I have just read the associated press article www.startribune.com/entertainment/…/290621711.html. Titled: “Robin Williams’ Family Is Feuding Over His Will”. As one reads further into the story, it turns out that the family is not in fact at odds over his Will, but rather are seeking clarification regarding Mr. Williams’s Trust. Be that as it may, what this short article points out is the need for clarity in an estate plan.
Personal property, the ‘things’ one owns, are generally left all to the spouse, and if the spouse is not living, then equally to the children. Most estate plans assume well behaved children, and leave it to the children to determine who gets what. If children have trouble deciding how to split items, such books as Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate http://www.extension.umn.edu/family/personal-finance/who-gets-grandmas-yellow-pie-plate/ can be of great help. It is seldom necessary or financially worthwhile to involve lawyers. Seldom are items of a personal nature left to children before the spouse, and if they are, those items are usually listed specifically, with the recipient clearly indicated .
This plan of leaving items to one’s spouse then to children is contingent on the idea that everyone is of the same mind. As soon as additional spouses (it appears from the article that Mrs. Williams was married to Robin Williams for less than 3 years), step children, or sibling animosity enters the picture, general statements in the Trust Agreement are not helpful, especially when the potential worth of such items is large.
When planning one’s own estate distribution, it is important to keep in mind the value, both market value and sentimental value, that your heirs may place on certain items, and examine realistically whether your heirs will be able to agree when the terms are vague. This may sound as if an inventory and specific assignments are the way to go, but if your family is harmonious, not just in your mind, but in the real world, there is no need to pay for such specificity, nor to keep your inventory current.
In short, be aware that distribution of personal items can cause tension in a family, and if at your death, you have a family where all children do not have only your spouse and you as parents, think about how specific you need to be.