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Picture Credit: Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. NavyThe late Robin Williams once said, “death is nature’s way of saying, your table is ready.” Whether unexpected or long overdue, that announcement will come. It is for the ones we leave behind that we go to such great effort to plan for the distribution of our worldly things. Some plans are better than others, and all too often the seemingly inconsequential personal items are forgotten.    

The controversy hanging over the estate of Robin Williams was recently settled following a bitter dispute between Williams' widow and his children over the personal belongings he left behind. Around Christmas last year, Williams’ wife Susan, whom he married in 2011, filed a dispute alleging Williams’ three children (from previous marriages) had unlawfully taken away many of Williams’ personal property from the residence he had shared with Susan. While he had given his three children the entirety of his estate, in recent years he had carved out the home shared with Susan and left it and its contents to her. Last week, Susan and Williams’ children reach an undisclosed settlement.

Their story is a sad reminder of the importance of planning for the often-overlooked part of the estate plan, i.e., tangible personal property. Even a properly drafted and executed revocable trust that transfers real estate, stocks, business interests, etc. into a trust, may fail to transfer the Settlor’s personal belongings as well. The failure to adequately plan for the distribution of your personal belongings can be devastating to family relationships at the worst time.

One of the best tools to plan for the distribution of your personal belongings in Utah is to reference in one’s will a separate personal property document. See Utah Code Ann. § 75-2-512. The reference language might read something like, “I request that the beneficiaries of my estate and my Personal Representative honor the provisions of any memorandum written by me directing the disposition of any portion of my tangible personal property.” This referenced document provides a convenient place to make contemporary specific bequests of personal property, e.g., “I give my Oscar to my son Zak.” Of course, this referenced external property list is only as valuable as the words written upon it.

Good estate planning will promote peace and minimize conflict. The job of inventorying individual personal belongings and assigning them to various beneficiaries is emotionally draining and time-consuming, but it is a necessary step toward minimizing confusion, disagreement, and the disintegration of family relationships. So that when your table is called you can eat in peace. Speak to an attorney today to ensure your estate plan adequately addresses your personal tangible property. 

Picture Credit: Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy