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Lessons learned from Robin Williams' estate planning

Many New Jersey residents have fond memories of comedian and actor Robin Williams and the many roles he played in movies and television over the years. When Williams died last year, he did so having left provisions in place to provide for his family. While Williams appears to have covered the major financial matters in his estate planning package, it appears that his heirs are at odds over some of the belongings that he left behind.

Williams left behind a wife, as well as three children. His widow is stepparent to the children, and there has been a great deal of debate among these parties as to who is entitled to certain possessions that were not specifically mentioned within the estate planning documents. Specifically, collections of fossils, action figures and graphic novels are being fought over, as well as personal items such as clothing.

When creating an estate plan, most people focus exclusively on the big ticket items: real estate, investment accounts and cash. However, it is often the more personal and less valuable belongings that spark anger and resentment among one's heirs. These smaller items can and should be dealt with within the overall estate planning package.

Individuals can begin by asking their intended heirs which items they would most like to have when the time comes. One way to address this issue is to create system that everyone can participate in. For example, it may work to have children select items in order of their age, with the oldest child having first choice among personal items. It can be helpful to ask a neutral person outside of the family to step in and handle any disputes if and when there is a debate over a particular item.

Next, create a list that matches items with their intended recipients. This is a great chance to leave a letter or note explaining the significance of certain items. In this way, a New Jersey resident is able to leave behind not only the possessions that they have amassed, but can also leave a lasting emotional connection between the items and the selected heirs, which is often a far more meaningful gesture. Taking this estate planning approach is also a great way to avoid conflict such as that being displayed among the heirs of one of America's most talented performers.

Source: TIME, "3 Things We Can Learn From Robin Williams' Estate Battle", Kerri Ann Renzulli, Feb. 4, 2015

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