Robin Williams' widow, children at odds over trust designations
Dispute centers on two houses Williams owned
Famed comedian, actor died August 11, 2014
It’s been nearly six months since Robin Williams’ death, and in the last two, the late comedian’s family have entered into a dispute over the personal property his trust assigns each of them.
On one side is his widow, Susan Williams, who filed a petition in December for a court’s interpretation of the trust. On the other are his three children by previous marriages, Zachary, Zelda and Cody, who dispute the reading she provides.
The dispute centers on the two houses Williams owned at the time of his death — one in Napa and one in Tiburon, California. Susan’s filing calls the Tiburon house the “marital abode,” and the trust, which her late husband most recently amended in 2010, before their marriage in 2011, grants her the Tiburon residence and its contents upon his death.
That’s where things get complicated.
Williams’ widow claims that “within days” of his death in August, the trustees started gathering up the comedian’s property. Within weeks they allegedly informed her they would come to the Tiburon residence to remove more of it.
“The co-Trustees had keys to her home. Naturally, Mrs. Williams became frightened of the co-Trustees invading her home,” reads her petition, filed in San Francisco Superior Court.
In their opposition, filed in the same court on January 21, Williams’ children tell it differently. They claim that collecting and inventorying Williams’ property is part of the execution of the trust. Furthermore, they say she held them off for nearly three months “while at the same time permitting various third parties to access the residence on her own behalf to appraise certain Trust assets, remove certain Trust assets from the Tiburon Residence, and plan, design and implement a $30,000 renovation.”
She complains of not being “given time to grieve her loss free from the frenetic efforts to interfere with her domestic tranquility” or that of her high-school-aged sons. But her resistance to the trustees’ efforts was in part due to concerns over the interpretation of the trust.
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.
“Any other interpretation would lead to Mrs. Williams’s home being stripped while Mrs. Williams still lives there,” her filing reads. It would give the trustees permission to give to the children items including the tuxedo he wore at their wedding, she specifies. “It is difficult to imagine Mr. Williams desiring that outcome.”
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.
“The Williams Children are heartbroken that Petitioner, Williams’ wife of less than three years, has acted against his wishes by challenging the plans he so carefully made for his estate,” reads their opposition. “While it is styled as a request for instruction, the Petition in fact appears to be a blatant attempt to alter the disposition of assets Mr. Williams specifically planned and provided for.”
“We’re puzzled a little by the tone of the opposition,” Susan Williams’ attorney, James Wagstaffe, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m hopeful that there’s a spirit of generosity in this.”
But Susan’s petition anticipates their counterargument, and in the event a judge finds the paragraph applies to the Tiburon house, she wants categories like “memorabilia” and “jewelry” narrowly defined. The former should encompass only items depicting him or relating to his fame — “in other words, this does not include his personal collections of knick-knacks” — and the latter shouldn’t include his watches, she argues.
Williams’s children dispute her interpretations, in particular criticizing her characterization of their father’s collections — which apparently included Japanese anime figurines, antique weapons, carved boxes, theater masks, rare books, lapel pins, fossils, graphic novels and skulls — as “knick-knacks.” They were “carefully amassed” during his lifetime and should go to his children, they argue.
“As the Williams Children grew, so did their father’s collections and they shared in their father’s excitement as additions were made to his collections,” their filing reads.
There’s one separate question, too. It’s unclear whether the contents of storage spaces Susan claims were intended for the Tiburon home should go to her as if they were contents of the house itself. California courts have never addressed the issue, according to Susan’s filing. “In other states that have considered this issue, courts have found that a residence, i.e. a home should be broadly interpreted,” her filing continues.
The Williams children, unsurprisingly, present different case law that indicates a home should be strictly understood to mean the physical location.
A hearing is scheduled for March 30 in Superior Court in Marin County, where Tiburon is located, but Wagstaffe tells THR he hopes the parties will sort it out in discussions before then. Attorneys for the Williams children have not responded to a request for comment.