Six months after the comedian and actor Robin Williams passed away, a bitter battle erupted over his $45 million estate between his third wife Susan Schneider, and his children from previous marriages.
At stake was 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 its contents.
However Susan Schneider asked that she also be provided with all expenses associated with upkeep of the property, as well as unexpected renovations and improvements. Williams’ children maintained that her attempt to breach the trust was a clear indication of her greed.
Much of the dispute was centred around Robin Williams’ personal items, which included 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 maintained that much of Williams’ personal items should have remained in the house she was set to receive, saying that such items were not related to his famous persona. These items included 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 said 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.
The legal dispute was decided some month later. Susan Schneider agreed to a settlement on with Zachary, Zelda, and Cody Williams over the provisions in the late comedian’s will. While official terms were not disclosed, Schneider Williams’s attorney James Wagstaff told the Associated Press that she will remain in the home and receive an allowance to cover home and living expenses for the rest of her life. Additionally, Susan is to receive disputed items such as a watch, a bicycle, and their wedding gifts.
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’?
How to Avoid an Estate Battle
Sometimes you may not know how exactly to make your wishes clear within your will, but your lawyer should be able to help you. We have compiled some of our best tips.
1/ Provide reasoning
With every decision you make within your will, ensure you provide reasoning for such a decision. Discuss why you wish to give a certain asset to a certain person. Those who are set to inherit your estate will understand why you made your decisions.
2/ Set outlines within your trust
If you have a trust, you should make sure that you set out clear outlines. Discuss exactly what you want the trust used for and what you don’t want the trust used for. Also, ensure that you appoint a trustee who understands your wishes.
3/ Include all your assets
It is very important to ensure that you have included all of your possessions within your will. When you die, your exectutor/s will have to distribute all of your property. Ensuring that you have dealt with all your assets in your will is a good start. Even things such as your antique crockery collection or furniture is important. One strategy is to group items, but be very careful. For example, be specific: “Sally will receive every kitchen utensil and every device used within the kitchen”. Only saying, “Sally receives everything used in the kitchen” can be too vague, as other things placed around the house can be used in the kitchen.
To make sure your will is clear and easily understood, talk to a specialist in wills and estates today! Contact us at Estate Battles today.