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Heirs face disinheritance in dispute over restaurant fortune

The Benihana restaurant chain may have offered an entertaining dining experience to many Twin Cities residents over the years. With over 100 locations worldwide and 6,000 employees, Benihana restaurants present culinary feats performed by knife-wielding chefs. But a lesser known show, of sorts, has been simmering since the death of the restaurant's founder in 2008.

After he married his third wife, the founder made several changes to his will amidst tensions stemming from his children's disapproval of the relationship. In a recent appellate court ruling, the founder's wife scored a victory in an ongoing will contest. The resolution of a final remaining issue may place two children in line to inherit 75 percent of the founder's stock share and leave the four children who raised the appellate challenge as disinherited heirs.

After the founder's wife submitted his will to probate in 2010, several of his children challenged the admission of the will on claims that the founder's wife had exercised undue influence to convince him to change his will while he was sick and vulnerable. Four children appealed the probate court's decision to accept the will. The court of appeals held that the children had failed to provide evidence of their father's mental incapacity. The appellate court agreed with the probate court's conclusion that dissent among the family members appeared to be just as likely a reason for the will change as any undue influence by the wife.

Questions remain as to the validity of two instruments whereby the restaurant founder is said to have named his children as beneficiaries of the trust holding his shares in the restaurant franchise. Under the terms of the will upheld by the court of appeals, the founder's wife receives 25 percent of trust assets and serves as trustee of the remaining 75 percent. She would have discretion to distribute the remainder among the founder's children as she wishes upon her death. A lawyer for the wife says that if the instruments are declared valid, only the two children who chose not to appeal the probate court's decision will be in line for a future inheritance.

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight, "Benihana founder's widow remains in control of estate: appeals court," Joseph Ax, July 17, 2012

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