When Heirs Fight for Personal Effects ; It's Often the Small Things with Sentimental Value That Lead Families to Court

By Sullivan, Paul | International New York Times, April 4, 2015 | Go to article overview

When Heirs Fight for Personal Effects ; It's Often the Small Things with Sentimental Value That Lead Families to Court


Sullivan, Paul, International New York Times


Robin Williams's widow and children are in the middle of a fight over his personal effects. Such wrangling is hardly uncommon.

Robin Williams's widow agreed that the rainbow suspenders he wore on the television comedy "Mork & Mindy" should go to his children from previous marriages, but she did want the tuxedo the comedian wore at their wedding. Simple, it might seem, but not in the complicated world of blended families.

This past week, nearly eight months after Mr. Williams committed suicide in his home in Northern California, his children and his third wife were in court over a part of his estate plan that many people overlook: Who is entitled to stuff with more sentimental than monetary value?

Mr. Williams left to his three children the clothing, jewelry and personal items that he had amassed before his third marriage, and that seems to include the tuxedo.

But his wife was given their home and its contents, where the tuxedo presumably hung. She has claimed in court papers that someone took personal items from that home, where Mr. Williams died, and she believes she is entitled to them. (No one seems to be contesting that a second home in Napa, Calif., and its contents goes to his children.)

For most families, a desire for personal effects -- a father's watch, a necklace, a set of earrings a mother wore -- is less about what they are worth and more about their sentimental value. In the case of Mr. Williams, some of those personal items -- like an Oscar for his role in the film "Good Will Hunting" or those suspenders -- have real monetary value to collectors.

But trust and estate attorneys said that this case, if stripped of its Hollywood glamour, would be no different from the many cases they see of children from previous marriages battling their parent's last spouse over the smallest things.

"I've sent three sons to very expensive Ivy League schools thanks to the dysfunctional nature of estate planning for families with stepchildren," said William Zabel, a founding partner of the law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel.

Mr. Zabel, who represented Wendi Murdoch and Jane Welch in their divorces, recalled a case where the children locked their stepmother out of her home in Florida within 24 hours of their father's death. "They not only locked her out of the home, but they installed their natural mother," Mr. Zabel said. "She had to retreat to New York."

In that case, not only could the stepmother not get her deceased husband's stuff, she could not get her own possessions either.

"Most estate plans tend to focus on the big-ticket items: the house, the bank accounts, the investments," said Darren Wallace, a partner at the law firm Day Pitney, where he specializes in estate and trust planning, administration and litigation. "But often it's the personal mementos that cause the most contention."

In the Williams case, Mr. Wallace said the comedian could have put the house he lived in with his wife and all of its contents into a type of trust, called a qualified terminable interest property trust, where she would have use of it during her lifetime. After she died, ownership would pass to his children.

Such trusts, though, are normally used for assets that generate income, which goes to the surviving spouse, while preserving the principal for the children. Putting a house in such a trust could backfire, at least if the purpose was to give the house, not its value, to the children later on.

"The spouse has the right to demand that the principal is income- producing, so she could have the trust sell it," said Laurie Ruckel, partner at Loeb & Loeb.

A simpler but more emotional solution is to make a list of the items that you want people to have, but then give that list to the executor as a letter that is not part of the estate plan. That way, if the estate is audited, the I.R.S. will not see the letter and ask for items that are on the list but no longer around. …

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