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Probate and Estate Litigation Blog

Restaurant heirs suffer final defeat in will and trust feud

Twin Cities readers who followed a previous story involving the heirs to the Benihana restaurant chain may be interested to learn that a recent court ruling has settled outstanding questions relating to two documents that may determine the future disposition of a substantial portion of the founder's estate.

The original lawsuit centered on claims by several of the founder's children that changes to the founder's will were the result of undue influence by his third wife. The heirs challenged the probate court's acceptance of the will, but the court of appeals ruled in favor of the restaurant founder's wife in the heated will contest after concluding that acrimony among family members was just as likely to have been the reason that the founder changed his will as any coercion exercised by the third wife.

The appellate court decision left questions open as to the validity of two instruments the founder signed in 2002 that purported to turn over the assets of a $35 million trust fund to the control of two of his seven children. According to the terms of the will, the founder's third wife should have retained control of the majority of trust assets and retained discretion to distribute them among the children as she saw fit.

In its recent ruling, the probate court invalidated the two trust assignments. The judge's decision stemmed partly from uncertainty that the founder realized that he was executing irrevocable instruments at the time of signing. The heirs claim that the founder lacked capacity to change his will might have worked against them when it came to upholding the trust assignments.

If the wife stays true to her word, the two children who hoped to gain from the trust assignments may wish they had kept their peace. After the appellate court affirmed the restaurateur's will, the wife vowed to disinherit any child who took part in the appeal.

Source: New York Post, "Hai! Aoki widow wins Benihana battle," Kaja Whitehouse, Jan. 1, 2013

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