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By: Scott Grossman on January 31st, 2018

Clause in Trust Means Less Money for Robin Williams Estate

When a celebrity dies, many people assume that his or her estate will continue to generate vast sums of money for the decedent’s loved ones and beneficiaries. When actor and comedian Robin Williams passed away in August of 2014, he left behind an estate valued at $100 million. Unfortunately, the process of settling the estate of the beloved actor and comedian has been nothing if not contentious. Another hiccup relating to the settlement of this estate is a trust clause that means money will not be earned for many decades.

The Robin Williams Publicity Rights Trust Provision

Under the terms of the trust created by the late actor, restrictions were put in place concerning the ability of his likeness to be used to generate income. The following is an overview of the issue:

  1. Before Robin Williams died, he executed a trust that contained a publicity rights provision. The provision put a restriction on the use of his likeness for 25 years after his death.
  2. As a result, his name, photograph, voice, or signature cannot be used in any film, advertisement, or endorsement until 2039. This restriction extends to prevent someone from creating a hologram in his image or digitally inserting him into a new film.
  3. Williams then created a charitable organization known as the Windfall Foundation.
  4. Williams left the rights to his name, signature, image, and likeness to the Windfall Foundation under the terms of the Robin Williams Trust.
  5. One reason why this move by Williams seems unusual is that restricting the use of his likeness is often beneficial for minimizing estate taxes because it reduces the value of those rights. However, since Williams ultimately left this incredibly valuable asset to a charity, it is already exempt from taxation, and therefore presumably may not have needed the restriction on its use.
  6. Another reason for including the provision may have been due to privacy concerns or concerns over tarnishing his image when he was no longer around to control its use.
  7. Yet another possible motivation for including the provision in the trust relates to what took place when the musician Michael Jackson passed away. After his death, the IRS and the Michael Jackson estate began what has turned into a lengthy battle over the true value of the estate and subsequent estate taxes owed. At the center of the dispute is the value of the musician’s likeness.
  8. By assigning the publicity rights to a tax-advantaged charitable organization, Robin Williams may have sought to both limits the type and extent of the use of his image while also providing estate tax savings for his loved ones.

While the long-term result for the beneficiaries of the Robin Williams estate may be tax savings, the short-term disadvantage is that the amount of income that his estate or trust can earn is limited due to the restrictions of the publicity rights provision.

Robin Williams may have been a well-known celebrity; however, he is far from alone when it comes to having left behind an estate fraught with potential issues when it comes time to administer. The good news for those in charge of administering a trust or an estate is that you are entitled to seek legal guidance from a knowledgeable attorney today. Contact us today for a free 30-minute consultation.

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