California judge issues key ruling in vitamin tycoon estate fight


When a parent of adult children remarries, it often creates friction between the children from the former marriage and the new spouse. When the parent dies, that friction can boil over into bitter disputes over the parent's estate. This appears to be what has happened with the family of a multimillionaire vitamin entrepreneur who died last year at the age of 80. Recently, judges in California and Nevada issued separate rulings that significantly weakened the claims of the entrepreneur's children and grandchildren.

The entrepreneur left the bulk of his $800 million estate to his 49-year-old wife, whom he married five years ago. According to the widow's lawyer, two of the man's children, as well as six grandchildren, received $60 million from the estate.

They nevertheless brought a lawsuit challenging the man's estate plan. They alleged the widow exercised undue influence over the man and persuaded him to leave most of his fortune to her. They also alleged that the couple's marriage was invalid because the widow's divorce from her former husband had never been finalized.

A California judge threw out the claim that the marriage was invalid, ruling that the failure to finalize the divorce was due to excusable neglect. He entered an order dissolving the previous marriage and made the order effective as of the date the divorce should have been finalized. A Nevada judge then dismissed the claim that the trust was invalid due to the allegedly invalid marriage.

The eight family members have not given up, however. They are still pursuing their claims of undue influence, as well as allegations of elder abuse.

Undue influence can be very difficult to prove in California. It requires the person challenging the will or trust to prove someone exercised excessive influence, so as to overcome the victim's free will and cause them to change their estate plan in an unjust manner. Evidence that the alleged perpetrator isolated the victim from family members can be relevant to prove an unjust enrichment claim.

Source: Daily Mail, "Multi-millionaire's 'gold digger' bit-part actress wife wins crucial legal victory in battle over his $800M fortune as his children's claim she faked marriage is dismissed," Paul Thompson, Feb. 15, 2016

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