Another celebrity death, another article about how the family is headed off to court to fight over things. Apparently, Robin William’s children and his wife are arguing over his estate. According to the New York Times article, Williams left his property in a trust for his 3 children, with another trust for his wife that provided for her to be able to live in their residence with all of the expenses paid. It even specifically outlined what personal property she could keep, and what should go to his children. That seems like it should take care of the fighting, doesn’t it? But it hasn’t.
They are apparently arguing over things like the tuxedo he got married in and what the wife calls “knickknacks” and the children call “graphic novels, action figures, theater masks, movie posters and other artifacts that they regard as having been crucial fuel for his seemingly boundless creativity.”
Sadly, disputes like this are not limited to wealthy celebrity families. There can be disputes over jewelry, clothing, tools, photos, artwork, kitchen accessories (who gets grandma’s rolling pin that she made pie with everything Thanksgiving?), musical instruments and any number of other things that people attach a sentimental or monetary value to. And often it is things that would look worthless to an outside party that cause the most strife.
Grief does funny things to people – everyday items take on extreme significance, behavior by another sibling that would have been overlooked in the past suddenly seems evasive and secretive, and guilt or long held resentments can bubble up and explode at the slightest provocation.
So how do you avoid this? Some clients put stickers on things to show who should get what, some leave a list, others pretend that their families will be able to “work it out amongst themselves,” which rarely happens. Because it is often about more than just the items, I think that taking about things ahead of time could help. If you are living with a spouse who is not the parent of your children, and there are items in your home that were there when your children were small, you may want to say “if something happens to me, you are not to take anything out of this house. My wife/husband lives here, and these items are to stay here as long as she wants. When she is ready to let them go, they will go to you, but until then do not bother her about them.” And have the same conversation with your spouse. Likewise, if there are things you would want your children to have at your death, talk about this, too. Recognize that, if the family dining room set is going to be shipped off to your daughter when you pass, your spouse will need to get new furniture or be faced with an empty room.
The more you can communicate up front, the easier things will be on your family when you pass away. We all own stuff, and we are all going to die. And it is going to cause people in our lives to grieve. These are facts that cannot be avoided. However, we can also take the time to recognize that people may have disagreements over our stuff, and do what we can to mitigate those.