Tangible personal property is no laughing matter; beneficiaries of an estate often fight over the possession of family heirlooms, even when such heirlooms are of limited financial value. Items of tangible personal property, such as religious belongings or diplomas, often display a decedent’s beliefs or accomplishments. Some tangible personal property items, such as silverware sets and firearms collections, evoke the sentiments of family holidays or sporting traditions. It can be very challenging to monitor the whereabouts of these items. Since tangible personal property items are usually accompanied by less paperwork than other assets, a “finder’s keeper’s” attitude can creep into a family during the estate administration process. This combination of emotional combustibility and limited documentation makes tangible personal property a common point of contention for many families.

A recent dispute over the estate of Robin Williams displays how many family advisors fail to properly coordinate the management of tangible personal property. Problems of this nature can arise in the drafting stage of an estate plan, as occurred in the Robin Williams Trust. Problems can also arise in the implementation stage of a wealth transfer plan – especially when jewelry or other effects are not properly inventoried or documented. Such situations can lead to litigation, such as the litigation currently occurring in the Superior Court in Marin County, California.

CNN.com Reports:

“Specifically, there’s one paragraph about certain items of Williams’ property that his beneficiaries have made into a tricky semantics debate. The paragraph assigns to Williams’ children all of his “clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to (Susan) … memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry and the tangible personal property located in Napa.” In Susan’s interpretation, the paragraph is ambiguous regarding the house (or houses) from which the items can be removed. Is the phrase “located in Napa” in reference only to “tangible personal property,” or is it restrictive of every category? She claims her husband wished “to allow her to stay in their Tiburon home as it was during their marriage,” and therefore the paragraph should be read to cover only the items in the Napa house, not those in the Tiburon house.

But Williams’ kids read the trust differently — they argue that it grants them every category of item listed in addition to the property in the Napa house, not every category of item confined to the Napa house. It’s nonsensical to list “the tangible personal property located in Napa” separately if there aren’t items to which they’re entitled outside the Napa house, they argue. They point out lines in the trust that give Susan the Tiburon house and its contents with the exceptions of items gifted in other stipulations. They want the court to declare they’re entitled to the categories’ items in the Tiburon house, too.”

(Source: “Robin Williams’ Widow, Children Clash Over Estate” by Austin Sigemund-Broka, The Hollywood Reporter, February 3, 2015.)

While it appears that the attorney erred in the drafting stage of this trust, another error occurred in the data gathering stage. The emotional strain of the ongoing litigation could have been avoided if the Williams family took the time to document each significant item in the estate.

Failing to plan is planning to fail; both sides of the family cared enough about these items to litigate, but neither side took the time to list or photograph which items were from before or after the second marriage, or which items were located in which home. Even if the trust had been drafted more clearly, tangible personal property is incredibly mobile. Thus, if the decedent, Robin Williams, had moved any items after the execution of the estate plan, confusion would have arisen.

Families can prevent some of the challenges of tangible personal property management by simply keeping abreast of recent acquisitions. A photographic itemized inventory is incredibly helpful to an executor or a trustee. The better the documentation, the more likely it is that a decedent’s wishes will be effectuated.

If your estate plan does not thoroughly address the disposition of your tangible personal property, it may merit review. Even the best estate plans have a limited shelf-life due to changes in personal circumstances. If you or your family advisor has questions about tangible personal property management, please reach out to us. It would be our privilege to help you manage your private matters.

Edward “Ted” H. Miller

Cooper, Spong & Davis, P.C.