Sometimes It is the Little Things: Arguing About Stuff

nostalgia-499988_640Estate planning is often motivated by the big things. I’m not getting philosophical here. Forget about life and death. On a practical level, what brings families into my office are often the big financial assets–the house, the brokerage accounts, the retirement assets, and a concern that these assets be shared equitably by loved ones. And I, like most estate planners, do my best to write trusts and Wills that do just that.

But, often, it is the little things that can become contentious after a parent dies. From Dad’s stamp collection, to (I kid you not) a parent’s lawnmower, I’ve seen families fight over things that weren’t even on their loved one’s radar when the estate plan was written. Somehow these physical object (in legalese this stuff is known as ‘tangible personal property’) can become the locus of much hurt feeling and much passion, seemingly to become imbued with a deceased person’s essence, or to evoke their memories in a way that money cannot.

Often, fights over tangible personal items becomes especially fraught when there are multiple marriages, with a surviving spouse and children of prior marriages sparring over a loved one’s personal items. I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately because of Robin Williams.  Less than six months after his death, his third wife and his children from his first and second marriages are involved in litigation over alleged ambiguities in what seems, from a distance, to be a well-drafted and thoughtful estate plan. As reported in the New York Times, here’s some of what they are fighting about:

  • What constitutes the “content” of the Actor’s home.
  • What constitutes “reasonable expenses” for the upkeep of a home.
  • What items are “personal” and what items are “professional memorabilia.”

I don’t pretend to know whether Robin Williams’ documents are in fact ambiguous, but I feel confident in asserting that Robin Williams didn’t want his wife and children to end up in court fighting about them. Nobody would.

So, what can the rest of us learn from this unfortunate situation? Clearly, one take away is that anything can seem unclear, especially if one party doesn’t like what the statement seems to say. So, when creating an estate plan, it’s always helpful to try and anticipate the areas of contention and do your absolute best to articulate a clear vision of what you want to have happen.

Another is that, when trying to plan for a blended family, take special care to focus on tangible items, don’t just relegate them to a one-size fits all clause in a Will, especially if a spouse will want to continue living in a house filled with such items. Ask yourself: are there certain items that my kids would like to have after I die? Should I give those away during my lifetime? Would it make sense to leave a specific list behind so everyone knows exactly what such items are? Are there other items that my spouse will need to keep for his or her lifetime, to maintain their own life intact? If so, state that in your living trust or Will, and give your spouse either outright ownership of such items, or the lifetime use of them.

Finally, sadly, recognize that all you can do is your best. After you die, it may not go the way you’d hoped. For that, we have courts, and mediation, and sometimes, with luck, the benefit of time calms down the initial storms that grief evokes.