Tuesday, September 26, 2023
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Widow Loses Appeal Over Rocky Aoki’s Fortune

(CN) - New York's highest court refused to revive a challenge by Rocky Aoki's widow to documents that left the Benihana founder's fortune to his children.

Four years before his July 2002 marriage to Keiko, a third wife with whom Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki had no children, the Olympic wrestler had formed the Benihana Protective Trust to hold his business assets.

Rocky had seven children from relationships with other women, and told New York Magazine some saw Keiko as a "gold digger."

With no prenuptial agreement in place, Keiko refused to sign a postnuptial, either.

Two months after the wedding, Rocky signed a release of some of his power to direct the trust's assets at the time of his death. Changes to IRS regulations led Aoki to sign a second release later that year.

By August 2003, however, Rocky had signed a codicil to his will that gave 25 percent of the trust assets to Keiko, plus lifetime income from the other 75 percent.

The new document did not mention the two irrevocable releases that Rocky had already signed, however, and the attorney who prepared the trust instrument subsequently opined that the codicil was invalid.

Rocky stated weeks later in an affidavit that he did not know the releases meant he could not leave Benihana stock to his wife.

Though Rocky tried to leave his assets to his wife according to the codicil in his final 2007 will , he covered his bets by stating that, if the releases were found to be valid, his assets should be split evenly between his son, Stephen, and his daughter, Devon.

The trustees sought a judicial determination of the validity of the releases Rocky signed after Rocky died in 2008 at the age of 69.

Though the a trial in the surrogate court found the releases invalid, an appellate panel reversed in 2014, saying Rocky's deposition testimony showed that he knew the releases could not be revoked.

The New York Court of Appeals affirmed 5-2 Thursday, noting that the attorneys involved in the releases did not stand to gain from them financially.

"Therefore, the Appellate Division correctly determined that, because the fiduciary exception does not apply in this case, the Surrogate had improperly shifted the burden of proof to Devon and Steven to demonstrate that the Releases were not procured by fraud," Judge Eugene Pigott wrote for the court.

The decision says anyone who signs a document is bound by its terms if no fraud is involved.

"Because Keiko failed to raise a triable issue of fact that the releases were signed as a result of fraud or other wrongful conduct, the Appellate Division properly granted Devon and Steven summary judgment," Pigott wrote.

The dissenting judges took issue with the award of summary judgment for Devon and Steven.

"A question of fact exists on the summary judgment record as to the attorneys' possible agency relationship with Rocky's children who did stand to gain from the Releases such that the burden shifted to the children to establish the absence of fraud," Judge Leslie Stein wrote, joined by Judge Jenny Rivera. "Because that burden was not met, summary judgment was inappropriate."

Aoki opened his first Benihana teppanyaki steakhouse in 1964. The chain now includes more than 70 restaurants .

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