William Davidson and Melvin Simon had a lot in common. Both were billionaires and both were Jewish. Simon built his fortune through the country's biggest shopping mall company, Simon Property Group, and Forbes estimated his net worth at $1.3 billion. Davidson led Guardian Industries Corp., one of the world's largest glass suppliers, and had a fortune recently tabbed at $4.5 billion.
They also each owned NBA franchises in the midwest. Davidson owned the Detroit Pistons (yeah!), while Simon co-owned the rival Indiana Pacers (boo!) with his brother, Herbert Simon.
Both men died last year, with Davidson passing away at age 86 in March and Simon passing in October, at age 82. And both were survived by spouses as well as children from prior marriages.
And, in both instances, the spouse and the children from the prior marriage did not see eye to eye. Because of that, both the Davidson Estate and Simon Estate are mired in lawsuits about the true wishes of the beloved billionaires.
In Davidson's case, there are actually multiple lawsuits that have recently been filed. An Israeli company and a Jewish charity started the legal actions claiming that Davidson (a renowned philanthropist who generously supported many charitable causes, especially Jewish and Israeli ones) had promised them sums totaling $20 million. The problem was that Davidson's revised will, signed only one week before he died, did not include money for these Jewish and Israeli causes.
Karen Davidson, Bill's wife, supports the company and charity, and she has actually joined in the request for funds, even though, as Bill's wife and a primary beneficiary of her estate, Karen stands to lose millions if the money is taken from the estate to pay these claims.
Opposing Karen and these claimants are the two co-executors of the Davidson estate, which includes the husband of Karen's step-daughter. The son-in-law pointed to a dispute amongst the beneficiaries as a reason for refusing to provide the money.
Yet these $20 million disagreements pale in comparison to the family feud surrounding Mel Simon's Estate. He signed a new will and trust seven months before he died that drastically reduced the inheritance to his three children, to the benefit of his wife of 37 years, Bren Simon. In fact, reportedly, Bren will receive one-half of the fortune, instead of one-third, with the children being cut out.
Deborah Simon, Mel's daughter, filed the lawsuit a few weeks ago. She claimed that Mel was ill from pancreatic cancer, dementia and neurological disorders which impaired his understanding and his ability to sign the new documents. In fact, she says, he wasn't even able to hold the pen or the documents to sign his name, and someone else had to move his hand for him.
Mel's wife, Bren, counters that the documents were valid. Mel fully understood and desired to make the changes, she says, to protect his wife from his children, and because he wanted to compensate her for loss in value of company stock. Bren admits that Mel needed help signing the estate planning documents, because he suffered from symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
As a probate litigation attorney who regularly handles will disputes and trust contests like these cases, I see these types of family fights affect people on a daily basis. While millionaires and billionaires do seem to attract these legal battles more often (as covered in Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!), the reality is that they are also far more common than people realize, even for middle-class families.
The exact same type of legal fights surface over estates worth hundreds of thousands, or even tens of thousands. When a will or trust is changed and family members are cut out, or someone is convinced that a promise was made and not fulfilled, estate disputes are usually just around the corner.
The best prevention remains a good estate plan with an experienced estate planning lawyer. Despite this, two-thirds of adults in this country don't even have wills.
Don't let this happen to your family! Work with a good attorney and plan ahead. And if you do suspect a loved one has been a victim of undue influence, or has been coerced to sign new documents when not mentally competent, learn your legal rights by working with an experienced probate litigation attorney.
As the Davidson and Simon estate battles will demonstrate, these court proceedings are long, expensive and emotionally-draining for everyone involved.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.Follow us on Google+