Davidson estate settles in lawsuits

Davidson’s estate quietly settles 3 suits
His fortune is pegged at $5.5B
John Gallagher
August 31, 2010
Detroit Free Press
The estate of the late William Davidson has been the target of at least three lawsuits seeking to wrest at least $20 million from the fortune left by the billionaire businessman and owner of the Detroit Pistons — a hazard that one attorney said is the result of being very rich and dead.

Of the three suits filed in Oakland County Circuit Court, all have been quietly settled, according to court records and attorneys involved. Details of the settlements have not been revealed.

Forbes magazine had estimated Bill Davidson’s fortune in 2009 at $5.5 billion.

With an estate that big, it’s no surprise that fights would arise over it, said Andrew Mayoras, a Troy probate litigation attorney who writes a blog on the estate disputes of famous people.

“In this economy, it’s more and more common, unfortunately. My practice is just crazy busy and it’s been growing every year, and I do think the economy has a lot to do with it,” he said.

Estate disputes not a shock

The late Bill Davidson may have been best known as the owner of the Detroit Pistons basketball team. But he was a billionaire businessman and philanthropist with interests that ranged around the world.

With his complex financial life, perhaps it’s no surprise that Davidson’s estate has been the focus of lawsuits hoping to get a piece of what Davidson left behind — a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at about $5.5 billion.

At least three lawsuits have been filed against the estate, and all three have been quietly settled. One was filed by a New York-based nonprofit called the Areivim Philanthropic Group, which is devoted to supporting Jewish educational causes. Davidson was one of the founders of the group, and reportedly pledged about $5 million to its support.

Areivim filed suit against the estate after its claim for that money was denied. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount.

Two other lawsuits were filed by Israeli businessmen operating as Milestones Upgrading & Industries and related parties.

In the pair of lawsuits, filed last December, the men said that Bill Davidson had made $40 million from the sale of his shares in an Israeli company called IDB Holding, and that rather than bring that money home, Davidson pledged to invest it with Israeli businessmen headed by Oded Tyrah, a retired general and a longtime friend of Davidson.

According to the suit, Davidson had transferred almost $25 million by the time of his death in March 2009, and the plaintiffs sought approximately $15 million said to be remaining of the pledge.

These two related lawsuits were settled in late July for undisclosed terms.

The multiple parties to the various disputes include Karen Davidson, the billionaire’s widow and current owner of the Pistons; Ethan Davidson, who is Bill Davidson’s son; Marla Jane Davidson-Karimipour, who is Bill Davidson’s daughter; the William Davidson Foundation, the WMD Family Trust and others.

Michael Layne, a public relations executive with the Farmington Hills firm Marx Layne, said his client, Karen Davidson, and Davidson’s son and daughter were not opposed to honoring pledges Bill Davidson made during his life. The opposition came from other parties to the dispute.

Davidson “was an honorable man and would have honored his pledges,” Layne said.

What is unclear from court records is whether the suits represent a minor distraction for the heirs or something more serious.

Andrew Mayoras, a Troy probate litigation attorney who writes a blog about estate battles of the rich and famous, said such disputes are growing more common in a tough economy. Perhaps adding to the mix in this case was Bill Davidson’s complicated personal history. He had four marriages, two children and various stepchildren.

“That’s a common breeding ground for these kinds of fights,” Mayoras said. “It would not surprise me that there’s a big fight going on.”

Most of Bill Davidson’s estate seems to have been in the form of assets not easily turned to cash. Forbes has valued the Pistons at $479 million, making it the fourth most-valued National Basketball Association team. But to turn that asset into cash, Karen Davidson has to find a buyer.

The bulk of Bill Davidson’s fortune appears to have been his stake in Guardian Industries, the Auburn Hills-based company that is one of the world’s largest glass-making companies, privately held by Davidson.

The disputes over the estate have been shielded from public view because Judge Daniel O’Brien of the Oakland County Probate Court has suppressed, or sealed, the court file. That normally is an indication that heirs have requested privacy while the estate is settled.

Mayoras and his wife, attorney Danielle B. Mayoras, have written a book called “Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights,” detailing the estate battles of Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, and others.

“It’s amazing how many celebrities there are where their families are fighting. We’ve got dozens of them in there (the book), but it only scratches the surface,” Mayoras said.

Settlement is usually the best option, he added. “If there is a knock-down drag-out fight all the way to trial, the lawyers win.”