The Chairman of Revlon, Ron Perelman (who is one of the richest men in the world), recently lost a very heated and ugly probate lawsuit (or more specifically, several different lawsuits), in which he sued on behalf of his ex-wife's estate. Claudia Cohen had named Perelman as her executor shortly before she died in 2007.
So who did Perelman sue? None other that the father of his ex, Robert Cohen, who was infirm, partially paralyzed and in his eighties at the time. The Probate Lawyer Blog's article discussing the case has all the details.
We found the case, and Perelman's efforts in particular, especially troubling. And we certainly aren't the only ones.
In fact, the New Jersey judge who presided over the case recently ruled that Perelman's lawyers are to be sanctioned because some of the claims they filed were frivolous. He specifically took issue with their claims Cohen should not be permitted to change his estate plan because he had allegedly "promised" his daughter (who later died) an equal share of his estate.
The judge said that no "competent attorney" could have proceeded with the claims. In fact, Perelman was the only witness to offer testimony on the topic, and he never even said there was a "promise". Yet this lack of evidence didn't stop Perelman's lawyers from grilling Cohen during a lengthy cross-examination (during which Perelman could barely speak because of his Parkinson's disease). The judge's ruling called this "harsh and painful".
Because of this ruling, Perelman's legal team will have to reimburse Cohen a portion of the $14 million legal bill he spent defending the lawsuits. Cohen's attorney said the amount owed by Perelman's lawyers will reach into the millions.
It's very rare for a judge to order these types of sanctions based on a "frivolous" lawsuit. The American legal system has always employed the concept that each side pays their own attorney fees, except in special circumstances. A frivolous claim (such as one done in bad faith, or without a valid factual or legal basis) is one of the exceptions to the general rule, but it's not often employed, especially in a case of this magnitude.
You can read more about the Judge's ruling, and even read the actual transcript from the court hearing, from Law.com. The transcript (while quite long) is actually very interesting ... at least to probate and estate planning attorneys like us.
We have to applaud the judge's ruling in this case. He sent a message that it is not ethical to subject an infirm and elderly man to a terrible legal onslaught based on the argument that he shouldn't be allowed to leave his assets as he chose, merely because he previously expressed an intent to do otherwise.
How can their ever be certainty with wills, trusts and other estate planning documents if disgruntled family members (or even disgruntled ex-spouses of family members who died), can challenge every document simply by claiming that the person really intended to leave their money in another way?
Posted by: Andrew W. Mayoras and Danielle B. Mayoras, co-authors of Trial and Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founders 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. Andrew and Danielle are husband and wife attorneys, professional speakers and consultants across the country.Follow us on Google+