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What are key lessons from the Robin Williams estate dispute?

When news about the suicide death of actor and comedian Robin Williams broke there was a lot of shock here in Pennsylvania and all around the world. He was a beloved entertainer who had a gift for making others laugh. Apparently few fathomed how deeply depressed he was.

What has grabbed far fewer headlines in connection with this story is the struggle that has erupted since his death between Williams' third wife and widow and his three offspring from the two previous marriages. While the situation is a sad one, it is something that experienced estate planning attorneys know a lot about and strive to help families avoid.

Goals and objectives for distribution of assets can usually be achieved through solid crafting of wills, trusts or other legal constructs. And if that fails, other legal means -- up to and including litigation -- may be required. That is apparently the route that Williams' family has gone down.

To his credit, Williams reportedly had an up-to-date will and estate plan when he died. Time Magazine says it included trust structures and a prenuptial agreement. What it apparently lacked was clarity on which trusts would receive particular personal items such as clothes, collectibles and other keepsakes. Now the family members are in court.

Some experts observe that there are three lessons that the situation offers. They are:

  1. Identify what's important to whom as part of your plan. Know what items mean the most to you and how you envision them being distributed to loved ones. Put it in writing. Don't be afraid to ask loved ones what they want. You might be surprised to find they hold things dear that you didn't expect.
  2. Make the division as fair as possible. The system doesn't have to be one based on equity for all. It should be obviously thoughtful and consistent, though. If multiple marriages might cause family tension in making decisions, come up with a plan that randomizes selections and calls on an outside arbiter to resolve disputed claims.
  3. Make your wishes clearly known. Don't merely assign goods. Explain why you made the choices as you did. It might not avert every clash, but family members will know your desires.

Nothing may be as powerful as love supported by solid communication.

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