Having an estate plan that specifies what should happen to your property and assets after you die is important for caring for and protecting those you love. But simply having a plan may not be enough to keep loved ones from fighting over your estate. This point was underscored after the death of Robin Williams. Although a trust can specify the division and distribution of an estate, the terminology or wording of that trust can be at the center of a family dispute.
Execution of an Estate: Why Terminology Matters
A major sticking point in Williams’ trust is a specific paragraph that states Williams’ children would get all of his “clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage…memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry, and the tangible personal property located in Napa.” Allegedly, the dispute is over the ambiguity of this paragraph because it does not clearly designate which house the property could be taken from. Additionally, it’s unclear if the phrase “located in Napa” is only in reference to “tangible personal property.” The lack of clarity in the estate plan about the division of assets is at the center of the dispute and highlights the need for detail and specificity when creating a plan.
Lessons From Robin Williams’ Estate Plan
Despite a person’s best efforts to create an estate plan that covers all property and assets, it’s possible that a lack of clarity in that plan can cause a dispute that ultimately ends up in court. There are lessons to be learned from what went wrong with the trust set up to distribute Williams’ estate. Here are some tips for how to create a solid estate plan:
- Be specific. Instead of using general terms in your plan like “memorabilia” or “items in the beach house,” make a list of all valuable property in every home or property you own. Stipulate a beneficiary for each item by name. Even if you have a large inventory of personal items, this will help resolve any discrepancy in distribution.
- Hold a meeting that includes all family beneficiaries. Even if done through a conference call, have a meeting with all parties who will receive property, assets, and personal items. This will make clear who receives specific pieces of the estate.
- Include a professional witness. Have the meeting with an estate planner present. This person will be helpful if a beneficiary challenges the estate plan in court.
- Include “poison pill” language. If you worry that one of the heirs to your estate will challenge the plan, use language when writing it that changes the bequests of anyone who initiates a lawsuit.
Creating and updating an estate plan can be difficult and often confusing. The attorneys at The Law Office of James F. Roberts & Associates can help you through every step of the estate planning process. Contact us at (714) 459-5481 to learn more.