There is no sure fire way to prevent litigation following your death. While it is definitely the case that valuable estates, as well as celebrity estates, are even more likely to wind up in litigation, surviving loved ones will frequently find some reason to litigate even a modest estate. Completely preventing litigation may not be possible; however, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of litigation and/or diminish the impact that litigation will have on your estate through a carefully crafted estate plan. An excellent celebrity example of that can be found in the estate plan of actor and funnyman Robin Williams who passed away in 2014.
The Death of Robin Williams
Comedian Robin Williams made everyone laugh. Whether you were five or 95, there was a role he played that you could relate to and appreciate. Unfortunately, the man who made America laugh was apparently fighting his own inner demons for much of his life, culminating in the taking of his own life in 2014. Those same inner demons contributed to his two divorces. At the time of his death, he was married to his third wife, Susan Schneider. He was also survived by three children from those two previous marriages.
You might think that as actors, singers, and other entertainers become more famous (and more wealthy) that they would be more inclined to protect their estates with complex estate plans. That is not always the case. In fact, it is relatively common for the death of an entertainer to be followed by a battle over the estate that is caused, at least in part, by a lack of planning on the part o the decedent. That was not the case with Robin Williams. Williams actually made a significant effort to prevent litigation.
In December 2014, shortly after Williams’ death, the legal battle began when Williams’ widow, Susan Schneider Williams, claimed that she was not receiving enough money from the actor’s estate to maintain the Tiburon, California home she shared with him before his death. Williams and Schneider entered into a prenuptial agreement prior to their 2011 marriage. In addition, like many people who are part of a blended family, Williams created a trust as part of his estate plan. The terms of the trust allowed Schneider to live in the couple’s home for the rest of her life with the expenses associated with maintaining the home to be paid out of the trust as well. Schneider was also allowed to keep the contents of the home and certain other possessions, but the majority of Williams’ belongings were directed to go to his three children, including his clothing, jewelry, memorabilia, and awards in the entertainment industry.
Despite Williams’ attempt to prevent litigation following his death, his wife filed a petition within months of his death claiming that the Trustees would not set aside enough money to pay her living expenses. She also objected to the Trustees desire to inspect the contents of the home and removal of items meant for the children. Williams’ children had said that their stepmother was “adding insult to a terrible injury” by trying to change the trust and that they were “heartbroken” that she had “acted against his wishes by challenging the plans he so carefully made for his estate.”
Fortunately, the litigation did not last as long as similar celebrity estate battles. A confidential settlement was reached within a year. Lawyers for Susan said in a statement, “Mrs. Williams is able to keep the few emotional items she requested, such as their wedding gifts, selected clothing items, a watch Robin often wore, plus the bike she and her husband bought together on their honeymoon.” The statement goes on to say that “The Williams children will receive the vast majority of the items they demanded, such as more than 50 bikes and over 85 watches, as well as thousands of never-disputed items like Robin Williams’s Academy Award statue.
Lessons to Be Learned
Celebrity estate battles always offer a lesson for the rest of us. In this case, the most obvious lesson is that even when you take steps to prevent litigation after you are gone, it can still happen. Given an estimated net worth of over $100 million though, it is safe to say that had Robin Williams not left behind such a well thought out estate plan, the litigation over his estate would likely still be going on.
Contact Beverly Estate Planning Attorneys
For more information, please join us for an upcoming FREE seminar. If you have questions about estate planning, contact the Beverly estate planning lawyers at DeBruyckere Law Offices by calling (603) 894-4141 or (978) 969-0331 to schedule an appointment.
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