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Robin Williams was one of my favourite actors and comedians. Even after dozens of viewings, I will still make a special effort to watch Mrs. Doubtfire every time it’s on TV.

It is no surprise that Williams amassed significant personal wealth during his life. Williams was paid $20 million for Bicentennial Man alone. Unfortunately, Williams’ estate has now become the subject of a dispute between his wife and his children of a previous marriage. The dispute centres around the interpretation of provisions of Williams’ Will dealing with his personal effects and belongings.

According to the media, Williams’ Will gives his California home and its contents to his wife, and his clothing, jewellery, memorabilia and entertainment industry awards to his three children from a previous marriage. Williams had an extensive collection of collectibles, including Japanese anime figurines, antique weapons, carved boxes, theater masks, rare books and fossils.

Williams’ children claim that these antiques and collectibles were given to them under the Will. Williams’ wife argues that these ‘knick knacks’ should not be included in the definition of “memorabilia”.

According to the media, sources close to Williams say he would be “heartsick” over the dispute. The Williams family will not be the last to argue over a loved one’s personal property, but such conflict can be avoided through careful planning during one’s lifetime. So what estate planning lessons can we take from the Williams estate?

First, the Williams estate shows that estate conflicts are not always about money. Even personal effects with only sentimental value may lead to a dispute. You should therefore give careful consideration to your personal effects and how they should be dealt with on your death. For many people, a simple non-binding letter of wishes separate from the Will will suffice. Where there are objects that are valuable or are likely to cause conflict, however, binding gifts should be made in the Will.

Whether you are gifting items in the Will or in a separate letter, using precise language is key. Avoid using general terms like “memorabilia” or “collectibles” if those terms are likely to cause confusion or conflict. Identify particular pieces using descriptive terms, or use narrower categories like “my collection of antique weapons”. Precise drafting will reduce the likelihood of conflict over the meaning of vague terms.

The Williams estate also shows the importance of communication with your family and beneficiaries. Talking with your family about your wishes while you are living can help ensure that all stakeholders are on the same page so that there is no confusion about what you intended.

By carefully planning your estate, you can help your family avoid stressful and painful conflicts after you die.

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