The Williams Family Feud – Lessons for Estate Planning

The Williams Family Feud – Lessons for Estate Planning

Back in November 2014, I blogged about Robin Williams’ estate plan and his use of a living trust as a vehicle for distributing assets to his children. Unfortunately, despite what appears to be a thoughtfully crafted plan for who receives which assets, members of Williams’ immediate family have opted to litigate a dispute over his estate.

The dispute focuses on an array of Mr. Williams’ personal items including his a tuxedo Mr. Williams wore, a promise ring, photographs and awards at his Tiburon, California home. The rivaling family members include Mr. Williams’ wife and three children from previous marriages.

According to his estate plan, Mr. Williams passed on his Tiburon home to his wife. However, her attorney contends that the home should not be “stripped” of the things inside of it. On the other side, Mr. Williams’ children argue that they are entitled to personal items, per the directives of Mr. Williams’ Last Will and Testament. His wife believes those items should be restricted to what is inside Mr. Williams’ other home in Napa.

Mr. Williams’ children disagree and assert that their stepmother refused to let them access the Tiburon home for months after their father suddenly passed away, according to CNN.com.

Here is a video of a news report detailing the Williams family feud:

It’s unfortunate when an estate dispute devolves into litigation. In an ideal world, the family members would respect the wishes of their deceased loved one and abide by the express directives of the Will, and other documents pertaining to the estate. As evidenced by the Williams’ dispute, this does not always happen. I suspect if you asked Robin Williams if his estate plan worked he would say no.

You may be asking yourself, “is there a way to reduce or restrict the possibility of litigation arising from my estate?” The answer is yes.

A common estate planning tool is including a “no contest” clause in your estate plan. This clause essentially states that is someone filed a legal challenge to the language of your Will and lose, they lose the right to inherit any assets from you. But keep in mind, the validity of such a clause depends largely on state law. For example, Maryland abides by no contest clauses, but allows an exception for contests based on “probable cause,” whereas Virginia abides by no contest clauses without any regard to probable cause. There are other issues with no contest clauses that may make them inapplicable so they are not a guaranty.

Another option is adding a mandatory mediation clause to your estate plan. Usually, a mandatory mediation clause would require disputing parties to try and resolve an estate conflict prior to filing a lawsuit. Additionally, if they fail to mediate, the party who refuses to participate cannot recover attorney fees at trial. Some estate planning attorneys argue that a mandatory mediation clause can only benefit your estate plan and help reduce the risk of unnecessary litigation. However, other estate planners argue that a mandatory mediation clause actually weakens the aforementioned no contest clause. Why? The argument goes that a mediation clause provides the contesting party with a proverbial “peek” at the parties involved in the dispute and any legitimate legal issues with the estate plan. Of course, this argument assumes that a party seeking mediation is acting in bad faith.

In our experience, we have found the best way to avoid a dispute over personal effects is to document our client’s intent regarding who gets what. Moreover, the best plans also include WHY you are giving that item to that person. Take that one extra step can potentially avoid thousands of dollars of legal bills and more importantly avoid hurt feelings between family members. There are different methods you can employ to document your intent: written memorandum, audio and video. We have utilized all three methods in our office and in our experience the audios seem to have the greatest impact. There is something about hearing a loved one’s voice that carries a powerful impact to the receiver. It is what I call true legacy planning. Again, we like the approach of naming who gets what because if you leave your personal items to your loved ones in “equal shares” there is a risk of disputes forming since your loved ones have the burden of figuring out how to divide your items. That can be very difficult, as we see with the Williams’ estate feud.

Take the time to sit down with your estate planning attorney to discuss your plan and the best ways to avoid inter-family disputes about who gets what.