As you probably already know, beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams died last year. What you may not know is that a big mess has ensued resulting from some mistakes in the drafting of his estate planning documents. Without going into too much detail, Mr. Williams’ children and his widow (who is not the mother of his children) are fighting over various items of personal property that belonged to Mrs. Williams, such as his personal collection of knicknacks and other items of personal property related to his career. Due to some ambiguous drafting in his estate planning documents, how these items should be distributed is left somewhat open to interpretation. And where ambiguities and financial interests collide, there is bound to be a fight. So, what can you do to make sure that your property is left to the people you want to receive it after you die? Here are some ideas:
Be specific about who gets what. If you have specific items of personal property that you want to leave to certain people, list those items and the beneficiaries in your estate planning document, being as specific as possible for each item. In Texas, you can leave a written memorandum that disposes of your personal property and request in your will that your executor (the person responsible for administering your estate) honor the provisions of any such document. This can prove useful because it allows you to change the intended beneficiaries of the property without changing your will if you have a change of heart in the future. To the extent you are certain about who should get what, you can put it in your will to ensure that your wishes will be carried out by your executor.
Have a conference with your heirs to discuss the distribution of your estate. If you communicate with your heirs or other beneficiaries regarding your wishes and make sure you are all on the same page about the disposition of your estate, your heirs are probably less likely to argue about your wishes after you are gone. This is also a good time for any ambiguities and disagreements to potentially be worked out ahead of time and prevent conflicts from arising after you die.
Put a no-contest clause in your will or other estate planning document. As a Houston estate planner, I often put no-contest clauses in the Texas wills that I draft. A no-contest clause states that if a beneficiary contests the provisions of a will, then that beneficiary receives nothing under the will. It can be a useful tool to prevent a beneficiary from contesting your will just because he feels he is not receiving enough from your estate. While a no-contest clause may be invalid in certain circumstances, it may help discourage beneficiaries from contesting your estate plan.
If you live in the Houston area, you should speak with a Houston estate planning attorney regarding implementing an estate plan that will dispose of your estate according to your wishes and protect your family’s legacy.