Robin Williams’ Foolproof Estate Plan? How To Avoid Family Fallout

Posted by Steven Maimes,

Hartford Courant article by Kevin Hunt

5-12-15_Robin_Williams_foolproofBy Hollywood standards, Robin Williams created an uncommonly sophisticated, tax-efficient estate plan before his tragic death by suicide in August 2014.

It appeared almost beyond dispute, with a real-estate holding trust and at least one other trust, covering everything from his Villa Sorriso (Villa of Smiles) mansion in Napa Valley — listed after his death at $29.9 million — to his “memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry” designated for either his children or widow.

But as March ended, attorneys for the estate and heirs appeared before a probate judge in San Francisco Superior Court in an ongoing battle between Williams’ widow, Susan Schneider Williams, and three children from his first two marriages.

What went wrong?

“Kids fight over the china and silverware,” says Darren Wallace, an attorney and estate planner at Day Pitney’s Stamford office. “These are the things that get people upset.”

Aside from the entertainment-industry memorabilia, Williams also left his children the “tangible personal property” in the Napa Valley home. Schneider Williams, in a court filing, requested clarity on the meaning of “memorabilia” and asked that “jewelry” left for his Williams’ children exclude his watch collection. After their marriage in 2012, Robin Williams amended one of his trusts so that she could live in their 6,500-square-foot waterfront home in Tiburon, Calif., valued at $6 million, the rest of her life and retain most of its contents. In the court filing, she asks for all property in the Tiburon home, even items the trust specifically designates for the children.

Schneider Wiliams also filed a suit in December alleging that some of Williams’ clothing and photographs, among other possessions, had been taken from their home by his three children, Zachary, Zelda and Cody. To avoid a jewelry-watch-photo challenge, says Wallace, an estate needs specifics.

“We try to be very clear in the drafting,” he says. “It looks like, from some of the reports, that language used to dispose of these things was what I would call more general language. With a client like Robin Williams, where there’s clearly celebrity or even in the more routine case, with specialty assets you could identify as having particular financial or sentimental value like wine collections, a gun collection, a car collection or art or jewelry, it’s important not to rely on more general language. You can’t leave it up to interpretation.”

Wallace often recommends a Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust, known as a QTIP (available in any state), for blended families because it provides for the surviving spouse while retaining control of the trust’s assets after the surviving spouse’s death. A surviving spouse could remain in the family home, for example, but the house and assets ultimately belong to the children.

“It allows for exactly the situation they’re dealing with,” says Wallace. “It might not make everybody happy, but at least it avoids this type of division where everyone is putting stickies on everything they’re claiming.”

Supplement a will or trust with side letters or guidance memos, for further clarity. “Express in very clear language, not necessarily legalese,” says Wallace, “the intentions carrying out the estate plan.”

Nobody likes a movie spoiler, but a spoiler alert for a will is not a bad idea. Give your children and other loved ones an indication what you will leave them.

“Set expectations,” says Wallace, “so the folks involved, in this case the widow and children, have some idea of what the plan might call for so they’re not learning about it for the first time following a tragic event. After they lose a loved one, they’re going to be grieving. They don’t want surprises.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a heroin overdose in 2014, did not leave money for his three children because, as court documents revealed, he did not want trust-fund kids. He left his estimated $35 million estate to Mimi O’Donnell, his partner and mother of the children. Because they were not married, however, O’Donnell did not qualify for the estate-tax law’s unlimited marital deduction. That estate-planning blunder left Hoffman with a $15 million tax bill.

The recent court appearance of Williams’ heirs probably says more about the relationship between his widow and his three children than the thoroughness of his estate planning. The judge apparently agreed: He gave the heirs two months to resolve the dispute by themselves.

Source: Posted by:  Steven Maimes, The Trust Advisor



Patricia Annino is a sought after speaker and nationally recognized authority on women and estate planning. She educates and empowers women to value themselves and their contributions in order to ACCOMPLISH GREAT THINGS in the world – and in so doing PROTECT THEMSELVES, those they love, and the organizations they care about. Annino recently released her new book, “It’s More Than Money, Protect Your Legacy” available at To download Annino’s FREE eBook, Estate Planning 101 visit,

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