Estate Planning Ambiguities: What Robin Williams’ will contest teaches us about creating high-value trusts

When you are gone, will your surviving heirs abide by every wish of your estate just as you envisioned, or will they fight over their own interpretations of your will? Ambiguous language in estate planning can create friction among your loved ones when they are at their most vulnerable, erasing the love underlying your final gifts.

Beloved actor Robin Williams, prior to committing suicide in August of 2014, created a number of trusts to benefit not only his three children, but also his wife at the time of his passing, Susan Schneider Williams, to whom he had been married for less than three years. As a Hollywood icon for decades, Williams appeared to be well aware of the types of disputes that often arise out of the passing of an individual with a high net worth. His estate was presumably carefully crafted to avoid such disputes, but apparently Susan and her attorneys believe they have found some ambiguities.

Over Christmas, Susan asked a California probate court to assume jurisdiction over the Robin Williams Trust to provide its interpretation of several provisions in Williams’ estate. Williams owned two homes, one in Napa Valley and one in Tiburon, California. The dispute centers around which items in the Tiburon home will go to Williams’ children, as opposed to Susan. Williams, with the help of his attorneys, drafted these trusts to describe what items will be gifted to his children versus what will remain with Susan. However, some of the language is ambiguous, opening the door for Susan’s dispute.

For example, the trust gifts to Williams’ children “clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan,” along with his “memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry.” The rest of the contents of the Tiburon house are supposed to go to Susan, other than those items gifted to his children under the trust. However, Susan has challenged some of this language in an attempt to secure more of the estate for herself. For example, Susan contends that “jewelry,” as gifted generally to Williams’ children, should not include his watch collection. She also alleges that the “contents of the Tiburon home” should include items that are currently in storage.

As with almost all challenges to wills or trusts, emotions are presumably playing a role in the litigation surrounding the Williams’ estate, and better drafting and more specific language could potentially have prevented litigation from ever commencing. For high net worth individuals, the stakes are multiplied when loved ones fight over the remainders of an estate. So what can we learn from Robin Williams’ situation? First and foremost, you should never take anything for granted in planning your estate. A gift may make perfect sense to you, but someone else may be able to find and exploit ambiguities that you never considered. Therefore, it is important to retain experienced, thorough, and diligent estate planning attorneys to assist with your estate planning.

John Steinbeck reminds us all that “the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” No matter your intent, high stakes bring the risk of serious controversy. An attorney who is well-versed in these high-value disputes is an indispensible asset for avoiding potential pitfalls in your estate planning.

The experienced, meticulous team at Chepenik Trushin can help you structure an estate plan that will adhere to your wishes and withstand any potential challenges to your will. Please do not hesitate to contact us for a consultation.