Media heiress Samantha Perelman loses bid to receive a bigger share of grandfather’s estate
June 25, 2014, 3:42 PM
Last updated: Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 11:10 PM
BY PETER J. SAMPSON
Samantha Perelman and James Cohen in Superior Court during the trial.
A bitter, long-running court case that pitted two powerful and wealthy families against each other over a multimillion-dollar inheritance ended on Wednesday with a judge’s ruling that the granddaughter of the late Hudson News patriarch Robert Cohen does not deserve a bigger share of his estate.
In a 119-page opinion, a Superior Court judge in Hackensack rejected claims by Samantha Perelman – who is the daughter of the billionaire financier Ronald Perelman – that Cohen cut her inheritance after being unduly influenced by his son, James, the CEO of Hudson Media Inc.
The judge found that although Robert Cohen suffered from a debilitating form of Parkinson’s disease that gradually left him unable to speak and move, he was “legally competent” to choose his heirs. His decisions to reduce his granddaughter’s bequests were made “by his own free will” and in response to “bitter litigation” brought by the Perelmans to try to prove that Robert was not mentally competent, Judge Estela M. De La Cruz wrote.
The judge did order the estate to reimburse Samantha Perelman for her legal bills because, she ruled, Perelman had a reasonable basis to challenge the wills.
Samantha Perelman, a 23-year-old Columbia University graduate student, is the child of Robert Cohen’s daughter Claudia, a former New York Post Page Six columnist who died from cancer in 2007, and Perelman, who is chairman of the cosmetics company Revlon. Her parents were divorced.
Ronald Perelman has waged seven years of legal battles in state and federal courts with his former in-laws over his daughter’s inheritance.
In 2012, Ms. Perelman challenged the four sets of wills and trusts executed by her grandfather from 2007 to 2010 as well as a series of transfers of ownership in various family businesses to her uncle.
More than 50 witnesses, including Samantha Perelman, James Cohen and a battery of legal, medical and financial experts, testified over 85 trial days that ran from September to March. In an unusual twist, the judge even heard testimony from Robert Cohen, whose video testimony from prior related lawsuits was played at the trial.
In her opinion, the judge wrote that, by all accounts, James Cohen and his father enjoyed “a remarkably harmonious relationship” during the thirty years they worked together in the family business. Given that relationship, she said, “the court finds it very unlikely that James Cohen somehow ‘coerced’ or ‘dominated’ his father, or that his father could even be ‘coerced’ or ‘dominated.’Ÿ”
Robert Cohen, a strong-willed and independent businessman, made his fortune as the heir of a magazine and newspaper distribution company and founder of the Hudson News retail business, which grew into a nationwide chain of more than 600 high-end airport newsstands.
That retail part of the business was sold in 2008 for $805 million, with the largest slice, about $600 million, going to son James. The family’s assets included homes in Englewood, an apartment in New York City and an oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., as well as a private jet, the opinion noted.
In a statement, James Cohen said he hopes the judge’s decision “puts an end to Ronald and Samantha Perelman’s relentless litigation against my family.”
“The Perelmans’ losing lawsuits made my father’s final years a misery, forced a desperately ill man to undergo a demeaning and excruciating videotaped ordeal to prove he was in his right mind, and cruelly and wrongfully accused me of manipulating my father and cheating my own family members, who are his other heirs,” Cohen said.
By the time Robert Cohen died in 2012, at age 86, his illness had progressed to the point where he needed a feeding tube and could only communicate by blinking his eyes.
Benjamin Clarke, an attorney with the Teaneck firm of DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole that represented James Cohen, said: “The court found, conclusively, that James Cohen never exercised any undue influence over his father. Ronald and Samantha Perelman have pursued their false undue influence claim without success for over six years, in three different states, and we hope that the court’s painstaking review of the facts will bring an overdue end to that litigious campaign.” And Frank Huttle III, who is general counsel to Hudson Media, said the decision “100 percent vindicated” James Cohen.
Christine Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Perelmans, said they are evaluating their legal options.
“We are disappointed with the decision, and believe it is not consistent with the intention and wishes of Robert Cohen with respect to his daughter Claudia and his granddaughter Samantha,” she said.
“We appreciate that the court ruled that Samantha had reasonable cause to contest the validity of the wills, and that the court has ordered the estate to reimburse Samantha’s legal fees,” she added.