Nearly six months after the death of Robin Williams, his widow Susan Schneider Williams and his children have become engaged in a contentious legal dispute over his estate valued at around $50 million.
Court documents filed in December and January outline a bitter disagreement over money and property between the widow Susan, who was Williams’s third wife, and Zak (age 31), Zelda (age 25) and Cody Williams (age 23), the comedian’s children from two previous marriages that ended in divorce.
The issue centers on language in the Robin Williams Trust, which the famous actor amended in early 2012, after he and Susan were married. The Trust provides that Susan can reside in the couple’s home in Tiburon, California (appraised at $7 million), while the larger Napa Valley estate (which is listed for sale) and its contents are for the children. Susan is able to reside in the Tiburon home for the rest of her life. Those in charge of the trust (Robin Williams’ estate planning attorney and an accountant) 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.
But Williams’s trust 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”. It also gives the children the “tangible personal property located” in the Napa Valley property. 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.
The kids have apparently been trying to get access to what is nominally her property in order to remove family “memorabilia,” “collectibles,” and “knickknacks” – WHAT those terms mean, by the way, is in dispute.
Susan’s court filing claims these provisions require court intervention because they are unclear. She presents several arguments. First, she contends that the word “memorabilia” should be read to include only “specific items of tangible personal property as it relates to Robin Williams’s acting career.” Susan also feels that the term “jewelry” should exclude his collection of watches and that the contents of the Tiburon home should include items that are not actually located in the home, but may be in storage elsewhere. She additionally asks the Court to determine how to value the fund that will be created to pay for the expenses of the Tiburon home. Surprisingly, Susan includes a request that the court interpret the list of property going to children to exclude all items in the Tiburon house, even though the trust states otherwise.
On the surface, it seems as simple and fair as it gets. The kids ultimately get the fortune and the stepmom doesn’t get pushed out into the cold with everyone watching after only 3 years of marriage. But apparently there were enough vague points to generate friction and drive Susan to petition for clarity.
She wants the trust to pay for a $30,000 renovation. Do upgrades and repairs count under the category of “all costs related to the residence?” Now that is up for a judge to decide.
Part of the problem here is that Robin Williams was famous as a world-class collector of esoteric and sometimes surprisingly expensive stuff: army men, scientific oddities, comic books. As a result, it’s not just a question of who has a deeper attachment to a particular toy but whether the cumulative weight of the “attachments” ends up shifting the overall balance of inheritance.
Maybe Williams actually wanted the kids to have the stuff left in the Tiburon house when he died. Either way, the time to spell it out was when he was still alive to sign the trust documents. Likewise, “all costs related to the residence” or “memorabilia” doesn’t cut it. It’s just too vague when this much money is at stake.