Thursday, February 5, 2015

Avoiding Personal Property Fights

While we value our client's privacy and would hate to have any of their affairs end up as a news story, there are lessons that are better learned by observing others than by experiencing them ourselves. With that in mind today's blog addresses an all to common problem that arises even when an estate does not contain an Oscar statuette. 

A current news story about the actor and comedian Robin Williams's estate is a clear example of why complete estate planning is necessary. The comedian's wife, Susan, and children  Zachary, Zelda and Cody are fighting over his estate, specifically personal property. Susan, married to Williams for three years, is claiming personal items that the children argue were to be given to them.
The dispute centers around two houses owned by Robin Williams at the time of his death. Williams' Trust grants Susan one residence and its contents upon his death, but there is another clause that says that his children get all of his "clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to his current wife,... memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry and the tangible personal property located in Napa."  The wife is asking the court to define "memorabilia" to exclude Williams' collections , including Japanese anime figurines, antique weapons, carved boxes, theater masked, rare books, lapel pins, fossils, graphic novels and skulls, which the children are claiming. 
While Robin Williams carefully thought out his estate planning to protect all of his loved ones, he, like many others, failed to specify in detail personal property bequests. This can lead at a minimum to hurt feelings and can escalate into significant family disharmony and tear families apart.
Rather than leaving personal property bequests to the interpretation of various beneficiaries or the courts, it makes more sense to specify personal property bequests in a "Personal Property Memorandum", coordinated with the client's Living Trust, detailing specific beneficiaries for various personal items including, artwork, collections, specific pieces of jewelry, and any other personal property. 
We all have the ability to prevent family squabbles over personal property, whether of great value or sentimental value. Why leave it to others, including the courts, to guess or argue about how we really wanted our personal property to be distributed.

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