Millions of fans around the world are mourning the death of comedian and actor Robin Williams following his recent suicide. Best known by older fans as “Mork from Ork” on the 1970s sitcom “Mork and Mindy”, Williams went on to show the breadth and depth of his acting ability is films such as “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Good Will Hunting”. As is so often the case, the media began discussing details of the actor’s estate before he was even laid to rest. While this is hardly unusual, the fact that the tabloids were privy to details about trusts the actor created for his children certainly was unusual. Sadly, the privacy concerns highlighted by Williams’ death serve to remind all of us of the importance of experienced guidance and advice when estate planning.
In an obvious effort to gift responsibly to his children, Williams created two irrevocable trusts – one in 1989 naming his oldest son as a beneficiary and another in 2009 naming all three of his children (Zachary, 31; Zelda, 25 and Cody, 22) as beneficiaries. Williams included trust terms that staggered the distributions in both trusts. His children would receive one-third of the trust principal would be distributed at age 21, one-half at age 25 and the remainder of the trust assets at age 30. This sounds like responsible gifting right? The real question here though is why do we know the terms of Williams’ trusts? Trust agreements are not supposed to be public record. In fact, one of the major benefits to using a trust is that trusts are not required to pass through probate, meaning they should never be made public. Clearly, however, the trusts created by Williams did become public record. Understanding why may help prevent you from making the same mistake.
The trusts created by Williams became public fodder after one of the co-trustees passed away. Had the trust document been properly drafted, the death of a trustee would not have been cause to turn to a court for guidance. Unfortunately, that is precisely what happened though because the trust document did not provide a mechanism by which a successor trustee could be appointed. Moreover, since the trust was an irrevocable trust, even Williams himself could not choose a successor trustee after the fact. Left with no other choice, the surviving co-trustee was forced to petition a court to name a successor trustee.
To avoid making a similar mistake, be sure to consult with an experienced Texas estate planning attorney when creating or updating your estate plan.
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