Nearly six months after the death of Robin Williams, the Academy Award-winning actor and comedian, his widow and his children have become engaged in a contentious legal dispute over his estate.
Court documents filed in December and January outline a bitter disagreement over money and property between the widow, Susan Schneider Williams, who was Mr. Williams’s third wife, and Zak, Zelda and Cody Williams, the comedian’s children from two previous marriages that ended in divorce.
At stake is not only a portion of the wealth that Mr. Williams accumulated in a film, television and stage career of some 40 years, but also 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.
The documents show a fragile family still striving for closure after Mr. Williams committed suicide at his home in Tiburon, Calif., on Aug. 11 at the age of 63. They also reveal a schism between Mrs. Williams, who married Mr. Williams in 2011 and is a relative newcomer to the family, and his children, who are closely knit and were a highly visible part of his personal life.
In legal papers filed just before Christmas in San Francisco, lawyers for Mrs. Williams presented her view as to what she is entitled to from the estate. This petition complained that some property was “unilaterally removed” from their home “days after Mr. Williams’s untimely death.”
Then, when she sought legal representation, “certain home-related services were canceled,” like newspaper delivery, according to the papers filed in California Superior Court.
As a result, the papers assert, since she lost “her husband through a shocking and emotionally charged event,” Mrs. Williams has not been “given time to grieve her loss free from the frenetic efforts to interfere with her domestic tranquillity.”
Mr. Williams’s children — Zak, 31, his son by his first wife, Valerie Velardi; and Zelda, 25, and Cody, 23, his daughter and son by his second wife, Marsha Garces Williams — filed their response in January.
They say in their filing that they “are heartbroken” that Susan Schneider Williams — who they note was married to their father for “less than three years” — has “acted against his wishes by challenging the plans he so carefully made for his estate.”
Mrs. Williams’s petition, the children’s legal papers say, adds “insult to a terrible injury” and is a premature attempt to alter Mr. Williams’s instructions and “prevent them from receiving what their father wanted them to receive.”
The actor said in his will, filed in Marin County, Calif., that he left his estate in its entirety to a trust whose beneficiaries included his three children.
This trust was updated in recent years with further provisions for Mrs. Williams, a painter and graphic designer who has two teenage sons of her own. Mrs. Williams also signed a prenuptial agreement with Mr. Williams in 2011, though it is unclear what assets it granted or denied her.
Under the terms of the updated trust, Mrs. Williams was to be provided her own separate trust, the Susan Trust, which included the Tiburon home and “the contents thereof,” subject to certain restrictions. She would also be given enough cash or property to cover, for her lifetime, “all costs related to the residence.”
Mrs. Williams’s petition states that this should include “all expenses associated with daily upkeep as well as unexpected renovations and improvements.”
In their response, the Williams children faulted Mrs. Williams for appearing to be arguing for additional funds before the Susan Trust had even been funded. They cite this as an illustration of “the greed that appears to be driving petitioner’s actions.”
Jim Wagstaffe, a lawyer for Mrs. Williams, said in a telephone interview on Monday that his client was “not somebody who has any sticky fingers.”
“Mr. Williams wanted his wife to be able to stay in her home and not be disrupted in her life with her children,” he added. “Compared to what the Williams children were set to receive from their father, this is a bucket of water in a lake.”
A publicist for the Williams children said on Monday that they had no further comment.
Much of the dispute is focused on how the estate should distribute Mr. Williams’s personal effects, both from his days as an entertainer and as a family man. Mr. Williams won numerous awards, including an Oscar for his performance in “Good Will Hunting,” six Golden Globes, two Emmys and five Grammys.
The updated trust specified that all of Mr. Williams’s “clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan,” his “memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry,” as well as additional property he kept at a second home in Napa, Calif., were to be given to his children.
Mrs. Williams acknowledged in her legal papers that she had no claim to items like the distinctive suspenders her husband wore on “Mork & Mindy,” because they are “related to Mr. Williams’s acting career in the entertainment industry.” But she said that she should be entitled to other items, like the tuxedo that he wore at their wedding, as well as “Mr. Williams’s personal collections of knickknacks and other items that are not associated with his famous persona.”
In their response, the Williams children took offense at the use of “knickknacks” to describe their father’s accumulation of graphic novels, action figures, theater masks, movie posters and other artifacts that they regard as having been crucial fuel for his seemingly boundless creativity.
“These collections were carefully amassed by Mr. Williams over his lifetime and were precious to him,” the response says. “As the Williams children grew, so did their father’s collections and they shared in their father’s excitement as additions were made to his collection.”
The breach within Mr. Williams’s family had not been visible after his suicide. But the legal papers make clear that any spirit of cooperation between Mrs. Williams and the children of her husband was tattered within weeks of his death.
Her lawyers say in the court papers that, in September, she was given only three days’ notice by the trustees of the main trust of their intention to remove home items they believed had been bequeathed to the children.
Mrs. Williams, asserting that she “became frightened of the co-trustees invading her home,” blocked their access.
The children countered that Mrs. Williams has continued to block their access to the Tiburon home, even as she has allowed others inside. Those others included appraisers who estimated the value of items that the children contend are rightfully theirs and workers who helped design and complete a $30,000 renovation, the court papers contend.
What both sides may still share is the desire, as the Williams children say in their court papers, to resolve any potential disputes “as quickly and efficiently as possible, to allow them to privately grieve the loss of their father and begin to heal from this tragic event.”