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Family fighting can make even the most well-thought out estate plan a failure

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Robin Williams’ full estate was left to a trust for his three children and as part of his trust, he set up another trust to support his wife in the event of his death.  So, why are they all in court?  Because families fight.  And sometimes they fight over the ridiculous.  And maybe it’s not so ridiculous in this case because celebrity memorabilia often goes for big bucks.  In the Robin Williams case, Williams collected stuff.  A lot of stuff it turns out and now the fight is on about who gets what.  Possessions, as this article points out, can become proxies for Mom or Dad’s love.

One paragraph in Williams’ trust assigns his children all of his “clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to (Susan)…memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry and the tangible personal property located in Napa.”  His wife, Susan argues that those items were from other properties and not the property he left to her.  If the goal after creating an estate plan is to create family harmony and design a plan that preserves a plan, even people of modest wealth must make advanced estate planning steps.  Yes, the Williams’ family has assets far beyond most of us but family disputes aren’t necessarily about money.  Children often see Wills and Trusts as expressions of a parent’s love.  Personal keepsakes, family mementos and heirlooms can take on more meaning than a parent might have suspected as they become the last tangible connection to a missing parent.

To avoid conflict, consider finding out which specific items family members want as keepsakes.  Some families encourage beneficiaries to tape their names on items that mean something to them.  If the parent or parents have specific items they want to leave to a particular family member, consider having the conversations early on and being explicit about tangible items so there’s no room for interpretation.

You could also consider giving away items before death but beware of gift taxes and unintentional consequences if the parent is looking for Medicaid or VA benefits.

Another option I saw that I thought was interesting was to hold an auction.  Family members bid on the items and the money returns to the estate to be divided as indicated in the Trust or Will.

Consider giving legacy items to beneficiaries prior to death and then distributing assets equitably after death.

And finally–estate plans aren’t complete until the family has sat down to talk about what those plans are and what their roles will be when and if incapacity or death strikes.  Not having that meeting is a recipe for disaster.  Everything from the settling of the estate to future family relationships depends upon having honest and forthright conversations about what happens after death.  Williams died in August of last year and a hearing isn’t scheduled until March 30.  Meanwhile the Williams family is set to experience firsthand a truism that sees 70 percent of all estate transitions lose control of assets because the so-called plan comes unglued and then collapses.  Don’t let yours be one of them.

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