In the United States we are fascinated, sometimes obsessed, with celebrities. When a celebrity dies, we often turn that interest toward the estate left behind by the celebrity. How much money was left behind? What gets his/her money? It should come as no surprise then that the tabloids starting discussing the estate of actor and comedian Robin Williams within hours after he was reported to have committed suicide. What is surprising, however, is that the tabloids were able to provide details about trusts the actor created. After all, most trust agreements are supposed to be private.
One of the many reasons why people choose to incorporate trusts into their estate plans, in fact, is because of the private nature of a trust agreement. Unlike your Last Will and Testament, an irrevocable trust does not become part of your probate estate because the assets held by the trust are no longer legally yours. Details from two irrevocable trusts created by Williams though made it into the headlines shortly after his death. The reason for this is simple – the trust agreements were silent on the issue of appointment of a successor trustee. While this may seem to be a minor detail, it is not.
Williams created an irrevocable trust back in 1989 for his then only child. He then created another irrevocable trust in 2009 for all three of his children — Zachary, 31; Zelda, 25 and Cody, 22. Williams used the trust terms to stagger disbursements to his children – a wise move. He also appointed co-trustees. Unfortunately, one of the co-trustees died, leaving an important position open with no way to fill it because the trust agreement did not provide a method for filling the vacancy. As a result, the surviving co-trustee was forced to file a petition in court asking the court to appoint a successor trustee. Keep in mind that because the trust was an irrevocable trust even Williams could not appoint a successor trust once the trust became active. By petitioning the court for guidance, the trustee agreements themselves became part of the court file and, therefore, a matter of public record.
The lesson to be learned here is a simple one – always consult with an experienced Illinois estate planning attorney when creating, revising, or updating all, or part, of your estate plan.
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