Simon daughter challenges shopping mall magnate’s estate plan changes

Simon’s daughter sues widow over will
Complaint says billionaire’s 2nd wife coerced him into signing new estate plan favoring her
John Russell
January 9, 2010
Less than four months after shopping mall tycoon Melvin Simon died, his family is fighting over the billionaire’s vast fortune.

One of Simon’s daughters, Deborah J. Simon, is accusing her father’s second wife, Bren, of coercing her ill husband into signing a new estate plan a few months before his death, while he was gravely ill and dependent on her for care.

The new plan increased Bren Simon’s share of the estate by hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a complaint filed Thursday by Deborah Simon in Hamilton Superior Court. The change essentially eliminated all charitable donations and dramatically reduced the inheritances of Deborah and her two siblings, the complaint claims.

“In fact, Melvin was so ill that he was unable to sign either his 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,” the complaint says.  Late in life, Melvin Simon suffered from neurological disorders that impaired his language, reading, writing, cognition, memory and understanding, it says.

The new estate plan was “hastily prepared” on Feb. 13, 2009, replacing a plan that had been in effect for more than a decade, the complaint says.

Melvin Simon died in September of cancer at the age of 82, leaving a fortune estimated at more than $1 billion. He made his money by developing shopping malls across the country with his younger brother, Herb. Together, they founded a company in 1960 that would become the Simon Property Group, based in Indianapolis, the world’s largest publicly traded retail real estate company.

Last March, Forbes magazine estimated Melvin Simon’s net worth at $1.3 billion, but that amount is likely to have climbed in recent months. Much of Simon’s wealth was tied to the company, which has seen its shares soar more than 200 percent from March 2009 lows.

Such family feuds are fairly common in cases involving huge fortunes, especially when divorce and remarriage are part of the picture, some specialists say.

“I am absolutely not surprised to hear this,” said Greg Halcomb, a probate attorney in Noblesville. “Just considering . . . the potential outcomes to be gained or lost, you almost expect it in a case like this.”

Two months ago, in another case, the Indiana Supreme Court settled a dispute between Anita Inlow — the widow of a wealthy Conseco executive who was killed in 1997 by a spinning helicopter blade — and her husband’s four children from a previous marriage. They had been fighting for years over $284,034 spent to cover the cost of Lawrence W. Inlow’s funeral and private mausoleum.

The Simon case could have repercussions for charities that stood to reap millions from the estate. During his lifetime, Melvin Simon donated more than $150 million to charitable causes, including Indiana University and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Yet under the new estate plan, his charitable giving could be stopped until 66-year-old Bren Simon dies — which, according to actuarial tables, is not expected for about 20 years, the complaint says.

In the meantime, Bren Simon would stand to reap most of her late husband’s estate. The two married in 1972. It was Melvin Simon’s second marriage; his first marriage, to the former Bess Meshulam, ended in divorce after they had three children: Deborah Simon, Cynthia A. Simon Skjodt and David E. Simon, chairman and CEO of Simon Property Group.

The three Simon children “each enjoyed a good personal relationship with their father and had, throughout his life, been the natural objects of his affection and benevolence,” the complaint says.

The earlier estate plan called for Melvin Simon’s assets to be divided into three equal portions: one-third for Bren; one-third for a trust with Bren as the sole income beneficiary, with the remainder to pass to Melvin’s children upon her death; and one-third to a series of trusts that would donate tens of millions of dollars each year to various charities, with Melvin’s children receiving the remainder, if any, after a predetermined period.

The new estate plan radically changed that, the complaint says. It calls for Bren to receive one-half of the fortune outright, while the other half is to be placed in a trust with Bren as the sole income beneficiary.

The complaint describes how the changes are alleged to have taken place, during a three-hour meeting at the home of Melvin and Bren Simon. Lawyers for Bren and Melvin attended and explained the new plan to Melvin, the complaint says.

“Bren was aware of and had knowledge of Melvin’s weakened and susceptible state of mind,” the complaint says.

Melvin’s “cognition, memory and understanding” were impaired, and he was unable to hold the pen and sign his name, according to the complaint. Bruce Jacobson, an accountant and financial planner for Melvin and Bren, held and moved Melvin’s hand as he signed the new plan, the complaint says.

Jacobson could not be reached for comment Friday, nor could Bren Simon’s lawyer, Marianne Hellauer, Baltimore.

Melvin Simon’s lawyer, Eric Manterfield, declined to comment when reached at his Noblesville home late Friday. A spokesman for Simon Property Group also declined to comment.

Additional Facts
About Melvin Simon
• Born: Oct. 21, 1926, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in the Bronx by his father, Max, a tailor, and mother, Mae.
• Died: Sept. 16, 2009, at age 82.
• Family: Married first wife, Bess Meshulam, in the 1950s. They had three children: Deborah Simon, Cynthia Simon Skjodt and David Simon. After divorcing Bess, Simon married Bren Burns in 1972 and adopted Bren’s daughter, Tamme, from a previous marriage. They had a son, Joshua, who died in 1999 at age 25.
• Wealth: Forbes last year listed him as the 559th-wealthiest man in the world — and one of three Indiana billionaires — with a net worth of $1.3 billion. It was a fortune he amassed as co-founder of what would become Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, the nation’s largest owner of shopping malls.

– Source: Star archives