The two sons of legendary “B-Movie King” Roger Corman have made it clear through multiple lawsuits that they believe their parents are mismanaging trusts set up to benefit their four children. Allegations made in a recent filing, however, take a disturbing turn, accusing their mother of harassing the 91-year-old director of low-budget horror classics into making financial moves to benefit her, not their children, according to several publications.
Roger Martin Corman and Brian William Corman filed a petition in a California state court in September claiming their mother, Julie Corman, 75, has regularly “berated and abused” their father to get him to change the terms of trusts set up for their two sons and two daughters, valued at approximately $100 million. Julie Corman reportedly believes her husband has been too generous with their children and wants a larger cut for herself in the event her husband predeceases her. The couple has been married 47 years.
The sons have brought several actions against their parents over the various trusts, including a lawsuit filed at the end of October alleging their parents are giving the director’s film business a break on the rent to occupy a building managed by the Corman Family Investment Partnership. This deal ultimately benefits the parents while short-changing the trust beneficiaries, the sons point out.
The September petition, which seeks to determine the sons’ rights as beneficiaries of the trusts, adds a new dimension to the litigation—the abuse allegations imply that Julie Corman wields undue influence over her husband’s financial decision making. These allegations could pave the way for the sons to contest their father’s will down the road.
Whether the Corman sons decide to pursue claims of undue influence remains to be seen. While the court will set aside a will found to be the product of undue influence, the process of proving undue influence can be difficult for everyone involved. In Pennsylvania, according to the state Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling in In re Estate of Ziel, a party claiming undue influence must establish that:
- the testator was of weakened intellect when the will was executed;
- the accused was in a confidential relationship with the testator; and
- the accused received a substantial benefit under the will.
A variety of sensitive and emotionally charged questions may be asked in determining whether undue influence exists, depending on the state and court. Likely questions would revolve around:
Execution of the will. Was the beneficiary accused of undue influence present at the execution of the will or did he or she communicate about its contents with the testator prior to execution? Did he or she recommend or arrange for the attorney to draft the will? Was the accused beneficiary the only person to review the will prior to execution? Was he or she in charge of the will after its execution?
Financial involvement. Was the accused beneficiary in contact with the decedent’s bankers, money managers, accountants, or lawyers shortly before the decedent’s death? Were assets gifted or re-titled, or any beneficiary forms changed shortly before the decedent’s death? Did the accused serve as agent under a power of attorney for the testator?
Mental condition of the testator. What was the testator’s medical and physical condition prior to and at the time of the will’s execution? Was he or she sick or suffering from any particular conditions or disabilities in which his or her mental cognition was impaired?
Control over the decedent. Did the accused beneficiary take advantage of the mental condition of the testator or attempt to isolate the decedent from other family members? Did the decedent require someone to take care of him or her? Was the accused beneficiary the decedent’s day-to-day caregiver?
Changes in circumstances. Was a new estate attorney hired shortly before the decedent’s death? Was the decedent’s estate distributed unequally following a history of the decedent planning for an equal distribution?
It’s worth noting that the son who challenged his father’s will and accused his aunt of undue influence in In re Estate of Ziel did not prevail.
In his will, Oscar T. Ziel left half his estate, including income from a family trust, to his sister Lucy, and half to his sister Alice. On the sisters’ deaths, Ziel’s two sons, Oscar Jr. and Harry, would each receive 40 percent of the sister’s share of the trust, with the remaining 20 percent going to the children of Oscar Jr. Harry Ziel contested the will and accused Lucy, with whom Ziel lived for four years before his death, of undue influence.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision that no undue influence existed. First, it held that Ziel, who was 73 when he died, did not have a weakened mental condition that rose to the level of “testamentary incapacity” when he made his will. Second, while Ziel appointed Lucy his attorney-in-fact, which indicated they had a close relationship, the move was made because his bank had complained that the signatures on his checks were “increasingly less uniform,” the court noted. Finally, although Lucy Ziel benefited from her brother’s will, the trust had declined in value relative to the entire estate during the time when her undue influence was alleged, said the court.
While the son did not prevail in Ziel, others have succeeded in undue influence cases despite a very high standard of proof necessary to establish the elements of undue influence by clear and convincing evidence in Pennsylvania. As an estate and trust litigator who has litigated many of these types of cases on both sides, I anticipate that we will see more and more of these cases within the next several decades in light of a very large and increasingly aging baby boomer population. As to Corman, it remains to be seen whether his sons will institute an undue influence suit upon his death. If so, perhaps someone will make a movie about it? Stay tuned…