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Lessons from Robin Williams’ Trust Dispute

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Robin WilliamsAfter the passing of a loved one, family members and friends normally gather to find solace or to celebrate the person’s life. Or at least that is the order and manner in which most people would wish to be remembered. To this end of allowing space to grieve, creating estate planning documents should assist the bereaved in efficiently handling their loved one’s worldly affairs. However, conflict can still occur between family members. And, conflict is more likely when the estate planning documents have gaps or are subject to differing interpretations.

Sadly, this appears to be the situation with the trust of Robin Williams, the late comic actor. As his family works through a trust dispute in court, the public may learn some valuable lessons on how to better prepare for (or ways to avoid) similar situations.

Beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams passed away suddenly in the summer of 2014, leaving fans and family in shock over the loss. Now, as the trust’s administration and distribution gets underway, Mr. Williams’ family has become embroiled in a trust dispute over the allocation of specific personal memorabilia and other property. The problems allegedly stem from a lack of specificity in the trust that was prepared presumably by an attorney and relatively recently executed by Mr. Williams on June 24, 2010 and amended and fully restated on January 31, 2012.

Mr. Williams’ surviving family includes his third wife, Susan Schneider Williams, with whom he shared no children, and three adult children from two previous marriages. The children were reportedly very close to their father and to each other. Mrs. Williams married the actor fairly recently, within the last three years, and the closeness enjoyed by the children was apparently not evidenced with their father’s wife at the time of his passing. Understandably, every member of this family has concerns over who would receive the cherished personal belongings that brought back memories of happy times.

Seeking the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney who carefully drafts the trust, will and other documents will oftentimes avoid problems regarding the interpretation of a trust and other disputes. When disputes arise, speaking with an experienced litigation attorney can often help. The first step typically involves obtaining copies of the trust and other relevant documents and gathering enough information to appreciate the relationships between family members, as well as knowing what each person believes is at stake. Many times, a trust dispute can center on the trust’s construction, competency of the trust maker, vagueness, or even omissions of property that were not transferred into the trust. Other times, the trustee himself or herself may be challenged by the beneficiaries. In any scenario, an experienced trust and estate dispute attorney may help provide clarity and avoid or promptly resolve and settle a trust or estate dispute.

In the dispute involving Mr. Williams’ trust, there are allegedly some provisions in the trust that are subject to different interpretations and there is some misunderstanding between the parties as to what property is held in trust for which beneficiary.

In Susan Williams’ December 19, 2014 Petition for Instructions Per Prob. Code § 17200 Et Seq. Regarding Interpretation Of Trust Terms, her attorneys have stated that “As shown below, there is no doubt that there are interpretive variations of the documents at issue and no doubt that a substantial number of items that would otherwise sought to be removed will indeed belong to Mrs. Williams or the trust that is supposed to have been created in her name.” (Emphasis added.)

For example, they claim that a trust was supposed to be established for Susan’s benefit with the Tiburon residence and all of its contents. However, they state that another section of the trust provides that, subject to another section of the trust dealing with his Napa residence, Robin’s children are entitled to “all of Settlor’s clothing jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to SUSAN, Settlor’s memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry and the tangible personal property located at 1100 Wall Road, Napa, CA that the Trustee determines not to sell shall be distributed to Settlor’s then living children in substantially equal shares as they shall agree.”

In her Petition, Susan’s attorneys go on to explain that the provisions regarding property designated for Robin’s children are ambiguous:

These provisions are ambiguous as to the location of the tangible personal property. Given Mr. Williams’s desire to have Mrs. Williams continue to reside in their Tiburon home, it is reasonable to interpret the provisions to provide an immediate gift of items in the Napa residence to the children, and not the items in the Tiburon residence. Any other interpretation would lead to Mrs. Williams’s home being stripped while Mrs. Williams still lives there. For example, if the gift of tangible personal property were not restricted to the Napa residence, then Mr. Williams’ promise ring and the tuxedo he wore at his wedding to Mrs. Williams would be removed from their home. It is difficult to imagine Mr. Williams desiring that outcome.

As another example, Susan’s attorneys claim that “there are also ambiguities as to what is considered jewelry, whether memorabilia is limited to memorabilia related to the entertainment industry, how to distinguish between memorabilia and contents of the home, and what to do with tangible personal property for the Tiburon residence that was stored off-site and/or at the Napa residence.” Susan claims that the trustees removed various items of personal property and only asked for Susan’s permission after-the-fact.

Finally, in her Petition, Susan’s attorneys claim that there is a dispute over the “reserve fund” that was supposed to be established to pay the costs associated with the Tiburon residence for the rest of Susan’s lifetime.

Susan’s attorneys are asking the Court to clarify various provisions of the Trust that they claim conflict with one another or are vague.

Not surprisingly, Robin’s children have another perspective.  They claim that Robin’s intent was clear.  In their January 21, 2015 Opposition to Susan’s Petition, they state, among other things, that they

are heartbroken that Petitioner, Mr. Williams’ wife of less than three years, has acted against his wishes by challenging the plans he so carefully made for his estate. While it is styled as a request for instruction, the Petition in fact appears to be a blatant attempt to alter the disposition of assets Mr. Williams specifically planned and provided for under the terms of the Trust Agreement. In particular, the Petition seeks to modify Mr. Williams’ disposition of certain tangible personal property to the Williams Children or, failing that, to redefine the tangible personal property bequeathed to the Williams Children in a way that would prevent them from receiving what their father wanted them to receive. The specific tangible personal property at issue is deeply meaningful to the Williams Children, and includes Mr. Williams’ clothes, jewelry, family photos, and cherished memorabilia.

The Children further claim that the trustees were entitled and required, under their fiduciary duties, to gather and inventory all of the trust assets. They claim that Susan refused the trustees’ access to the Tiburon home, while she obtained appraisals of certain personal property and planned a $30,000 renovation. The children argue that Susan’s petition is premature and that the trustees should be permitted to finish their inventory and other work and present their plan of distribution, all in private, before the family further engages in a public battle over the interpretation of the trust.

The Trustees filed their own Petition for Order Confirming Trust Asset on January 7, 2015. In that Petition, they state that “a parcel of real property located in Sonoma County (the “Sonoma Parcel”) . . . was held in Mr. Williams’s individual name. The Sonoma Parcel is one of five contiguous parcels that comprise Mr. Williams’s home, vineyard and acreage property located at 1100 Wall Road, Napa, California.” They go on to explain that Robin had signed a pour-over will whereby any assets not already titled in the name of his Trust would be transferred, through probate, to the Trust and that Robin signed an assignment whereby all of his property was transferred to his Trust.

The problem was that Robin apparently never signed a deed transferring title of the Sonoma Parcel to the Trust. Thus, the property would typically be part of the probate of Robin’s estate, which is a public process. The Trustees are, by their petition, seeking to avoid a public probate of even this one asset by having the Court simply retitle the parcel in the name of the trustees of the Trust.

Titling of assets in the name of a trust is a problem that we see all too often. People often go to great expense to structure and prepare a trust to hold all of their assets. They then forget to transfer all or some of their assets to the trust, thus necessitating probate.

The public’s fascination and devotion to Mr. Williams’ performances surely add interest to this family’s private matters, but for the public, there are still lessons to be learned:

  • Clearly identify who gets what;
  • Make sure that your will or trust clearly and unmistakably captures your intent; and
  • Title assets that you want to go into your trust in the name of the trustee of the trust.

If you have any questions or find yourself in a trust or estate dispute, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Photo Credit: HotGossipItalia [user is no longer active on the platform] via Compfight cc

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About Kent Berk

Always wanting to own his own business, in 1996, Kent started his own law firm, now Berk Law Group, P.C. Since then, attorney Kent Berk has regularly handled all types of disputes, lawsuits and arbitrations, with particular emphasis on real estate, probate, trust, estate and property matters. Kent Berk's Google+ Profile

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