On Monday, the family of Robin Williams gathers in a San Francisco courtroom in a quarrel over how to divide personal property such as jewelry and memorabilia. Unfortunately, the dispute overshadows one of the more innovative aspects of Robin Williams’ estate planning, which just might become a model for other celebrities preparing for their demise. After all, one thing his wife Susan and children Zachary,Zelda and Cody won’t be discussing in court is intangible property like the late actor’s right of publicity.
According to a review of the Robin Williams Trust — filed as an exhibit last Wednesday — Williams bequeathed rights to his name, signature, photograph and likeness to the Windfall Foundation, a charitable organization set up by Williams’ legal reps at the law firm of Manatt, Phelps.
There are two important facets of this provision.
First, the Trust restricts exploitation of Robin Williams’ right of publicity for 25 years after his death. That means, there won’t be any authorized advertisements featuring Williams until at least August 11, 2039. The provision also interferes with someone immediately doing, say, a hologram of a Robin Williams standup routine or digitally inserting him into a new film.
“It’s interesting that Williams restricted use for 25 years,” says Laura Zwicker, an attorney at Greenberg Glusker who counsels high net worth individuals on estate and tax planning. “I haven’t seen that before. I’ve seen restrictions on the types of uses — no Coke commercials for example — but not like this. It could be a privacy issue.”
Or maybe, Williams’ reps were aware of novel technologies that have the power of essentially resurrecting dead celebrities — and hoped to avoid anything that could tarnish his legacy.
The Trust’s publicity rights provision is cutting edge in another way.
If the Windfall Foundation is deemed ineligible for a charitable deduction by the Internal Revenue Code, the Trust mandates that Robin Williams’ publicity rights be distributed to one or more charitable organizations with a similar purpose (Doctors Without Borders, AIDS, Make-a-Wish, etc.) which qualify for such charitable deductions.
According to insiders, this appears to be a direct reaction to a dispute happening at the moment between the estate of Michael Jackson and the IRS over how to value the late singer’s publicity rights for estate tax purposes. The federal government claims the King of Pop’s estate owes more than $500 million in taxes from his publicity rights and must also pay almost $200 million more in penalties. The dispute is currently being adjudicated in U.S. Tax Court.
Assigning publicity rights to a tax-advantaged charitable organization could limit his family’s tax liability. By doing what he did, Williams not only asserted a measure of control over posthumous exploitation, but he recognized that the value of a celebrity’s afterlife has gone up in recent years and made a step to mitigate the IRS’ interest in this.