The initial shock of Robin Williams’ tragic death, apparently from hanging himself, is giving way to reflections of his memory and legacy. Another question many people are asking is what happens next for his family and his estate. He was survived by his third wife, Susan Schneider, to whom he was married for three years, and three adult children from his prior two marriages, whose ages range from 22 to 31. There is a realistic fear that Williams’ death left may have left them in financial distress.
In an interview with Parade Magazine in 2013, Williams lamented how he was required to change his lifestyle because of how much he lost in his two divorces (reportedly, $30 million). He said he returned to TV because of “bills to pay.” Williams also admitted to listing his Napa Valley estate for sale because he could no longer afford it.
Robin Williams‘ publicist recently said that he was not in financial trouble and his comments were not to be taken seriously. Regardless of whether his publicist is trying to protect his image, or if Williams was being truthful in the interview, Robin Williams family members will be far from destitute.
How much more than that did Williams leave behind for his heirs? While he was reportedly worth around $130 million two years ago, that figure seems very high since Williams later said that he was close to bankruptcy. Recent estimates have pegged his net worth at $50 million, which may also be off based on his reported financial struggles, if those reports are true.
Any estimate of his net worth before he passed away would only be part of the financial picture. Lifetime estimates would not factor in the death benefit from life insurance, which would still likely pay out even with the suicide, for policies at least two years old. This could be substantial — especially considering that high wage earners are often required to take out insurance policies to protect their families as part of divorce settlements.
The good news for his family is that Robin Williams appears to have done solid estate planning, including at least two different trusts. Both of his valuable pieces of real estate are held in the name of the “Domus Dulcis Domus Holding Trust.” This is a latin phrase meaning “home sweet home.” He set up this Trust to own his real estate, tabbing New York accountant Joel Faden and Hollywood producer and entertainment promoter Stephen Tenenbaum and as the co-trustees.
Additionally, TMZ reported that someone had leaked a copy of a different trust, which Robin Williams created in 2009. This was in the midst of Williams’ divorce Marsha Garces Williams, his second wife. The trust reportedly names Williams’ three children as beneficiaries, splitting their trust funds into three equal distributions for each of them, set to pay out when they reach ages 21, 25, and 30. Because this trust reportedly transfers the money to them whether Williams was already passed or still alive, this was likely established as part of his divorce rather than purely for estate planning. It is not known how much money was in this trust.
Regardless of the motivation behind this trust, it (and his real estate holding trust) show that Williams took advantage of sophisticated estate planning to protect his loved ones. Many celebrities, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, feared using any type of trust. Williams had at least two trusts, and it appears that the Domus Dulcis Domus Holding Trust was created, at least in part, to minimize estate taxes. Real estate holding trusts, when made irrevocably and drafted and used the right way, can often carve valuable real estate outside of someone’s taxable estate. With the $25 million or so in equity, this could add up to a substantial savings for Williams’ heirs.
Even if this trust was not set up with estate taxes in mind, if nothing else it worked to safeguard privacy for Williams and his family members. When used properly and not leaked to the media or revealed due to litigation, trusts allow everyone to avoid probate court and keep their affairs private. Even non-celebrities usually prefer privacy, instead of having their affairs made public for nosy neighbors to see.
While the real estate, the children’s trust funds, and any life insurance will not technically be part of Robin Williams’ estate, his ongoing royalties, earnings from new deals over his image and likeness, and future releases of his comedy material would be managed by the administrators of his estate, unless he had previously assigned those rights to another trust or a corporate entity. These should add up to significant value.
According to numbers compiled by ABC News, his movies grossed over $6 billion throughout his career, more than half of which came with Williams as the leading man. While he earned a modest $75,000 payday for voicing the Genie in Aladdin (despite the film’s $500 million earnings), he was paid $165,000 per episode for his one season of The Crazy Ones.
There can be no dispute that Robin Williams was a comic genius, as his four Golden Globes, two Emmys, and his Oscar attest. The early indications are that he displayed some genius with his estate planning as well. While nothing can make the tragic loss of Robin Williams better for his family, at least he appears to have taken the proper steps with his legal planning to avoid the pain from becoming worse.
It’s a lesson that others can learn from. While few people need the sophisticated type of estate planning that Williams used, a revocable living trust can help almost anyone who wants to help their loved ones avoid the publicity, costs, aggravation, and pain of probate court.
Because of his foresight, Robin Williams’ family should be able to focus on grieving and not have to worry about unnecessary complications with his estate. His estate will be far from broke.
Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and attorneys with the Michigan law firm, Barron, Rosenberg, Mayoras & Mayoras, P.C. Click here to subscribe to their e-newsletter, The Trial & Heirs Update and learn more about their book. You can reach them at Contact@TrialAndHeirs.com.