In 2015, Robin Williams’ wife Susan went to court over personal items she said were taken from the couple’s Tiburon, California, home without her permission.
Williams’ children said their father set up a trust that bequeathed the items to them and that his wife of three years was acting against his wishes. Could this have been avoided?
At the beginning of 2015, there was a court fight brewing in San Francisco over the disposition of some personal property from the estate of comedian/actor Robin Williams, who committed suicide the previous year. His wife of three years claimed his three children from prior marriages took certain items from the Tiburon residence where she lived with Williams.
According to the children, these items were part of the inventory of personal property conveyed by certain trusts established for their benefit. Williams' trust granted his children his memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry as well as some other specific personal items, according to court documents.
His widow, Susan Williams, claimed that since they lived together in their own house in Tiburon, and there was a separate residence in Napa, it stands to reason he wanted the children to receive items from the Napa residence and she was to receive the property from the Tiburon home.
Attorneys for the two sides appeared to offer conflicting characterizations of the court case. Susan Williams’ attorney said she was just seeking a clarification from the court; the attorney for the children said she has accused them of stealing items belonging to her.
Generally, the probate court in California would look first at both Williams’ will and the documents that established the trusts for the children. The court would then 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 will have to engage in a more difficult analysis to determine what Williams’ wishes were when he set up the trusts and executed his will.
As this contest was occurring in San Francisco and the family lived in the state, California trust and estate law will control the legal issues to be resolved.
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.
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