The passing of beloved comedian Robin Williams shocked the world, but the latest tragedy that has followed in its wake was all too predictable. Mr. Williams left behind three children from two different marriages, Zak, Zelda, and Cody, from his first two marriages and left a widow, his third wife Susan. That such a complicated familial situation has now inspired a good of drama shouldn’t surprise anyone.
That his death has inspired disharmony is made all the more tragic by the fact that there were steps Williams and his family might have taken to avoid such disagreement after his passing. What did they miss?
Stolen Goods or Bequeathed Property?
As recently documented in the Huffington Post, the personal affairs of renowned actor and comedian Robin Williams now serve as focal point for the bitterness that has erupted. His widow, Susan, now asserts in court that certain items from the couple’s Tiburan, California home are now missing—and his children, she says, deserve the blame.
His children do not dispute that they took the items, but counter that the actor granted each piece of memorabilia and various awards to them by way of trusts set up in their names, along with a number of additional personal items.
Susan’s argument is that the time she and Williams shared together at their home in Tiburon gives her exclusive right to the items of that residence. His children, she says, were clearly meant to receive the family’s alternate home in Napa, along with its contents.
The Court Battle
Judging by the way the two sides’ attorneys characterized the case in their first day in court, they each hold a very different perception of not only the final wishes of Mr. Williams, but even the nature of their disagreement in the first place. The lawyer of Susan Williams asserted that his client’s presence in court is merely as a widow seeking much needed legal clarification on the specifics of her late husband’s will. The attorney for the children, on the other hand, explained that his clients had been accused by Mrs. Williams of stealing things that belonged to her.
The process ahead for the probate court is to first examine both the will Williams left behind and the documents that established the trusts for the children. In so doing, they will be able to work out the rightful ownership of each item. Depending on the wording of the documents, this process might drag out for weeks. Without a specific inventory of items and a clearly designated inheritor, or even a broader instruction—that the items in one house belong to Susan and the items in the other to the children, for example—the analysis of Mr. Williams’ wishes at the time he signed the documents involved will become far more difficult.
As the property involved is entirely located in California, as are the inheritors, the matter falls under the state’s jurisdiction—California’s trust and estate law will govern how the legal issue is is to be resolved.
What you should know
As in our many previous articles about the estates of celebrities, the conflict that has arisen from the untimely death of Mr. Williams should serve as lesson to us all that our final wishes must be as specific and detailed as possible. None of us wish for our passing to generate family in-fighting and inflict excessive costs upon our loved ones, even (or maybe even especially) if the state is of a relatively small value.
As seen in the case of Robin Williams, blended families are particularly susceptible to this kind of conflict. Who receives what must be made absolutely explicit, and an experienced estate planning attorney can work with you to not only ensure that all the bases are covered, but also put together legally-binding instructions that would allow for more complexity—deciding whether your assets pass to your children immediately or only after they turn 18, for example.
I made this video a while back describing a good strategy for blended families, that allows a new spouse to be taken care of, but also takes care of the kids from the previous relationships. This kind of planning could have prevented the kind of conflict that is happening in the Williams’ family right now.
The best way to learn about protecting your family is to talk with us in an estate planning consultation session, where we can identify the best strategies for you to provide for and protect the financial security of your loved ones. Please, call us today at 612-206-3701 or reach out via our online contact form to schedule your appointment.