Estate 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: