The Missing Piece to Robin Williams' Estate Plan: A Guidance Memo

You could help save your family a lot of stress and confusion.

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Is your estate plan complete?  The late actor Robin Williams probably thought so.  Mr. Williams left an estate estimated at more than $50 million mostly to his wife and three children from his first two marriages.  His estate plan was tax-efficient and uncommonly sophisticated covering everything from his mansion in Napa Valley to his “memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry”.  However, his estate is tied up in probate court as the heirs argue the meaning of “memorabilia”.  They are also asking for clarity regarding “jewelry” and whether this includes his watch collection or if it is a “collection”.  Mrs. Williams filed a suit alleging that some of the actor’s clothing, photographs, and other possessions, had been taken from their home by his three children, Zachary, Zelda and Cody.

The current legal issues of the Williams’ heirs probably say more about their relationship than the thoroughness of his estate planning.   However, their situation points to the potential problem with personal property.  Cash and marketable securities can be easily divided equally among multiple heirs.  A wedding ring, antiques, other types of personal property that may have sentimental value cannot be divided equally.  Items of considerable value need to be listed in your estate planning documents with clear directions on how they are to be distributed.

Consider supplementing your will or trust with side letters of final instructions or guidance memos to clarify your intentions.  A side letter of instruction is a non-legally-binding document that provides your family with guidance upon your death on things that wouldn’t necessarily go into a legal document.  Guidance memos would include anything that your heirs might want or need to know that wasn’t outlined in your estate plan.  The memo could help your heirs avoid hassles and save your family a lot of stress and confusion.  Be sure to store it somewhere that your heirs can easily access it upon your death.

Rick Rodgers

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