As an estate planning attorney, I know how important what is known as “tangible personal property” is to people. Generally there are two types of property: real property and personal property. Real property is land and buildings, and personal property is everything else. That includes, money, stocks, patents, digital assets, etc.
When we talk about tangible personal property, we mean property that you can touch, feel, or move. It’s books, clothes, furniture, jewelry, TVs, electronics, artwork, etc. You know, “stuff.” Often, the tangible personal property is far more important to someone’s family, than the money and other investments. Long, expensive court fights occur over items with little to no economic value, but significant sentimental value.
Robin Williams’s estate is in the news, in that his wife of three years and his children from prior marriages are fighting over his stuff. According the various news reports (I haven’t seen the pleadings myself), they are fighting over, “cherished belongings that include his clothing, collectibles and personal photographs. In their court papers, both sides display keen interest in such memorabilia — everything from Mr. Williams’s bicycles to his collections of fossils and toys — as tangible, deeply personal reminders of the irrepressible, manic imagination that drove his performances as a comedian and actor.”
It looks like that he had all of the big things taken care of. A separate marital trust for his new wife, with a life estate in the home, and separate trusts for the children. But he may have ignored the “small stuff,” which is causing the dispute.
Now clearly, his tangible personal property has sentimental value to them, but also actual real world value too. I’m sure a collector would pay tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars for a pair of suspenders from Mork and Mindy. However, I don’t think the fight about the stuff is about money – at least from the children’s perspective.
Proper planning and family discussions can often avoid these problems, but not always. In Florida, and many other states, a person can create a separate list, outside of their will, to dispose of their tangible personal property. With the separate list, they can give individual pieces of jewelry to various family members, pictures to someone else, etc. The list does not have to be witnessed, and can be changed. I usually advise clients to create the separate list, instead of putting it all into their will, in case they change their mind.
In legal pleadings filed with the court, his wife wrote that she should be entitled to “Mr. Williams’s personal collections of knickknacks and other items that are not associated with his famous persona.”
Knickknacks? Calling his stuff “knickknacks” seemed to have upset his children even more.
I think a more proper term would have been tchotchkes.
Hopefully, they’ll work it out soon.