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How to write a will that does not start a family feud

17 March 2015
3 minute read

write a will without problems

Robin Williams left behind a $45 million fortune and was presumably able to afford the best expert legal advice that money could buy. Even so, the wording of his will was open to interpretation and has resulted in nasty disputes between his wife and children.

Six months after the actor and comedian ended his own life, his widow Susan Schneider Williams launched a legal dispute over the terms of the trusts that Williams had established for her and his three children. He had given Schneider Williams a house and “all the costs of upkeep” and left his children his “memorabilia” and another house and trust fund. When Williams’ children started removing sentimental items belonging to their father, Schneider Williams took legal action.

Her legal submission requested that her dead husband’s children be barred from removing his personal possessions from her property. Her lawyers argue that Williams never meant for his widow’s home to be stripped of possessions that they both owned. While she was at it, she also asked for the “costs of upkeep” to be extended to any future renovations she might want to carry out on the property. The case is still before the courts.

There are two lessons to be learnt from all of this. The first is to be completely clear about the specifics of the behests and requests in your will. The second is that it is a good idea to consult with your family about the contents of your will so that any confusion can be cleared up or any points discussed.

We spoke to an estate lawyer about the things that she recommends that you should discuss and clarify to avoid any confusion and family feuding after you are gone.

Have the conversation It is very hard to speak of your own death, and very difficult for your family to express their concerns and detail what they want from your estate. However, the best legacy you can leave your family is one of lasting peace. Set up a time to go through and clarify the aspects of your will that affect them and ask them if there are any items that they specifically want to inherit or whether there is any straightforward solution that they see as to how to split your estate.

At the same time, if there are any obligations you would like your children to meet after your death – like caring for a cat or employing a staff member – raise this for discussion. It is far better to get an agreement than impose an unenforceable clause in your will.

Clarify the terms of any trusts In many cases, rather than leaving their loved ones a lump sum of money or a property, people put their estate in a trust to ensure that the money is sensibly spent. It is important to discuss this with the beneficiaries so that they understand the terms by which they will be bound and have the opportunity to ask for certain allowances or allocations.

Be very clear about the specifics of your behests Robin Williams’ estate planning fell apart because of the vague terms “all costs related to the upkeep” and “memorabilia”. It is now up to the courts to decide what the actor really intended. Even if you don’t have a $45 million fortune to divide up, you can be specific about how your possessions, finances and properties should be split by listing items and policies by name rather than using general terms like “possessions”, “contents” and “property”. Remember that wills are not just about allocating items of value; they are also about giving sentimental possessions to the right people.

The last word It is always difficult to contemplate your own death, but by writing up a will in collaboration with your family and loved ones, you can be comforted by the knowledge that your wishes are understood and will be respected and that you have done everything in your power to minimise the suffering of those you care about the most. Hopefully the Williams family will be able to come to an agreement that leaves them able to remember their husband and father in joyous terms, rather than engaging in a protracted legal battle.

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