Simon family fight breaks out over billionaire's fortune

January 8, 2010

Melvin Simon’s daughter Deborah filed court papers Thursday afternoon charging her father was coerced into approving a new estate plan in February 2009 that dramatically increased the amount of his fortune going to her stepmother, Bren.

The will contest, filed in Hamilton County Superior Court, alleges that “Melvin was so ill that he was unable to sign either the new will or trust agreement himself, necessitating someone to hold a pen in Melvin’s hand and move his hand as he allegedly ‘signed’ both documents.”

Melvin Simon, co-founder of Simon Property Group, died Sept. 16 at age 82. He had pancreatic cancer and, according to court papers, was suffering from dementia and neurological disorders “that impaired his language, reading, writing, cognition, memory and understanding.”

Simon was one of Indiana’s richest men. Forbes magazine in March 2009 estimated his net worth at $1.3 billion. Shares of Simon Property, his principal holding, have zoomed higher since, perhaps pushing the value of his fortune past $2 billion.

Melvin had been married to Bren, his second wife, since 1972. Deborah Simon is one of Melvin’s children from his first marriage. The other surviving children are Cynthia Simon Skjodt and David Simon, the chairman and CEO of Simon Property Group. Melvin also adopted Tamme, Bren’s daughter from her first marriage.

Deborah’s legal filings say the new estate plan provided hundreds of millions of dollars more to Bren than Melvin previously had intended and effectively wiped out the share that was to have gone to the children of his first wife, Bess.

The court filings charge Bren manipulated her husband for her own financial benefit and that her “unlawful” actions were facilitated by a team of professionals. Those included Krieg DeVault partner Eric Manterfield, who represented Bren as executor of the estate, and Bruce Jacobson, an accountant who was a longtime financial adviser to Melvin and Bren. Manterfield declined to comment. Jacobson and a Baltimore attorney representing Bren did not immediately respond to messages Friday afternoon.

According to the filings, prior to last February’s changes, Melvin’s estate plan divided assets into these three equal portions:

One-third going directly to Bren.

One-third placed in a trust, with Bren receiving all its income during her lifetime. After her death, the principal would pass to Melvin’s four children.

One-third going to charitable trusts that were to donate tens of millions of dollars a year to local and national charities. Anything remaining after a predetermined period would go to Melvin’s children.

Under the new estate plan, Bren would receive one-half of the estate outright, and the other half would go into a trust, with Bren receiving all its income during her lifetime. Court papers say changes to Melvin’s estate plan created inconsistencies and conflicts that make it unclear what would happen to the principal after her death.

But court papers say that even if the principal ultimately goes to charities, that likely won’t happen for a long time—a delay that seems in conflict with the wishes of a man who gave away more than $150 million during his lifetime. The filing notes that actuarial tables indicate Bren, now 66, is likely to live another 20 years.

Trusts filed with the court show that prior to the changes to Melvin’s estate plan, local charitable, religious and educational organizations had been in for a windfall. One filing shows Simon earmarked $10 million for the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, $2 million for Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, $2 million for the Indiana University Foundation and $1 million each for Butler University, the United Way of Central Indiana and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Court papers charge the changes occurred in whirlwind fashion that would have been inappropriate even if Melvin hadn’t been ill.

In early February, court papers say, Baltimore attorney Marianne Schmitt Hellauer, who is representing Bren as executor, held an initial meeting with Melvin at his Indiana home. The filing says that at the gathering Hellauer patched in Manterfield by speaker phone and told him how Melvin’s estate plan was to be changed.

Court papers say Manterfield apparently did not talk with Melvin about the changes during that call. And, in the week between that meeting and the execution of the documents Feb. 13, Manterfield did not provide Melvin any materials explaining or summarizing the changes, Deborah alleges in her complaint.

At the Feb. 13 meeting, her attorneys charge, “Melvin was unable to hold the pen and sign his name, and Jacobson held and moved Melvin’s hand as Melvin allegedly signed the altered will and trust.”

The complaint says the Simon children were told about the new will at a meeting Oct. 13, nearly a month after Melvin died. The filings say no parties involved in the revisions made a video or audio recording of the process.

Indianapolis law firm Ice Miller is representing Deborah Simon. An attorney for the firm declined to comment.



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