MONEY Estate Planning

3 Things We Can Learn From Robin Williams’ Estate Battle

Susan Williams, Robin Williams and Zelda Williams attend the "Happy Feet Two" Los Angeles Premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on November 13, 2011 in Hollywood, California.
Jeffrey Mayer—WireImage Susan Williams, Robin Williams and Zelda Williams attend the "Happy Feet Two" Los Angeles Premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on November 13, 2011 in Hollywood, California.

The actor's loved ones are feuding over his personal items, but you can spare your family the same battle when you move on.

Six months after comedian Robin Williams’ death, his widow and three children find themselves in an all-too-common situation for families dealing with loss: fighting with each other.

What should be a time to grieve and heal instead has erupted into a legal dispute over the actor’s estate. His widow and third wife, Susan Schneider Williams, is fighting with his three children, Zak, Zelda, and Cody Williams, over cherished belongings, including clothing, collectibles, and personal photographs. Both sides want to keep items—such as his bicycles, collections of fossils, graphic novels, and action figures—as personal reminders of the man they loved and his active imagination.

At the time of his death, Williams had an updated will and estate plan, including specific trust agreements, and a prenuptial agreement in place. But even that wasn’t enough to spare his heirs the unpleasantness he no doubt hoped to avoid.

That’s because when we write up our estate plan we tend to focus on the big-ticket items: the house, the bank accounts, the investments. But often it’s the personal mementoes and cherished items that cause the most contention.

Personal possessions usually can’t be distributed equally to more than one heir. You can’t split a painting in thirds the way you can a pot of money. Then too, you’ve got to factor in the emotional attachment, which can make the division process even thornier.

To avoid having your estate end up the subject of family squabbles, follow these steps.

Decide What’s Important

Any piece of nontitled property can become a bone of contention if the item has any sentimental or monetary value. And while you can’t possibly make provisions for every single item you own, try to identify the possessions that mean the most to you and your family legacy and make plans for who inherits them, advises Mark Parthemer, a Palm Beach, Fla., lawyer who specializes in estate planning.

Consider what you hope to accomplish with the bequest. Do you want your exhaustive movie collection to go to a film buff? Are there family heirlooms you want to ensure your child inherit rather than your second wife?

Ask your heirs which items they’d like as well, recommends Marlene Stum, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who is an expert in the field of families and inheritance. You may be surprised at what actually holds sentimental value and how many family members may covet the same objects.

Devise a Fair System

Focus on connecting the goals you have for your bequests with what’s fair in the context of your family. You don’t have to split everything evenly to be fair, you just need to be thoughtful and consistent about the division process you use, Stum advises. You must also be very clear about who will be involved in the decision-making. “The more complex your family dynamic is, the more ambigious it becomes about who has a say at the table,” Stum says.

For example, consider whether your oldest child gets to pick first, or if gender should play a role. Parthemer likes a rotation system, where each heir draws a random number and selects one item at a time in order. “It helps to have an executive decision maker or final arbiter outside the family to help make tough decisions if two people want the same thing,” he says, “though in that case it may be best to sell the item and have them split the proceeds.”

Here too, invite your potential heirs to share their input about how they think personal items could be evenly divided.

Let Your Wishes Be Known

Once you’ve created your plan, tell your loved ones not just what you’re leaving to whom, but why. “The more transparent you can be about how you reached your decision, the better,” says Stum, who recommends telling your heirs as a group to avoid any he said/she said squabbles. They might not be happy with your decision, but at least they’ll know your desires and understand your motives, making disagreements less likely.

Write down all your wishes, sign and date the list, and attach a copy to your will. In most states you can revise such a document without going to the expense or effort of updating the will itself, says Parthemer. Be sure your will contains a provision explicitly mentioning the list’s existence, otherwise your wishes will not be binding.

You’ll also want to be detailed as possible when describing specific objects on your list to avoid confusion over, say, which painting you’re referring to, says Stum. You could even take a photo of each object and include that with your written list to eliminate such a problem entirely.

For more help in figuring out how to smoothy pass on your personal possessions, visit the website Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?

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