Robin Williams and daughter Zelda.

Robin Williams and daughter Zelda.

Six months after the comedian and actor Robin Williams passed away, a bitter dispute has erupted over his $45 million estate between his third wife Susan Schneider, and his children from previous marriages.

At stake is not only the wealth accumulated over his career, but the actor’s personal items and collectibles.

Williams’ will left the entirety of his estate to a trust, the beneficiaries of which included his three children, Zelda, Zack and Cody. Williams made amendments to the trust to make provision for his wife. A separate trust was established for her, which gave her the home which they shared and it’s contents.

However Susan Schneider has asked that she also be provided with all expenses associated with upkeep of the property, as well as unexpected renovations and improvements. Williams’ children maintain that her attempt to breach the trust is a clear indication of her greed.

Much of the dispute is centred around Robin Williams’ personal items, which include an Oscar, two Golden Globes and five Grammy awards. The terms of the trust state that such items, including clothing, jewellery and memorabilia collected prior to his marriage should be given to his children.

However Susan Schneider maintains that much of Williams’ personal items should remain in the house she is set to receive, saying that such items are not related to his famous persona. These items include graphic novels, action figures, theatre masks, movie posters and other artifacts which his children say fuelled his creativity. Their legal documents state that : “the collection was carefully amassed by Mr Williams over his lifetime, and… [the children] shared in their father’s excitement as additions were made to his collection.”

The relationship between Williams’ children and Susan Schneider was allegedly in tatters only weeks after Williams’ suicide. Schneider says she was given only three days notice that items bequeathed to the children were going to be removed from her home. She was so frightened that she blocked their access to the home.

It’s not unusual for the relationship between the surviving spouse and stepchildren to deteriorate in these circumstances, and the law is reflective of the fact that blended families are often complicated.

While it seems that Williams was careful to make his wishes known, and used a trust as a vehicle to provide for his family, it could be that his will was actually unclear.

This is particularly true of what has been termed as ‘personal items’, which include clothing, jewellery, memorabilia, awards and his creative collection. Many of these items would be worth a considerable amount of money, and that’s just one reason why good estate planning would have listed them carefully.

What can we learn from this?

A will that is unclear may be declared invalid by a court. A will that is unclear may create confusion and animosity among surviving family members. A will that is unclear may create litigation. In cases where there is a blended family or multiple marriages, this is crucial. There will be assets accumulated prior to the existing marriage – what should happen to these assets? Have you provided adequately for your children or have you assumed your current spouse will ‘do the right thing’?

To make sure your will is clear and easily understood, talk to a specialist in wills and estates today!