Millions of people around the world are mourning the loss of an icon after hearing of the premature death of actor and comedian Robin Williams. Williams originally made a name for himself as “Mork from Ork” on the 1970s sitcom Mork and Mindy and went on to star in movies such as Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Good Will Hunting. As if often the case, the tabloids began discussing the actor’s estate before the funeral was even arranged. While this is hardly unusual, the tabloid fodder did raise one important question – why were details about trusts created by the actor even available for discussion and comment in the tabloids? The simple answer to that is that the trusts created by Williams were not properly drafted, eventually causing them to become public information instead of remaining private as intended.
One of the many advantages to creating a trust as part of your estate plan is that the contents of a trust agreement should remain private. Although the probate of an estate is a matter of public record, making your Last Will and Testament publically available, trusts are generally not required to go through probate. As a result, a trust agreement should remain out of the public reach. Unfortunately for Williams, two of the trusts he created are now very much part of the public record.
At the time of his death, Williams left behind three children –Zachary, 31; Zelda, 25 and Cody, 22. Back in 1989, Williams set up an irrevocable trust for his eldest son and then created another irrevocable trust for all three children in 2009. Wisely, it appears that Williams set up staggered distributions from both trusts so that his children did not receive all of the trust assets in one distribution at a young age. Unfortunately though, the trust agreement failed to make provisions for replacing one of the trustees appointed in the trusts. This error led to the trusts becoming public record when the other co-trustee was forced to turn to the courts to appoint a replacement trustee when the trustee died in 2008.
Because the terms of an irrevocable trust cannot be changed, Williams was unable to appoint a successor trustee and the surviving co-trustee’s hands were also tied because the trust agreement did not provide a mechanism or method for naming a successor trustee. Turning to the courts for guidance caused the trust agreements to become a matter of public record which is why we all now know what was contained in the trusts.
Sadly, it is often after the death of an important public figure such as Williams that we are all reminded of the importance of consulting with an experienced and skilled estate planning attorney when it comes time to create or update an estate plan.