Estate Planning Tips to Know After Robin Williams Saga

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Robin Williams Napa Valley Estate - 1100 Wall Road
ZillowRobin Williams left his vineyard estate in Napa Valley to his three children. It is on the market for $25.9 million.
On Monday, a judge gave the grieving children and widow of Robin Williams until June 1 to settle out of court their battle over items in his estate, eight months after the highly acclaimed actor died in August at his home in near Tiburon, California, of apparent suicide.

Williams probably believed he had an airtight will and testament to settle and divide his estate among his wife and three children from previous marriages. But where there's a will, there's still a way for families to dispute the wishes of their loved one. Here's what we can learn from the Williams case about estate planning.

Williams' trust provides that his wife, Susan Schneider, can reside in the couple's home in the Paradise Cay community near Tiburon for the rest of her life. An estate planning attorney and an accountant in charge of the trust must establish a fund to pay all of the expenses of the residence for Susan's benefit. Susan also receives the furniture, furnishings, and some of the contents of the Tiburon house.

Williams left his five-bedroom, 12-bathroom, Mediterranean-style Napa Valley home, including its guesthouse, stable and fishpond, to his children, along with its contents. The home, named Villa Sorriso (translated "House of Smiles") was on the market at the time of his death. Williams originally priced the luxurious 640-acre property at $35 million, admitting that he felt that he could no longer afford it. He then took it off the market before re-listing it in April 2014 at $29.5 million.

"Because Robin Williams' estate plan was carefully crafted, it initially appeared that his heirs would avoid the bitter family squabbles that affect many mixed-marriage families," say Andrew Mayoras and his wife, Danielle, co-authors of "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!"

"[Williams'] trust carefully describes what he wanted to pass to his three children, which included all of his 'clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan as well as Robin's memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry,'" Mayoras reported. The trust gives the rest of the contents of the Tiburon house to Susan, specifically excluding the items gifted to his children under the trust.

Schneider, who married Williams in 2011, filed action in court in January claiming that the children wanted to take certain items in the Tiburon home that she believes were willed to her. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Andrew Cheng told lawyers for both sides during a recent hearing to meet before April 10 and enlist the help of a mediator if necessary before returning to court.

Below are some estate planning tips from the American Bar Association you should know that may help lessen a family battle over your own estate after your death.

Right to Designate Versus Heirship Laws

A will provides for the distribution of certain property owned by you at the time of your death, and generally you may choose how to divvy up such property in whatever manner you want. "Your right to dispose of property as you choose, however, may be subject to forced heirship laws of most states that prevent you from disinheriting a spouse and, in some cases, children. For example, many states have spousal rights of election laws that permit a spouse to claim a certain interest in your estate regardless of what your will (or other documents addressing the disposition of your property) provides," according to the ABA.

Beneficiaries and Titling

Your will does not govern the disposition of your property or assets that are controlled by beneficiary designations or by titling. These designations are decided outside of your probate estate. Such assets include property titled in joint names with rights of survivorship, payable on death accounts, life insurance, retirement plans and accounts, and employee death benefits.

Jointly Owned Property and the Law

If you own property with another person as joint tenants with right of survivorship instead of as tenants in common, the property will pass directly to the remaining joint tenant upon your death and will not be a part of your probate estate governed by your will (or the state's laws of intestacy if you have no will).

When There is Not a Will

If you die intestate (without a will), your state's laws of descent and distribution will determine who receives your property by default. These laws vary by state, but typically the distribution would be to your spouse and children, or if none, to other family members.

The Truth About Wills

When people prepare wills, they often believe the will governs who will inherit their assets. However, certain items are exempt or should be handled with a trust. For example, the ownership of various accounts or real property -- or the beneficiary designations on an IRA, life insurance or certain other assets -- control the distribution regardless of what you put in a will. That's where a trust could help.

Putting Trust in Trusts

Trusts are legal arrangements that can provide flexibility for the ownership of certain assets. Trusts are not just for the wealthy. A testamentary trust and its trust provisions are contained in your will. A living trust and its trust provisions are contained in the trust agreement. The provisions of a living trust (rather than your will or state law default rules) usually will determine what happens to the property in the trust upon your death.

When setting up a trust or a will and testament, it is best to consult with attorneys who specialize in these matters. Although Williams adhered to that advice and it still didn't keep his heirs out of court or prevent them from squabbling over the definition of words (e.g. is a watch a piece of jewelry or not?), having a will and trust should help diffuse the situation. Just ask Dennis Hopper's widow, Victoria Duffy.

Sheree R. Curry is an award-winning, 20-year veteran journalist who has been writing for AOL Real Estate since 2009. Send her your tips & ideas. Follow her on Twitter at shereecurry.
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