The widow of Rocky Aoki, founder of the Benihana restaurant chain, will remain the beneficiary of his estate as a contentious court battle with four of Aoki’s children rages on. The children accused Keiko Aoki, Rocky’s third wife, of unduly influencing Rocky to turn against his children while he was allegedly in a vulnerable mental state due to illness and medication side effects.
A New York appeals court ruled unanimously in Keiko’s favor, finding no direct evidence that Keiko coerced Rocky or that Rocky lacked the capacity to sign his will. But because of an ongoing dispute over the validity of additional documents signed by Rocky, the trust remains frozen for now.
Rocky changed his will before he died of pneumonia in 2008, leaving 25 percent of his assets directly to Keiko and placing the remaining 75 percent in a trust under her control, from which she can distribute the funds to Rocky’s children at her sole discretion. According to a 2006 article in New York Magazine, Rocky made this change in the hopes that his children would finally accept Keiko if she was put in charge of their inheritance.
Shockingly, the arrangement didn’t improve relations within the family. Rocky would go on to sue his children Kana, Kevin, Kyle and Echo — the same four who challenged the validity of their father’s will — for “disloyal and incompetent” handling of the Benihana business.
Rocky’s personal life was as flashy and over-the-top as his Benihana restaurants, which entertain diners with mesmerizing tableside theatrics. He was fond of high-stakes backgammon games and speedboat racing, the latter of which nearly claimed his life with a catastrophic boating accident in 1979. While he was sedated and recovering in the hospital, his wife Chizuru met his mistress Pamela, who would go on to become Rocky’s second wife.
Rocky had three children with Chizuru and two with Pamela when his cover was blown. He would go on to have a sixth child with Pamela and eventually discover a seventh child when he was sued for paternity by another woman. He bragged to New York Magazine that he had “three kids from three different women at exactly the same time.”
The appeals court found that Rocky made his wishes clear when he changed his will, but given the strife within the family, he might well have anticipated that his will would be challenged.
“When you’re convinced that your client has capacity, but you also know that his capacity will be challenged after he dies, there are a couple of things you can do,” explained estate attorney Cloyd E. Havens II. “You can get evaluations from physicians, psychiatrists or other cognitive experts who can attest to your client’s capacity. You can also videotape a session with the client in which you discuss the will. If you have a detailed conversation about what the document says, and if there’s no one else in the room who might be accused of having undue influence over your client, videotape can be some of the best evidence to demonstrate state of mind and capacity.”
New York’s standard for testamentary capacity is the standard used throughout most of the U.S., and it requires examination of the following three factors:
1. Whether he understood the nature and consequences of executing a will
“This simply means you must understand that you’re not signing just any document, but that you’re signing your will,” Havens explained.
2. Whether he knew the nature and extent of the property he was disposing of
“This means you have to understand what your assets are,” Havens said. “You don’t have to know specifics like what stocks you hold or the amounts in your accounts. But you need to know about major property and what your estate generally includes. If someone leaves a million dollars each to three different charities and they have ten grand in their account, that person doesn’t have capacity.”
3. Whether he knew those who would be considered the natural objects of his bounty and his relations with them
“This means you understand who you might naturally want to give things to,” Havens said. “This is usually just an understanding of your relationship with your spouse, kids and family. In this case, [Aoki’s] wife is clearly a natural object of his bounty, so that’s not an issue here.”