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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - Robin Williams - Episode 150

Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. We’re back to “estate planning of the rich and famous” where we chat about celebrities and their estate planning. Today’s episode is on Robin Williams – and I tell you, Robin Williams is one of MY favorite actors. Or maybe it’s just because I love the movie, Mrs. Doubtfire! My husband, Justin, and I visited San Francisco, California a few years ago and of course, we had to do the tourist-y thing and find the Mrs. Doubtfire house. Anywayyyy, as we always do on these episodes, let’s talk about Robin Williams, his life, his family, etc. then we will shift to what happened estate-wise following his passing.  Let’s dive in, shall we?

Let’s kick off things by chatting about Robin and those closest to him. According to his Wikipedia page, Robin married his first wife, Valerie Velardi, in June 1978 and together, they had a son, Zachary Williams, who was born in 1983. A few years later in 1988, Robin and Valerie divorced. Shortly after the divorce, Robin began a relationship with Zachary’s nanny, Marsha Garces, and the two ended up getting married in 1989. At the time of their marriage, Marsha was 6 months pregnant with his child, who ended up being named Zelda Williams – and a couple years later, the couple had a third child, Cody Williams, in 1991. Nearly a decade later, the couple divorced in 2010. The following year, in 2011, Robin met and ended up marrying his third wife, Susan Schneider.

Tragically, on August 11, 2014, Robin Williams passed away by suicide at the age of 63. Even though Robin had a former drug addiction and alcohol addiction, drugs nor alcohol were discovered in his body at his passing. According to CNN, Robin’s publicist, Mara Buxbaum, shared that Robin was experiencing “severe depression” before his death. Also according to CNN, Robin’s third wife, Susan, also shared that while it had not really been publicly revealed yet, Robin had been diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s disease with hints of Lewy Body too. In fact, according to an essay written by Susan, she shared that Robin’s condition was “described by several doctors as among the worst pathologies they had seen.”

Following Robin’s passing, it was discovered that he actually had an estate plan – so at least he had something! In my 23 episodes so far, there have been quite a few where the person had no estate plan at all. So, at least Robin doesn’t fall into that category! According to an article by the law firm, Trust Counsel, an estate planning firm in Florida, Robin had created a Living Trust (or perhaps a couple of Trusts) and that shortly after Robin and Susan married, Robin amended the Trust. At Robin’s passing, the Trust contained the following specific wishes:

1) Susan could continue to reside in their home in Tiburon, California;

2) The Napa Valley house and its contents were to go to his children;

3) The “furniture, furnishings, and some of the contents of the Tiburon” to Susan;

4) All of Robin’s “clothing, jewelry, and personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan” as well as “memorabilia and awards from the entertainment industry” to his children; and

5) Finally, the Trust stated that the rest of the contents (that were not specifically provided for) in the Tiburon house was to go to Susan.

One would think that is niiiiiice and specific, right? Well, clearly, it was not specific enough. According to the article by Trust Counsel, Susan ended up filing with the Court to gain clarification on what some terms in the Trust actually meant. For example, Susan argued that the word “memorabilia” should mean “only specific items of personal property as it related to Robin’s acting career.” Furthermore, she also claimed that the term “jewelry” should actually not include his collection of watches.

There were a few other things that Susan wanted clarification on from the Court that I won’t bore you with – the takeaway here is that it was allllll about tangible personal property. You know, a lot of families and beneficiaries fight about money, this was primarily about tangible stuff – and on the surface, it looks like Robin put in significant thought about “what” when to “who.” Interestingly, a couple episodes back – Thanksgiving week’s episode – we talked about blended families and how their planning can take a sharp left turn SO FAST. Well, here is yet another example of that – just with a celebrity involved!

According to Trust Counsel’s article, part of Robin’s Trust included a provision to have the Trustee, the manager of the Trust, take a chunk of change to cover “all costs related to the residence” and have the Trustee cover the expenses for the Tiburon house that Susan had a right to reside in. I believe I read somewhere that the Trustees were Robin’s estate planning attorney and accountant. Anyway, part of Susan’s claim was asking for the Trustees to utilize Trust funds to cover around $30,000 in renovations. The Trust was super non-specific … all it said was “all costs related to the residence” Like, are we talking about utilities, property taxes, upkeep, etc. Or, if Susan wants to make major renovations, did Robin intend to allow Susan to pull those strings. Who knows. We’ll never know. But it was so non-specific, that Susan had a leg to stand on to request Court-clarification. Ugh.

According to an article written by Goralka Law Firm in California, Robin’s children, when responding to Susan’s attempts for clarification of Trust terms, stated that they were “heartbroken that Schneider (that’s Susan) has acted against their father’s wishes by challenging the plans he so carefully made for his estate.” An article written by Kevin Hunt in the Hartford Courant, the Court seemed to not be having this bologna – in fact, the Judge, following Susan’s Petition, gave Susan and Robin’s kids a whoppin’ 2 months to figure crap out, or more eloquently as Kevin writes, “to resolve the dispute themselves.” I feel like I read somewhere that things did end up in a settlement…so full-blown litigation at least didn’t occur (probably thanks to the Judge saying, “you all figure it out!”)

What I find particularly interesting about Robin’s estate (following his passing) is that Susan and Robin’s kids were not really fighting about money – right? So often, people in my estate world fight over money, property like a house, etc. But here, it was solely over the tangible property. Of course, tangible property has a value, but it’s not super often that estate litigation happens ONLY because of tangible property. That’s what happened here. I have to wonder if the primary issue was that it was a blended family – Susan was not Robin’s kids Mom, and Susan keeping some of Robin’s “stuff” may have rubbed the kids the wrong way.

I suppose what I’m saying is that if Susan was the kids’ biological Mom, we may not have seen this “fight” happen…

As I was in the middle of writing this episode, I actually, crazy enough, met with a prospective client – it was a blended family. Husband has 2 kids (not with wife), wife has 2 kids (not with husband). Prior to our meeting, they sent over a laundry list of tangible property items they wanted included in their Will to ensure “there were no fights between the kids.” I HAD to share that I had this podcast, and that I was writing an episode on Robin Williams … and his wife and his kids were all mad at each other and duking it out over tangible personal property. The wife jokingly slapped the husband on the arm and said, “SEE!” It gave me a laugh…

As I shared with them, I have found that yes, many times families fight over money. That’s a given, right? Money on the table brings out the weird in people, I tell you. But often, when there are unique relationships (like in a blended family sometimes) and a death occurs, emotions are extra high already – then, when you have to start wondering, “Oh, is my Stepmom going to keep Dad’s guns … or Dad’s watches … or Dad’s classic car … what if she keeps them and gives them to HER kids…?!” The AUDACITY, I tell you! Then, let me tell you – it’s no longer about the money; it’s about making a point … and “being right” and “doing what Dad would have wanted.” That’s when I start hearing those sentences thrown around.

So, let’s talk about how we can prevent this craziness, shall we?

First, you really should spell things out – specifically and intentionally, especially if you think there COULD be disagreements about tangible property. There are two ways you can “spell it out.” You can either incorporate the verbiage into your Will or Trust – meaning the provisions would be INSIDE the document. Or, you can have your Will or Trust reference a document like a Memorandum of Personal Property, where you can have a free-standing document reference specific items to specific people. The latter is easier to change, and keep updated. The first option, of putting things inside your Will or Trust, would require you update your actual Will or amend your Trust to make changes.

Another tip, along this “spell it out” topic, is you could, if you want to help your Executor or Trustee, take pictures and make sure wherever your provisions go (whether in the document or on something like a Memorandum of Personal Property), the provisions reference the pictures. I have several clients that have taken pictures of the items – and even given me a flash drive of the pictures as a “back up.”

Second, if you take the route of doing the Memorandum so you can keep it updated a little easier, make sure your attorney always has the latest version of the Memorandum. That way, if after you pass away, the Memorandum accidentally or not-accidentally-at-all (if you catch my drift) disappears, your attorney will have the latest version to provide to your Executor or Trustee.

Lastly, it certainly does not hurt to have conversations about “what” goes to “who” with your beneficiaries once you figure out where things are going. I have to wonder if Robin Williams would have sat his wife, Susan down, and his kids down to say, “Okay – this is what I want to happen…” MAYBE at that time, Susan and the kids could have clarified a few things that ultimately, Susan involved the Court to clarify on. Like the whole piece about whether watches = jewelry. Maybe Susan would have asked Robin then – “Hey – are you thinking the watches count as jewelry?” And that could have been the end of that – and kept things civil. So, I’m always an advocate for having CONVERSATIONS – as much as people don’t want to talk about this estate stuff, I’ll never understand why more people don’t talk about it with their family, beneficiaries, etc.

Alrighty, let’s wrap this episode up and shift to a sneak peak at next week. Next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases that I, or my office, have worked on -or- maybe they are just generally good things to know/be aware of so you don’t slip up and turn into a cautionary tale one day. Always good stuff on those episodes! During that episode, we’re going to dive into estate planning specifically for farmers – and the types of unique challenges they have to face from an estate planning perspective. Tune in next week for that! Until then, Legal Tea Listeners…take care and be well!


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