$500 Million Legacy Battle

The late George S. Kaufman was a New York real estate icon and well known philanthropist.  At the time of his passing in February of 2018 his estate was valued at more than $500 million. The story that follows centers around who would serve as Executor and Trustee of his estate. It’s a sad case, and illustrates that changing your plan and changing your mind late in the game can cause problems. Although we often focus on the estate planning failures of wealthy individuals, it can happen to anyone!

Mr. Kaufman is most known for transforming the former Paramount film studio in Astoria, Queens into an enormous complex of studios, production facilities and backlot, drawing in TV and movie producers eager to film in New York.  The TV shows “Orange is the New Black” and “Sesame Street” have been filmed there as well as movies such as “Goodfellas” and “The Wiz”. 

The redevelopment of the old studio revitalized the Queens neighborhood and surrounding area.

Unfortunately for Mr. Kaufman’s legacy, a dispute has arisen over the administration of his affairs which threatens to impede the creation of one of his main estate planning goals — his charitable foundation. 

Two months before his death Mr. Kaufman updated his estate plan removing Thomas Kearns, his attorney of 25 years, as Executor and Trustee.  In the new documents Mr. Kaufman gave control of his estate to Bessemer Trust, a private wealth management firm.  According to Mr. Kaufman’s widow and third wife, Mariana Zoullas Kaufman, Mr. Kaufman lost confidence in Mr. Kearns.  Mr. Kearns, for his part, has accused Mrs. Kaufman of elder abuse and keeping Mr. Kaufman isolated from friends and colleagues in the last months of his life.  You can read more about it here.

Mr. Kearns’ attorney suggests that resolution of the dispute could take years as both sides argue about who will eventually control Mr. Kaufman’s legacy.