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Fight over Robin Williams estate offers valuable lessons

When comedian and actor Robin Williams passed away, it seemed like his affairs were in order. He had prepared a will and specific trust agreements. He also had a prenuptial agreement in place. By most measures, it seemed as if he had done everything necessary to ensure that his estate would be distributed without conflicts or legal disputes. Despite his planning, though, his heirs still find themselves at odds with each other over Mr. Williams's assets. The battles surrounding his estate provides valuable lessons for New York residents who are in the process of considering how their assets will be distributed when they die.

In many testamentary battles, the assets in dispute are big ticket items like homes, cars and money. That's not the case with the current battle over the actor's estate. Instead, his three children are fighting with Mr. Williams's widow and third wife over personal items like memorabilia, bicycles, action figures, and more. Estate planning experts say that it's not uncommon for families to fight over items that hold primarily sentimental value.

Individuals can avoid these disputes by making their will and trust documents as specific as possible. While it's unlikely that people could specifically list every possession that they may own, they can address those items that may hold sentimental value. This is especially important in blended families where there may strained or complex relationships. Making the documents specific with regard to these items gives heirs little room to wage a battle.

It can also be helpful to have conversations with heirs before preparing documents, as a testator may be surprised to learn which items a child or spouse holds dear. An estate planning attorney can help facilitate these conversations by hosting a family meeting and then help to create documents that minimize the chance of subsequent family disputes.

Source: Time Magazine, "3 Things We Can Learn From Robin Williams' Estate Battle", Kerri Anne Renzulli, Feb. 4, 2015

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