Summary: No estate plan is 100% immune from estate litigation. The litigation of the estate of actor Robin Williams demonstrates this, as the items in dispute are of comparatively low monetary value. While litigation is sometimes inevitable, including a detailed set of asset distribution instructions in your plan can provide even greater clarity into the nature of your true wishes and hopefully minimize the chances that your family will require the courts to resolve the distribution of your possessions.
For some folks, procrastination serves as a road block that prevents them from ever creating an estate plan. In other cases, people overcome the inertia of procrastination and do create a plan, but make the mistake of placing too few details in their plans. When it comes to your estate plan, it is often true that the more details you include, the better off your plan will be when it comes time to carry out your true wishes.
The late actor and comedian Robin Williams created what was generally viewed as a strong estate plan. His plan included multiple trusts, including one that benefitted his three children and another that benefitted his wife of three years. The plan also contained provisions for distributing many of the celebrity’s personal possessions between his wife and his children. However, Williams’s estate plan was not foolproof. The wife and the children are now in court battling over several pieces of Williams’s personal effects.
The estate plan left the contents of Williams’s Tiburon, Cal. house to his wife, but left his jewelry and memorabilia to the children. Unfortunately, while detailed, this plan left enough room for conflict, which is why the estate litigation has occurred. When a family has reached a point where they seek a judicial resolution to the ownership of movie posters and Japanese anime (as is true in the Williams case,) perhaps litigation is inevitable. Nevertheless, the more details you can include in your plan, the more likely your family will be to know your true wishes and possible avert the need for litigation.
For estate plans where assets are distributed using a will, it may be helpful to specifically distribute each asset that has a value (whether financial or sentimental) individually and by name. Your collection of old vinyl records may only be worth $100, but if you have someone whom you’d like to inherit them, list them. If your plan includes a living trust, your Schedule A can be very helpful here. Your Schedule A is often used to make specific distributions, especially with assets that don’t have a deed or title. Even if an asset lack significant monetary value, it is worth listing in your Schedule A if you have a loved one with an emotional attachment to that item, or if the item’s distribution is likely to cause conflict in the absence of specific instructions from you.
As with the other parts of your estate plan, your estate planning attorney can provide you with invaluable assistance and advice in crafting your living trust’s Schedule A or the specific distribution paragraphs of your will. While no plan is 100% safe from estate litigation after your death, you can, with the aid of your attorney, minimize the chances of a court battle by maximizing the level of detail when it comes to distributing your belonging.