Actor Robin Williams’ Estate: How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes and Splitting an Already-Divided Family When Dividing Personal Property

The handling of comedian and actor Robin Williams’ estate by his children and wife has received much attention in connection with their squabbling over who will take what personal property from his estate. It’s an illustration of what can go wrong when a dispute ensues over who will get what items of deep sentimental value after a family member dies (though with a celebrity such as Williams, the personal property likely has significant monetary value as well).

The latest development is good news for all involved. Out of court negotiations have been agreed to and a court hearing in the matter has been delayed. Williams’ wife of the past five years, Susan Schneider, and his three children from two previous marriages will at least put their differences on hold while they try to reach a negotiated agreement, according to Agence France Press. If that fails, then a mediator is expected to get involved. The parties are reportedly facing a June deadline.

The Williams’ family found themselves in all too familiar territory as many families, especially “blended” families wherein parents have re-married, possibly having children from multiple marriages. Instead of trying to cope with a sudden loss and supporting each other, they are in conflict. According to Time magazine, at the time of Williams’ death his estate plans were updated, including specific trust agreements, but that wasn’t enough to prevent significant problems from erupting.

One reason is that Williams made a common mistake. His estate plan covered big ticket items but not the personal mementoes and cherished items that can cause the most contention between blended family members. Personal possessions often cannot be easily divided and emotional attachments can make disagreements between family members considerably antagonistic.

Appropriately designating personal property to loved ones is not an unimportant task and requires careful planning and forethought. Decisions about personal belongings (or non-titled property) can be more challenging than decisions concerning financial assets or real property, according to Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?, a guide to help families address personal property issues from the University of Minnesota.
Below are several of the top reasons why discussing personal property designations can be useful:
  • The decision to pass on personal items is made during long and potentially complex relationships involving a number of family and friends.
  • Inheritance decisions can have a powerful impact on friends and family members, especially for blended families involving one (or more) former spouse(s).
  • There can be not only emotional issues but potential financial value as well when dealing with objects accumulated over a lifetime across multiple family generations.

Sentimental meaning attached to personal possessions can make decisions more difficult and emotional because these objects can involve the grieving process, preserve family history and rituals. Being “fair” in how they should be divided can be difficult, if not impossible.

Below are additional points to consider:

  • Personal belongings have a subjective value.
  • It’s difficult to assign a (fair market) value on personal property.
  • Dividing items equally can be impossible

Don’t wait until a crisis to decide to whom you want to leave your personal property.

  • Decision making can be more difficult during times of serious illness or grieving.
  • If a quick sale of the family home is needed, there may not be the time or energy to fully consider who should get what property.
  • In a crisis the property owner may be especially vulnerable to the undue influence of a caregiver.
  • If there is no Will or listing of personal property designations, family members are confronted with many potential dilemmas and difficult decisions about the division of personal possessions.

There are five factors to consider when planning to transfer your personal property, or work with others when planning to transfer the property of someone who has passed:

  • Understand the sensitivity involved in transferring non-titled property.
  • Determine what’s fair in the context of your family.
  • The level of interest in objects may vary among family members.
  • Consider distribution options and consequences.
  • Manage conflicts as they arise, including retaining the services of a certified mediator.

When developing your estate plan, consider:

1.What’s Important?

Any personal property can be a source of conflict so prioritize the possessions with the most meaning to you and your family. What do you want to accomplish and who do you want to receive what property?

2.What’s Your System?

Connect your goals to your bequests and what’s fair for your family.

  • Invite potential heirs to discuss how property should be divided.
  • There need not be an even split of your property but be thoughtful and consistent with the process you use.
  • Make it clear how your decision making works and who will be involved.
  • You have many options including a random selection of objects by family members. The priority of who chooses first could be decided by age, gender or closeness of relationship

3.Make Wishes Known

Once you’ve made a list of your personal property, make the process transparent and inform loved ones of your wishes of how your belongings will be divided upon passing.

  • Communicate openly and clearly, though this could be a double edged sword. An open and honest conversation can clear the air in connection to what objects family members value and covet while diffusing potential conflict. However, be prepared for an emotional reaction from loved ones who do not understand and/or agree with your decisions.
  • If one family member’s feelings are much stronger than another’s, you could modify your plan or have loved ones swap one piece of property for another.
  • While loved ones may not be pleased with your decisions, they’ll know your wishes and understand your thought process, decreasing the likelihood of disagreement

Once you have a thorough understanding of the emotional and relationship issues involved in dividing personal property, there are practical matters you should consider when crafting your estate plan,

  • Write down your wishes, sign and date the list of what property going to a designated list of individuals. Attach a copy to your Will and/or provide a copy to the executor. Mention the list in your Will.
  • Make the list detailed (you can even include photos) to avoid confusion.
  • If you want particular items to go to specific people, you should write that down.
  • If you want all the contents of a home to go to a particular person, state that but if there are specific items in the home you want others to have make sure that’s clear.
  • Avoid stating that the property will be divided among your heirs in a pro-rated way (the three children will each get a third of the personal property). Using percentages does not work as a viable means of dividing personal property to be willed to other people. Be very specific to avoid misunderstandings and potential conflicts which may result in a Will dispute.
  • If you have a blended family be especially sensitive to issues that can exist among your children and spouse, as in the Williams’ estate, when outlining out how property is to be divided.

Designating personal property to others may be a difficult task, but like other actions needed for estate planning, when it’s done properly it can make the estate administration process significantly easier and less expensive for all. The best way to address the issues involving inheritance and personal property is through planning, thought and action. Contact us today so we may discuss how to handle your estate planning needs in the most appropriate way possible for you and your loved ones.