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There can’t be undue influence when someone leaves their entire estate to a charity, right? That is currently being vigorously debated in a New York court right now and it promises to go on for some time. It revolves around the estate of Himan Brown. Himan died in 2010 at age 99. The estate is valued at around $100 million.
Back before Netfix, there was cable TV, before that, regular whatever-your-rabbit-ears-could-pull-in TV. Before that, it was radio. It’s largely forgotten now, except, perhaps, when we watch A Christmas Story around the holidays, that radio was the first ‘big thing.’ During the ’30’s through to the beginning of the ’50’s, radio was the medium. Millions listened to shows with the same ferocity millions now binge watch House of Cards. In some ways, radio may have been bigger as there were fewer choices. More people listened to the hot shows than would ever be possible today.
Think David Chase or JJ Abrams are huge today? Hiram Brown was bigger. Brown began as a voice actor in the Goldbergs, but did a little bit of everything. He did it while he finished high school, graduated from Brooklyn College, went to law school.
While going to Brooklyn Law, Himan figured out that owning the rights to works of fiction was the way to go. So, he acquired the rights to Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Bulldog Drummond, the Thin Man and host of others. A master of sound effects, he shaped the shows that then became radio legends.
Himan was immensely successful. He made a fortune, invested in art, started a foundation to carry on the legacy of Radio drama. He was estranged from his son, Barry – a subject of an upcoming blog post. He let everyone know, for years, that he intended for his entire estate to go to his foundation. His two grandchildren were on the foundation’s board of directors.
Himan met with his longtime lawyer (and friend) and executed a simple will in 2004. At the same time he, apparently, formed a new foundation. The will left everything to it. His lawyer was the sole trustee and had full discretion to make gifts to …. any nonprofit, anywhere. The original foundation and the grandchildren have sued the lawyer and the new foundation claiming, of course, undue influence.
Since Himan Brown’s death, the new foundation has distributed more than $10.8 million. The lawsuit claims that the lawyer made grants that ‘have reflected his personal whims and a desire to curry favor with certain institutions’. The lawyer has given gifts to charities where he is a member of the board of directors. He has also made large donations to his alma maters. And his grandchild’s Montessori school. Nothing of any substance has gone to Himan Brown’s passions – the arts and radio drama.
A testator with clear, well stated, goals; a change seemingly out of nowhere; an old friend/trusted adviser in control; a family at a loss. Himan Brown’s issues are high profile, but that doesn’t mean they are not everyday occurrences.
If you have run across anything like this and have any questions or concerns, please feel free to call a member of our team and schedule a consultation with our office.
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