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Why Would Robin Williams’ Widow Start a Fight Now?

Robin Williams When Robin Williams committed suicide six months ago, he left behind three grown children from his first two marriages and a widow of less than three years. Unlike many Americans, Williams actually went out of his way to create a thoroughly detailed estate plan, including several trusts that were crafted to benefit all of them. Even the trust he established for his widow was consistent with the prenuptial agreement the two of them signed before they were married in 2011.


By creating such a thoughtful plan, it's obvious Williams intended to avoid the family fighting that often accompanies probate proceedings, especially those involving mixed family groups. It seemed as if he was intent on making sure that his wishes took precedence and were carried out according to his carefully crafted instructions.


So what happened? Just before Christmas, Williams' widow Susan asked a California probate court to assume jurisdiction over the Robin Williams Trust, so that they could interpret several provisions on which she and Williams' children who, again, come from two different marriages, disagree on. In particular, at issue is the language from an amendment to the Trust, which Williams filed in January 2012, after he and Susan were married. According to the Trust documents, Susan is to be able to live in the couple's Tiburon, California home, including the furniture and some of the contents of the home, for the rest of her life, and a fund should be set up to pay all of the residence's expenses for her benefit. Meanwhile, Williams' larger Napa Valley estate and its contents are to benefit the children.


The problem comes with language the Williams trust uses to pass most of his belongings to his children. Those possessions include all of his “clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan” and his “memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry and the tangible personal property located” at the Napa Valley property. Williams' trust gives most of the contents of the Tiburon home to Susan, but very specifically excludes those possessions specifically gifted to his children.


Susan Williams' court filing, however, asserts that these provisions are unclear, and the court needs to intervene to clarify them. She claims that the term "memorabilia" should  include only “specific items of tangible personal property as it relates to Robin Williams’s acting career.”  She also wants the term "jewelry" to be limited, so that it doesn't include his extensive collection of watches and she wants the definition of "contents of the Tiburon home" to include items located in storage, and not limited to those items specifically located in the home.  She additionally asks the Court to determine how to value the fund that will be created to pay for the expenses of the Tiburon home.  In addition to those interpretations, she also requested that the court exclude all items in the Tiburon house from going to the children, despite the fact that the trust orders otherwise.


Predictably, Williams’ children responded to the filing by describing themselves as “heartbroken” and suggesting that Susan was attempting to blatantly ignore their father's wishes. They characterized the trust as "unambiguous" and noted that among the items in dispute include some the children helped their late father create, and which hold deep meaning for them. 


With any trust, it is the impartial trustees who are charged with the responsibility of gathering and inventorying the trust assets and informing the trust beneficiaries of how the assets will be divided, with that determination based on the terms of the trust.  It’s puzzling why this filing was made, because this process should be free of court or media influence. It is not uncommon for family members to have different views on how the property is divided, but most such differences are traditionally settled in private. Why this has been allowed to become a public squabble is anyone's guess. 

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