It’s unlikely that the late comedian Robin Williams would be laughing at the current dispute involving his family members. A dispute over the interpretation of certain language in his trust – pitting his widow Susan against his three children – is currently in litigation in Superior Court in Marin County, California.
Specifically, there’s one paragraph about certain items of Williams’ property that his beneficiaries have made into a tricky semantics debate. The paragraph assigns to Williams’ children all of his “clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to (Susan) … memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry and the tangible personal property located in Napa.”
In Susan’s interpretation, the paragraph is ambiguous regarding the house (or houses) from which the items can be removed. Is the phrase “located in Napa” in reference only to “tangible personal property,” or is it restrictive of every category? She claims her husband wished “to allow her to stay in their Tiburon home as it was during their marriage,” and therefore the paragraph should be read to cover only the items in the Napa house, not those in the Tiburon house. . .
But Williams’ kids read the trust differently — they argue that it grants them every category of item listed in addition to the property in the Napa house, not every category of item confined to the Napa house. It’s nonsensical to list “the tangible personal property located in Napa” separately if there aren’t items to which they’re entitled outside the Napa house, they argue. They point out lines in the trust that give Susan the Tiburon house and its contents with the exceptions of items gifted in other stipulations. They want the court to declare they’re entitled to the categories’ items in the Tiburon house, too.
Source: “Robin Williams’ Widow, Children Clash Over Estate” by Austin Sigemund-Broka, The Hollywood Reporter, February 3, 2015.
Several lessons can be drawn from this unfortunate spat. Personally, I think the children have the stronger argument, but the fact is that this dispute could have been largely prevented through more precise drafting on the part of Williams’ estate planning attorney. Common drafting techniques to ensure greater precision include utilization of defined terms and the use of explanations in cases of ambiguity (for example, employing the phrase “for the elimination of doubt,” followed by a more detailed explanation). If you have an estate planning attorney draft your will (and possibly a trust too), and after reading over the documents you perceive that there’s an ambiguity, it’s important to raise that issue with your estate planning attorney before you sign the documents. The estate planning attorney can easily insert additional language into the will and/or trust to clarify the ambiguity.
The second lesson is that it’s not exceptionally difficult to argue that certain language in a will and/or trust is ambiguous. If you’re a disappointed beneficiary (who received a smaller bequest than you thought you would, or were left different real property or personal property than you thought you would), it’s worthwhile to consult with an estate litigation attorney. The attorney may be able to ascertain an ambiguity in the language of the will and/or trust that could work to your advantage. Even if you don’t have a particularly strong argument with respect to the ambiguity, if the attorney believes that he could still assert, in good faith, that there’s an ambiguity, then the threat of litigation or the filing of a lawsuit may lead to a settlement whereby you receive a more advantageous disposition than you otherwise would have received under the will and/or trust.
The third lesson is that the law in Virginia (like the law in most states) is very fact specific as to what types of evidence may be introduced in cases of alleged ambiguities in wills and trusts. Virginia law provides that a court must first determine whether language in a will is clear and unambiguous, and if it is, the parties may not introduce what’s called “extrinsic evidence” (which is evidence that is not contained within the written document). Gillespie v. Davis, 242 Va. 300, 303 (1991). In other words, the court must look solely at the language of the will, and cannot consider factors such as statements made by the testator of the will (the testator is the person making the will), facts about the testator’s thoughts and actions towards his heirs, etc.
If the court determines that the language in a will is ambiguous, it may, under certain circumstances, consider two classes of extrinsic evidence: (1) “facts and circumstances evidence” and (2) “declarations of intention” evidence. Id. at 304. The first class of evidence “involves evidence about the testator, the testator’s family and property; the claimants under the will and their relationship to the testator; the testator’s hopes and fears; the testator’s habits of thought and language; and similar matters.” Id. Courts may admit evidence from the second class in cases of “equivocation,” in other words, “where the words in the will describe equally well two or more persons or two or more things.” Id. In such circumstances, courts may admit “extrinsic statements by the testator of his actual testamentary intentions, that is, what he has done or designs to do by the will.” Id.
In sum, the law relating to ambiguities in wills and trusts – and what evidence may be admitted under different scenarios to aid the court in interpreting that language – is very fact specific. Accordingly, if you’re confronting a situation with ambiguous language in a will or trust, you should consult with an estate litigation attorney who can advise you of your rights, and can work to help you attempt to receive the most favorable bequest possible.