No Stranger To Legal Battles, Robin Williams Protected His Family From A Similar Fate After His Death.
February 21, 2019
Robin Williams, the iconic comedian and actor, had a razor-sharp wit that was second to none. But he also had a dark and troubled side to his personality that contributed to two divorces and other legal drama.
Perhaps learning a lesson from his own courtroom experiences, Williams took great care to prepare his will and trust to try to prevent his family from fighting after he passed away.
So why did his heirs still battle in court?
This is the third installment in our Fortune Fights series, based on the celebrity documentary television show, Fortune Fights, for which we serve as hosts, legal commentators and executive producers. New episodes air on the REELZ network Thursday nights at 9 pm et/pt. The next episode, Robin Williams: Fortune Fight, airs February 21st.
Robin Williams’ tragic suicide in August of 2014 left Hollywood and the world stunned. It was revealed later that the 63-year-old actor suffered from Lewy Body dementia, which undoubtedly contributed to him taking his own life.
Williams was survived by his third wife, Susan Schneider, and his three children from his two prior marriages. As if the tragedy of losing Robin Williams was not enough, after he died, the family courtroom battle started.
As is very common in families that have experienced multiple marriages, Williams’ widow and children did not see eye-to-eye after he was gone. Instead, Schneider waged a legal battle that lasted for months.
Robin Williams was no stranger to courtroom drama himself. His divorces cost him a reported $20 to $30 million. He famously said, “Ah yes, divorce, from the Latin work meaning ‘to rip out a man’s genitals through his wallet’.”
Even uglier than his divorces, in the late 1980s, Williams was sued for $6.2 million by a former lover who claimed that Williams knowingly infected her with the herpes virus. Williams counter-sued, contending that the woman’s claim was akin to legal blackmail because she asked for $20,000 and a new car to keep quiet. In 1992, on the eve of a trial that would have been potentially disastrous for the comedian’s career, he settled for a confidential amount.
Interestingly, this was just months before the Disney animated classic move, Aladdin, was released in theaters. Williams, of course, voiced the part of the famous Genie – agreeing to accept very little in terms of salary for the role, but with one big twist. Williams insisted on a clause in his contract that Disney could not use his voice or likeness to sell merchandise or for certain other marketing related to the film.
Robin Williams felt that Disney then betrayed him and violated the clause by using his voice for promotional purposes. While Williams never sued the family-friendly media giant, he did win a rare public apology from the studio. Disney executives had initially chastised Williams for using the issue to complain about his salary but later retracted the accusation, apologized, and admitted the company “may have been responsible”. Disney even gave Williams a valuable Picasso painting as a peace offering.
Clearly, as a veteran of legal wars, Robin Williams wanted to take no chances with his will and trust so that his family wouldn’t battle after he died. He and his third wife, Schneider, entered into a prenuptial agreement when they wed in 2011.
Then in 2012, Williams updated his revocable living trust to clarify that, consistent with the prenuptial agreement, Schneider could reside in the home they shared for the rest of her life and that his trust would pay for her expenses there. She was also allowed to keep the contents of the home and certain other possessions, but the majority of his belongings were directed to go to his three children, including his clothing, jewelry, memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry.
Despite Robin Williams’ carefully-drafted trust, Schneider filed a petition with the court only a few months after Williams’ suicide. She claimed that the trustees would not set aside enough money to pay her living expenses and she objected to their attempts to inspect the contents of the home and remove items meant for the children. You can read more about the dispute in our article detailing the allegations.
The two sides then used a process called mediation – often employed with great success to settle family disputes over wills, trusts and estates. Luckily for everyone, cooler heads prevailed, and they reached a settlement.
Schneider released a statement about the settlement saying that the children received the vast majority of the items in dispute, but she was permitted to keep a few emotional items, such as their wedding gifts, select clothing items, a favored watch of Williams, and a bicycle. The statement pointed out that from the estate worth more than $100 million, Schneider received only a fraction of the estate’s value, in the form of funds sufficient to permit her to remain in the home for her lifetime.
If Williams hadn’t taken such care with his estate planning and prenuptial agreement, his heirs might still be battling today, which we’ve seen with many other celebrity estates. So while Williams wasn’t able to completely prevent a fortune fight, at least his careful planning reduced the dispute to a minor squabble over personal property rather than an extensive and expensive battle with the potential to devastate the family.
Other families can learn from Robin Williams’ good planning to minimize family fighting, which is especially important when there are second marriages.
The Fortune Fights celebrity documentary series airs on the REELZ cable network, with new episodes airing Thursdays at 9 pm. In the series, Danielle and Andy Mayoras explore the legal ups and downs, and fortunes earned and lost, of stars like Johnny Depp, Madonna, Britney Spears, Robin Williams, Harrison Ford and others.
Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, television hosts and keynote speakers. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn. Be sure to check out their new TV show, Fortune Fights, on the REELZ channel.