When Robin Williams tragically committed suicide six months ago, he left behind three children from his first two marriages (ages 23 to 31) and a widow of less than three years, Susan Schneider Williams. Unlike many celebrities, Robin Williams took the time to create thoughtful and detailed estate plan, including various trusts to benefit both Susan and his three children. The trust established for his wife, called the Susan Trust, referred to and was consistent with a prenuptial agreement the couple signed in 2011 when they were married.
Because Robin Williams' estate plan was carefully crafted, it initially appeared that his heirs would avoid the bitter family squabbles that affect many mixed-marriage families (in Hollywood and around the country). After all, it is his wishes that matter, and because those wishes were seemingly captured through the proper estate planning documents, there should be nothing left to fight about, right?
Not so fast. Within the past 24 hours, the news broke that the Williams family will not be so lucky. Susan, through her lawyers, started legal proceedings just a few days before Christmas. She asked a probate court in California to take jurisdiction over the Robin Williams Trust to interpret various provisions that she feels are in dispute. Robin's three children -- themselves coming from two different marriages -- filed a unified response through their attorneys and opposed Susan's court filing. The battle is on.
It centers around language in the Robin Williams Trust, which the famous actor amended in early 2012, after he and Susan were married. The Trust provides that Susan can reside in the couple's home in Tiburon, California, while the larger Napa Valley estate (which is listed for sale) and its contents are for the children. Susan is able to reside in the Tiburon home for the rest of her life. Those in charge of the trust (Robin Williams' estate planning attorney and an accountant) must establish a fund to pay all of the expenses of the residence for Susan's benefit. Susan also receives the furniture, furnishings, and some of the contents of the Tiburon house.
But Williams's trust carefully describes what he wanted to pass to his three children, which included all of his "clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan" as well as Robin's "memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry". It also gives the children the "tangible personal property located" in the Napa Valley property. The trust gives the rest of the contents of the Tiburon house to Susan, specifically excluding the items gifted to his children under the trust.
Susan's court filing claims these provisions require court intervention because they are unclear. She presents several arguments. First, she contends that the word "memorabilia" should be read to include only "specific items of tangible personal property as it relates to Robin Williams's acting career." Susan also feels that the term "jewelry" should exclude his collection of watches and that the contents of the Tiburon home should include items that are not actually located in the home, but may be in storage elsewhere. She additionally asks the Court to determine how to value the fund that will be created to pay for the expenses of the Tiburon home. Surprisingly, Susan includes a brazen request that the court interpret the list of property going to children to exclude all items in the Tiburon house, even though the trust specifically states otherwise.
Robin Williams' children responded to the court filing by stating that it left them "heartbroken." They describe Susan's court petition as an attempt to challenge Robin Williams' wishes, blatantly attempting to alter the trust provisions, which are already clear and unambiguous. Their lawyers contend that the items in dispute include cherished mementos that the children helped their father collect, which are deeply meaningful to them.
After carefully reviewing both the court petition filed by Susan and the opposition filed on behalf of Robin Williams' children, it is hard to understand why this was taken to court so soon. As with any trust -- and certainly a trust with assets of substantial value like this one appears to have -- the trustees are charged with the responsibility of gathering the trust assets, taking inventory of them, and informing the trust beneficiaries of how the assets will be divided in accordance with the terms of the trust. This process is intended to take place privately, outside of court, and without a judge or the media scrutinizing how the property is to be divided.
Certainly items of personal property can be divided in different ways; that is what families should handle among themselves. When they can't do so, and when a trust has impartial trustees in place (as in this instance), the trustees can resolve the differences and arrive at a fair and equitable division in accordance with the trust language.
Susan's legal team rushed to court less than five months after Robin Williams died, from a sudden and shocking suicide. The trustees have not yet had time to complete this phase of their job. In fact, according to the children's legal brief, Susan has not even allowed them access to the Tiburon house to inventory the contents.
Instead, this trust has been thrust into the public eye, turning what should be a relative minor matter -- who receives Robin Williams' collections of items such as toys, sports memorabilia, rare books and coins, and his watches -- into an emotional court battle. Susan's needs are already provided for. She is free to reside in the house for the rest of her life and not have to contribute a cent towards the household expenses, repairs, upkeep, etc., during her lifetime.
Robin Williams created this trust for a reason. He obviously intended to protect his children and his wife alike from the type of property fights that followed his prior marriages. Instead of choosing his children or his wife to serve as the trustees, he turned to independent professionals, who are often selected in this type of situation precisely because of their neutrality and expertise. Shouldn't Robin Williams' deliberate choices be respected?
It's a shame that this trust has been dragged before the court and the media, forcing Robin Williams' family -- who has already faced enough tragedy -- into a public court fight. Robin Williams' trust was clear and well-drafted. The family and trustees should be able to work out any legitimate differences they have outside of the public eye. This family has been through enough in the past six months.
It’s a lesson that sometimes, not even the best wills and trusts can avoid an inheritance fight. The good news is that Robin Williams’ estate plan was well-prepared, which will likely keep this battle much less difficult, costly, and drawn-out than it would have been without the proper planning.
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.