Challenges & Disputes
"One way to prevent conflict between the survivors is to include a standard "no contest clause," which basically says that anyone who contests or attacks the will/trust forfeits their share and is no longer a beneficiary as if they had predeceased the original trustee." -- DontStealMyPen blog, 29 March 2014
The Estate of Robin Williams
Last week, the New York Times reported on the legal dispute between Robin Williams' widow, Susan Schneider Williams (his third wife of less than 3 years), and his adult children, Zachary (31), Zelda (25) and Cody (22), over the interpretation of the late actor's trust.
I agree with the kids who responded in court papers last month that their father's wife has "acted against his wishes by challenging the plans he so carefully made for his estate."
From the POV of someone who has just finished administering a trust, I am interested in how a trust as carefully scrutinized as the one that Robin Williams had will stand up to the human side of what a trust represents. I was the successor trustee when my father passed away unexpectedly in November 2013, and I have first-hand knowledge of the duties and responsibilities of a successor trustee.
|The successor trustee is legally installed as the administrator of a trust.|
The successor has the legal responsibility not only to execute the terms of the trust, but to carry them out as intended by the original trustee. Maintaining the spirit in which the terms were put forth by the original author is part of the moral and ethical responsibility of the successor.
That is why it is so important to name a successor who understands not only the intentions of the trustee, but also the relationship of the trustee to the beneficiaries.
Unless they can work things out by March 30th, a judge will have to explain to Robin Williams' widow that her legal position as a beneficiary gives her no authority with regards to the trust. Her grief, as real and deeply felt as it is, has nothing to do with the trust. The trust is a contract between the trustee while he was alive and the successor trustee(s). When it comes to a trust, it is a legal matter, not an emotional one.
"A trust is about providing a foundational structure so that the business end of a person's life can be closed in an orderly fashion." ~DontStealMyPen blog, 29 March 2014
Mr. Williams updated his trust in 2010, the year before he married Susan Schneider. She then agreed to sign a pre-nup in 2011 before she married him.
She was aware that provisions had been made for her to live comfortably in the Tiburon home for the rest of her life and that she would receive enough cash or property to cover "all costs related to the residence." In addition, Mr. Williams cared enough about her to set up a separate trust in her name, the Susan Trust, which included the home in which they were living and "the contents thereof," subject to certain restrictions.
The updated trust specifies that all of his clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken before his marriage to Susan, his memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry, as well as additional property kept at a second home in Napa—be given to his children.
It seems pretty clear. So, what happened to trigger her anxiety and cause her to file court papers shortly before Christmas challenging the language of the trust?
|The successor is legally responsible for collecting & managing all assets.|
In court papers filed last December, Susan Williams stated that among other things, she wants his watches and "knickknacks." She also complained that certain home-related services were canceled (i.e. the newspaper delivery).
This is where the successor could have stepped in to settle things.
The first responsibility of the successor is to pay all debts and settle all accounts in the name of the deceased. It is also the responsibility of the successor to maximize the estate. This means eliminating unnecessary, on-going debts that will drain the assets of the estate.
The bills should have been discussed with Mrs. Williams, and perhaps they were. Anything in the name of the deceased would have been closed and reopened in the name of the surviving spouse. It would make sense that the newspaper was canceled if it had been in his name only. But, the way that it was handled by the successor(s) probably triggered her anxiety.
I know because I had to deal with my father's adult step-children immediately after he died. I had to walk the line between compassion and executing the trust, and I was dealing with people who were close to my dad during the last 20 years of his life.
Who Gets What
Perhaps the watches were gifts from his wife. If so, she should have the watches. Even if they weren't gifts from her, the successor should have weighed the consequences of denying her request against the possibility of dragging a dispute into court later on. It does not serve the interests of the estate to bicker over sentimental items and delay closing the trust. Had the successor managed that particular issue effectively, it would have gone a long way to ease her grief and prevent the build-up of anxiety that led to her filing in December.
The ideal scenario with any trust administration is that the successor has a thorough understanding of the deceased, his background, and his final wishes. Conflicts involving specific items can be settled fairly easily based on this kind of insightful knowledge.
Susan Williams would like to keep the tuxedo that her husband wore when they got married. Robin Williams clearly drew the line between his life with Susan and the life that he shared with his kids, and his trust seems to reflect the separation of those personal aspects. Although it is technically clothing, the tux should go to her. This issue could have been resolved months ago. It was a serious misstep on the part of the successor(s) that contributed to her sense of loss and fueled her defensive reaction to everything that came after. Trusts have a way of swallowing up everyone involved, and her response is not at all surprising.
As successor to my dad's trust, I made many critical, emotionally-charged decisions. As a daughter dealing with my own loss, I felt like I was walking on the ocean floor every day. Although none of my father's step-children were named as beneficiaries, I put on my successor hat and took the time to work with his step-daughter to accommodate her specific requests.
When someone dies, their stuff becomes an extension of who they were, and loved ones cling to the physical reminders of their relationships.
A hands-on successor has a keen sense of timing when it comes to managing loved ones.
The Lesson Learned
People grieve in weird ways, and Susan Williams is doing the one thing that Robin Williams did not want to happen.
Mrs. Williams had a home with her husband, and she had a life with him. But, she disrespects his work and his memory by going against his children. Every decision I made as the successor trustee was based on what my father would have wanted, not what anyone else thought should happen. The successor has the final say.
Bottom line, the relationship that Susan had with Robin Williams was a reflection of their mutual desire to live happily ever after, something we all want. A house in Tiburon and a lifetime of paid expenses is a pretty generous acknowledgement of the almost 3 years of happiness they had together. Now, that timeline has ended.
What is not over is the job of administering the trust. The responsibilities and legal obligations are spelled out to the successors before they sign a contract to administer the trust. They also agree to close the trust within a specified period of time. In my case, it was one year. Once it is all down in black and white, the trust takes on a life of its own.
Mrs. Williams does not seem clear on her role with respect to the trust. Like it or not, her husband made a deliberate, thoughtful decision when he appointed someone other than his wife as the successor trustee(s). Her court papers filed just before Christmas literally in defiance of the trust now validate his reasons. But, I think that she may have been overwhelmed by the implementation of the trust, and she may not have been prepared for the experience after it went into effect.
The Deciding Factor
"Much of the work that I've done in order to move through the business of my dad's trust has required lots of time by myself sorting, organizing, cleaning, filing, shopping, writing, hunting, researching, thinking, and crying. Oh wait, did I say crying? I meant guessing. Okay, guessing and crying go together sometimes, so let's just say guessing accompanied by occasional crying." ~DontStealMyPen, Successor Trustee Job Description
Robin Williams put a lot of work into his trust, one in which he tried to take care of both his wife and his children long after he was gone. I feel for the family and their loss of a beloved husband and a devoted father.
Right now, the lawyers are doing their jobs, and the successors are bound to protect the estate. I hope that the successors have the wisdom, the strength and the maturity to complete the task of closing the trust sooner rather than later. The longer it drags on, the more it will prevent the family from moving on with their lives.
I'm on the other side now, and it feels pretty good. I am also still learning. Next week, I will meet with my trust attorney to finalize my family trust and my separate property trust.
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