The more assets you have, the more complicated it may be to figure out how to distribute your stuff after you pass away. Even a deeply considered and carefully prepared estate plan cannot prevent all possible disputes between beneficiaries during probate.
For example, the children of the late actor and comedian Robin Williams are in court, contesting a petition filed by their stepmother, who was Williams’ wife when he died in August. At issue is how to interpret a portion of a trust that left some of Williams’ personal property, such as clothing and jewelry, to his three children.
According to the wife’s petition, the children took items from the house she shared with Williams, one of two he owned. The wife said the children, who were trustees of the trust, came “within days” of their father’s death to her house and took some property. Weeks later, they informed their stepmother they would be returning to remove some more items. The petition compared these actions to “invading her home.”
Williams’ trust assigns to his children several types of personal property, including jewelry and memorabilia from Williams’ career. There is also a clause giving the children “the tangible property located in Napa.”
Williams’ widow believes that the clause “located in Napa” restricts the children’s personal property inheritance to items located in the Napa home, not things in the house in Tiburon where she and Williams lived. The trust leaves that home to her.
For their part, the children believe the “located in Napa” phrase applies to the “tangible property” only. This interpretation would give them ownership of many items in the Tiburon house.
Ambiguity in any legal document, including a trust, can lead to disputes later on. A well-crafted estate plan will be written as clearly and unambiguously as possible.