Tuesday, July 17, 2012
The New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department affirmed the admission to probate of the will of Rocky Aoki:
In 1959, decedent Rocky Aoki, founder of the Benihana restaurant chain, came to the United States from Japan with the Japanese wrestling team. He enrolled in the School of Restaurant Management at New York City Technical College in Manhattan. He made a living by washing dishes, driving an ice cream truck, and working as a tour guide. In 1963, Rocky took his savings of $10,000, borrowed $20,000 more, and opened the first Benihana restaurant on West 56th Street in Manhattan, which proved to be successful, and the rest is history...
As to undue influence, the court found that "abundant" evidence — including legal agreements, Rocky's letters, deposition testimony and videos, together with statements by persons who would not gain under the will — supplied the requisite "contrary inference" to objectants' evidence that [wife] Keiko allegedly orchestrated a transfer of the assets in Rocky's estate to herself. The
Surrogate noted Rocky's expressed "overwhelming desire to preserve the Aoki legacy throughcontrol of the Benihana empire," and his belief that, in light of his children's behavior, Keiko was best suited to ensure that his testamentary wishes were respected. The Surrogate also noted that the heavy tax consequences of a division of Rocky's assets among the children upon his death would have virtually ensured liquidation of the Aoki holdings in Benihana to meet the tax burden. The Surrogate found that the "friend" affidavits submitted by objectants to demonstrate undue influence, when "[r]ead collectively," were "filled with hearsay, speculation and surmise." The court noted that many of the individuals who supplied affidavits lived in areas affording only limited opportunity for observing Rocky following his marriage to Keiko. Further, the court found that even assuming the truth of the affidavits, undue influence would not be established since there was no evidence that Keiko forced Rocky to execute the 2007 will against his wishes. Also found unavailing was objectants' argument that the liaison between Rocky and Keiko was more akin to a confidential relationship than a marital one such that an inference of undue influence might be drawn, noting objectants' burden to establish disparate power and control by Keiko over Rocky and the ultimate futility in overcoming the "contrary inference" where the evidence is equally consistent with the exercise of free will.