The phrase, “you don’t really know someone until you’ve shared an estate with them,” certainly applies to Robin Williams’ family. It is being reported that his wife Susan and his three children from two prior marriages – Zachary, Zelda, and Cody – have gone to court over who should receive Williams’ personal effects.

In paperwork filed in December and January in San Francisco Superior Court, Susan alleges that the children have taken items without her permission. The children have countered that there should be no limits on the items to which they are entitled.

In the late-actors trust, he left “memorabilia” and “knick knacks” collected from his 40 years on stage and screen to his children; items such as the Oscar he received for best supporting actor for his role in Good Will Hunting. The issue is over what constitutes “memorabilia” and “knick knacks”. While his wife does not dispute that certain items should go to his children, she would like certain items, such as the tuxedo Williams wore at their wedding.

More family disputes arise over family heirlooms, photos, jewelry and your other personal property than over money. In fact, many of the largest disputes are over the smallest of items. Families may not care about the transfer of the IRA, but will often go to bat over who receives the china.

These types of family fights can be avoided by simply taking the time to list out who should receive each of your important personal items as part of your estate plan. You can even talk with your family ahead of time to see if there are items that each of them would really like to have.

When we work with clients, we provide them with a form that they can fill out to make these specific gifts. The form is also easy to change over time.

As I noted in a previous post, Robin Williams did a lot of things right with his estate plan. As this new round of court documents proves though, he missed an important planning point: Writing down who should receive his personal effects. If he had taken the time to carefully list out who should receive his important and meaningful items, the fight could have been avoided.

You can provide a real gift to your family by minimizing the possibility of misunderstandings, disputes, and hurt feelings by getting your wishes in writing in a comprehensive estate plan. That plan should include a written list of who you would like to receive your important and meaningful personal effects. To learn more, click here.

Chuck Roulet
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Nationally Recognized Estate Planning Attorney, Author, and Speaker
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