a trust or estate can be that much more difficult - and emotional. Or, the issue may have been the ambiguity surrounding Williams' personal property.
Part of the issue with the Williams’ trust litigation fight was the vast amount of what is known in Estate Law as “tangible personal property.” People magazine noted that the settlement between Mrs. Schneider-Williams and the Williams children granted Zak, Cody, and Zelda more than 50 bicycles and close to 90 watches in addition to other items such as his Academy award. According to reports from Susan's attorney, the "contents" of the Tiburon home had been left to Susan. However, it is unclear if specific instructions had been laid out for Williams' numerous material items.
When someone wishes to leave personal property to a beneficiary, they can do so by:
- Listing the asset and the beneficiary's name in the trust, and adding it the schedule of assets
- Documenting the asset with a photograph AND documenting it in trust papers
- Including a "Deed of Gift" in the trust
Given the vast wealth of Robin Williams, it is hard to imagine that he went through each of his items and specified an heir. However, this is unclear as trust documents are not made public. If Williams had failed to put his assets into trusts, his estate would have gone through probate, and the information made available to the public. This is one reason estate planning is important - to protect privacy.
While we may never know the true reason Susan Schneider filed a lawsuit against Williams' estate, the matter seems to have been resolved to the satisfaction of all family members. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but lawyers for Susan said in a statement, "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." The children declined to comment, citing a wish for privacy.
The tragedy of Robin Williams is a heartbreaking reminder of the devastation suicide causes to both family members and fans. As a Trust and Estate Lawyer in Walnut Creek, the trust litigation that followed his death is a reminder of the devastation caused by lack of specificity in an Estate Plan. Perhaps this was not the case with Williams - perhaps a lawsuit could not have been avoided due to the heightened emotions surrounding his death - but it is the case with many, many families I see on a day to day basis. My advice to parents: save your children from suffering: hire an experienced estate planning attorney to draft your will and trust, and be as specific as possible. Lastly, don't put it off - you'll feel better knowing you have a plan in place should anything happen to you.