When Heirs Fight Over Sentimental Assets

Robin Williams’ widow and his children from previous marriages were in court more than eight months after his death arguing over what personal items should go to whom. His wife, Susan Schneider, conceded that the children should get the suspenders that he wore on the television show, “Mork and Mindy,” but wanted to keep the tuxedo that he wore at their wedding. These were two items in a list of assets that have more sentimental value than monetary value, but it is often an overlooked part of the estate planning process.

Robin Williams’ Estate

Robin Williams was very careful about his estate plan. He left money and property in trust to his children, set up a trust for his wife, and masterfully protected his publicity rights through the creation of a nonprofit 501(c)(3). However, the terms in his estate plan regarding his personal, more sentimental assets were left unfortunately vague. He left clothing, jewelry, and personal items accumulated before his last marriage to his children.

However, Robin Williams also left the home and its contents that he shared with his wife to her. She also claims that someone took personal items from the home after his death, but that claim remains unproven. Furthermore, there are other items in storage as well as in collectible sets that remain up for debate.

Fighting over Sentimental Items

For most families, fighting over personal effects is usually less about the monetary value of an item and more so about the sentimental value that it possesses. Squabbles over the smallest items can turn into the biggest fights, and arguing over sentimental items of value can lead to many hurt feelings or family feuds. While estate plans tend to mostly focus on the big-ticket items, it is the smaller tokens of personal sentimental value that cause the most contention.

There are a few solutions to the issue of passing along personal items without family infighting. One option is to create a qualified terminable interest property trust (QTIP trust) for the big ticket items like the home in addition to the smaller personal effects to be used during one person’s lifetime before being passed along to heirs.

Another possible option is to create a list of the personal items that you wish for certain family members to inherit after your passing. Then give the list to your estate planning attorney, but do not add it as part of the estate planning documents. That way if the IRS audits the estate and asks for the items in the list, they will not be impossible to track down. If more items need to be added or changed, you can simply edit the list of items and send a new copy to your attorney.

It is also important to remember in these situations that family is the most important thing. When arguing over sentimental items, try to remember who you are inheriting these pieces from and how they would want you to act with your fellow family members. It is also important to remember that sentimental value is not equivalent to monetary value, so it can be difficult to apportion personal effects based on one or the other.

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