As a Private Client solicitor dealing regularly with family disputes and fallouts, it’s not unusual for me to speak out about the importance of having the relevant and up to date planning in place should the worst happen.
But in the case of Hollywood actor Robin Williams, he had done all the right things and had the appropriate legal paperwork in place in the event of his death. However, as can often be the case, even with his wishes outlined seemingly in black and white, a family dispute has begun over how his assets are divided.
Many personal items were willed to his three children from his previous two marriages but his widow from his third marriage, Susan Williams, is disputing their entitlement to them. The paragraph in the will which is being debated says that Robin Williams' children are given "clothing, jewellery, personal photos taken prior to his marriage, memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry and the tangible personal property located in Napa." The argument that is ensuing is due to the final three words “located in Napa”. Williams is arguing that these three words relate to the whole sentence so that the children are only entitled to clothing, jewellery, personal photos etc that are contained in the Napa property, therefore leaving all personal items in the Tiburon house to her. However, the children are reading the sentence differently and state that the last three words only refer to the tangible personal property and they are entitled to all clothing, jewellery etc wherever it is held. It is now up to the court to decide how the will should be read.
Robin Williams did better than most when completing his will as he didn’t just think about the bigger things such as property or bank accounts but considered his personal possessions. This may be because he was aware that certain things such as his Oscar statuettes or the suit he wore to the Oscars would be extremely valuable. But whatever the monetary value of personal possessions the sentimental value will often be far more. It is easy to split cash between X amount of people but how can you split that vase that has been in the family for a number of years?
It is therefore extremely important within your will to define any personal items that you wish to go to a specific person and define them clearly. “My blue vase” is fine if you only have one but if you have a whole collection, which exact blue vase needs to be described as fully as possible. We can see from Robin Williams’ will that it is so easy for a sentence to be construed differently depending on how people want it to fit their situation.
In an ideal world you could write everything to be divided equally but in the current litigious climate with 2nd marriages, step children and split families this is not always going to be the case and the greater the definition the less likely is the potential for conflict.