The legal dispute over comedy actor Robin Williams estate firmly turns the spotlight on the importance of defining in detail what is contained in each bequest, according to Latimer Hinks Solicitors, one of County Durhams longest established law firms.
In the wake of the legal battle between Robin Williams children and his third wife, Latimer Hinks is advising that everyone, and particularly those with a complex family structure, should give their will careful consideration and seek specialist advice.
In papers filed in December in San Francisco Superior Court, Williams' third wife Susan accuses his children, from his first two marriages, of taking items without her permission. The children - Zachary, Zelda and Cody - argued that Susan Williams was "adding insult to a terrible injury" by trying to change their trust agreement.
The dispute hinges on how the estate should distribute Williamss personal property, and what should happen to memorabilia from his days as an entertainer and his personal effects including jewellery and photographs
His wife claims that Robin Williams wanted her to remain at their shared home, and argues that the children should not have access to the items in that house. Susan Williams petition also asks the court to define categories such as memorabilia.
The children counter her claim, saying say there were no limitations placed on where the items were located.
Darlington-based Latimer Hinks advises that directions should be given to executors indicating exactly what is intended for each person and, if there could be any confusion, exactly where the items are located.
The firm also says that by keeping a record of why a particular person has been left out of a will or left a relatively small gift, it is more likely to ensure that the terms of the will are honoured.
This will not prevent a claim but it may, in some cases, assist the court in arriving at a decision as to whether a beneficiary is entitled to any provision and could make claimants think twice before contemplating litigation. A detailed file note prepared by a solicitor can be very valuable.
Helen Thomas, a solicitor at Latimer Hinks, who is also a member of ACTAPS (Association for Contentious Trust and Probate Specialists), said: "While a Hollywood lifestyle may not seem relevant to most people, the Robin Williams case sends out an important message about how important it is to have a clear and concise will setting out your intentions, particularly in a family where there are children from several relationships.
"When deciding to make a will, it is important to deal with issues which could arise where someone who may ultimately have a claim against the estate is excluded or left a relatively small bequest. Depending on the circumstances, and to avoid litigation, it may be better to leave at least some or more provision for the person concerned or perhaps, better still, to consider the use of trusts. Defining what a bequest encompasses is vital so, looking at the Williams case, it would have been advisable to have had a list indicating exactly what is meant by "memorabilia.
"If you are intent on excluding a dependant from your will then you should always provide a detailed letter setting out your reasons why and always seek specialist advice regarding the options.
Under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, a court can vary the distribution of an estate and make financial provision for someone for whom it is felt adequate provision has not been made.
An eligible claimant claiming under the Act can claim for such reasonable financial provision as is necessary for their maintenance. For spouses and civil partners, reasonable financial provision is subjective and based on their individual circumstances and can therefore be more than maintenance.
Helen added: "Spouses, cohabitees and children, even adult children, are entitled to claim. They might not succeed, but they have the right to try. The likelihood of success is based on a number of factors, not least the needs and resources of the claimant. Put simply, if a wealthy child and a poor child of the same parentage launch identical claims, depending on all the circumstances the poorer child may well have more chance of success.
"There can be all sorts of reasons for excluding a spouse or other dependent from a will. Whilst the law in England and Wales upholds the principle of testamentary freedom, i.e. that you can leave your estate to whoever you like, this must be balanced with equality and fairness.
The best advice is to update your will regularly and always on the occasion of major life events, such as the birth of a child, marriage, divorce or bankruptcy.