Robin Williams’ Hotly Contested Estate Settles Amicably
When Robin Williams tragically took his own life in August of 2014, his family was grieving and his estate planning documents came under immediate scrutiny. Williams left a wife (Susan Schneider Williams) whom he had married in October of 2011, and three adult children, Zachary, Zelda and Cody, from previous marriages. Williams had adequately planned for his own demise. He had carefully crafted estate planning documents including a Last Will and Testament that clearly named important trustees, referenced a proper prenuptial agreement, and created a testamentary trust on behalf of his wife. He also dealt with thousands of personal effects through provisions in his will. Despite this careful planning and attention to detail, his estate plan was subject to litigation in the San Francisco courts throughout nearly the entirety of 2015.
Williams was not your average entertainer. His gifts were massive. An Academy Award winner who also won two Emmys, five Grammys and six Golden Globes during his career, Williams’ talent was well-known to children and to the oldest of our population. A stand-up comedian who “crossed over” into television and cinema very easily, Williams was known for an incredible dramatic flair combined with voice-over and vocal work that was legendary. This type of success caused him to amass thousands of valuable personal items and two magnificent properties in California – one located in prestigious Tiburon, a San Francisco suburb, and the other, a dreamy $25 Million estate in the Napa Valley.
His estimated $100 Million estate clearly provided the fuel for litigation that could have lasted for years.
Susan Schneider Williams filed first, approximately four months after Williams’ passing, claiming that she could not pay the bills or maintain the home left to her in Tiburon, California. She also claimed that she was entitled to many personal effects acquired during the period of the marriage and that Williams did not intend to leave these to his children. She claimed that her home was being improperly “invaded” by appraisers and trustees who were in fact removing items from her marital home without her permission. The testamentary trust within Williams Last Will and Testament clearly left the Tiburon, California 6-bedroom residence and its contents to his widow but carved out “…clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan, memorabilia, awards in the entertainment industry and tangible personal property located in the Napa home”. Williams’ children fired back with a counterclaim, attacking her opportunistic approach to the estate based upon a marriage of less than 3 years, which was subject to a prenuptial agreement.
However, the language leaving to his widow the contents in the Tiburon home provided a window of opportunity for Mrs. Schneider Williams to challenge the other provision which left his thousands of personal effects to his children.
Williams was a collector of exotic and expensive watches and jewelry, antique weapons, hand-carved boxes, one-of-a-kind theatre masks, rare books, pieces of art, fossils, lapel pins, graphic novels and even skulls. But Robin Williams may have best been known for his collection of high-end bicycles. At the time of his death, he had more than 50, worthy of opening a bicycle store. The value of these personal items as appraised, reached the millions.
To the credit of the parties and the attorneys on both sides, during 2015 they used the courts in order to carefully craft a settlement agreement which solved the problem of Mrs. Schneider Williams being able to remain in the Tiburon, California home for the remainder of her life. She was eventually provided with a life estate with funds adequate to maintain the property and pay the bills related to the property for the rest of her life. The parties also “carved out” wedding gifts and a few items acquired during her marriage. As of December 2015, the settlement agreement was still subject to judicial approval. However, courts rarely overturn or significantly intervene to frustrate the terms of a settlement reached in such a complicated dispute.
The Robin Williams estate dispute provides insight in two specific areas. First, no matter how specifically a Last Will and Testament is written, the interpretation of that document could end up in a court of law. Second, through negotiations and using common sense, it is possible to resolve an estate, even a $100 Million estate, completely and rapidly through the court system. The Williams estate dispute and the litigation that followed provides an example of all family members being adequately taken care of and reaching a resolution that all parties could live with. There is little doubt that the most important document considered in the case, although subject to some dispute, was the detailed estate plan left by Williams.