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Big money answer still to come in courtroom drama over estate

Heather Cole//March 24, 2015

Big money answer still to come in courtroom drama over estate

Heather Cole//March 24, 2015


A judge still must answer the big money question in a contest over property worth millions of dollars after a jury decided a businessman’s widow used “undue influence” in convincing him to shift ownership of his real estate company to her.

Christine Kaplan and Chris Koster. Photo courtesy of Berger's Beat,
Christine Kaplan and Chris Koster. Photo courtesy of Berger’s Beat,

A St. Louis County jury’s verdict Monday after a three-week trial confirmed the move of the stock ownership of Kaplan Real Estate Co. Inc. back into Bob Kaplan’s estate from his widow Christine Kaplan’s control. Still to come: Circuit Judge Carolyn Whittington’s decision on whether changes to Kaplan’s trust in the last years of his life are invalid.

Kaplan, who died in April 2013 at the age of 77, originally had bequeathed about 90 percent of his assets to his adult children from an earlier marriage and 10 percent to his wife of more than 10 years. The trust changes reversed those percentages. The assets, largely real estate, are worth an estimated $50 million.

“The phase with the most dollars attached would be the next decision made by the judge,” said Catherine Hanaway, a Husch Blackwell partner who represented the plaintiffs, Michael Kaplan, Julie Salomon and Elizabeth Wright.

Still, Hanaway said, the jury verdict is “an excellent first result.”

Defense attorneys Bob Blitz and Christopher Bauman of Blitz, Bardgett & Deutsch didn’t return phone calls by press time.

Kaplan’s St. Louis company, started in 1959, is a commercial brokerage, property manager and development firm with clients including Walgreens and other retail and restaurant chains.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that Christine Kaplan, who was 21 years younger than her husband, isolated him from his children and grandchildren and tried to “break Bob’s spirit,” including by restricting him to a guest house instead of the couple’s Ladue mansion when he was ailing.

Defense attorneys contended the children had strained relationships with their father and didn’t care for him when he was ill. They also presented testimony from a witness, Bob Kaplan’s friend and business partner Dr. Bill Moriconi, who said Kaplan wanted to be in the guest house because the main house had too many steps. Christine Kaplan helped remodel the house for him and would spend time, including nights, there with him, Bauman said in his opening statement, according to a transcript.

In addition to the judge’s decision on the trust changes, more claims could spool out in court.  Whittington said in a Feb. 11 order that several other issues would go to trial, including a challenge to a prenuptial agreement amendment; a probate claim by Christine Kaplan seeking more than $10 million; and a counter-claim alleging that Kaplan’s children forfeited their shares in the trust by challenging Kaplan’s will, according to language in his will.

If the judge rules that the changes to the trust are invalid, the provision in the will calling for any challengers to forfeit their share of the estate becomes a moot point, Hanaway said. The order didn’t set specific dates for a trial or trials to start on the other issues.

Under four amendments to the prenuptial agreement and the terms of Kaplan’s will, Christine Kaplan “is entitled to substantially in excess” of $10 million on his death, according to her probate claim. That claim will be heard in conjunction with the challenge to the prenuptial amendment.

Concerns about Bob Kaplan’s reasons for wanting to agree to a third prenuptial amendment led Kaplan’s then-estate-planning law firm, Stone, Leyton & Gershman, to withdraw from representing him, according to a June 2011 firm memo included in court documents. The withdrawal led to the end of a 30-year client relationship with Kaplan that included commercial work for his company.

Stone Leyton attorneys had three June meetings with Kaplan about changes to the agreement in which Kaplan complained about Christine Kaplan’s yelling at him, according to the memo. In the third meeting, Kaplan insisted on revisions and “said he just did not want to fight anymore and wanted the yelling and screaming to stop at any cost,” the memo said.

After that meeting, three Stone Leyton attorneys, identified only by their initials, decided the firm should withdraw from representing Kaplan on changes to the agreement and related estate planning. The initials matched those of principals Steven Stone, Peter Palumbo III and Paul Puricelli. Stone and Puricelli returned a phone call to the firm but declined to comment.

“The conclusion was reached that clearly Bob was under duress, was being coerced/threatened and unduly influenced however we could not say that he ‘lacked capacity’ to the extent that we could bring in outsiders (his children) to ‘protect’ him,” according to a portion of the memo that appeared to have been written by Palumbo.

The plaintiffs alleged Christine Kaplan later influenced Bob Kaplan’s decision to demote and then fire his son-in-law, attorney David Wright, in late 2012. After that, Bob Kaplan had no contact with the Wrights or “two of his closest grandchildren” in the last months of his life, according to a January plaintiffs’ filing.

A screaming fight at the Kaplans’ house between Christine and daughter Julie Salomon when Kaplan was in the hospital in December 2011 led to a sundering of Bob Kaplan’s relations with that daughter, according to Bauman’s opening statement. Bob Kaplan called police, and Christine Kaplan and her housekeeper later filed for restraining orders against Salomon, even though Salomon lived in Chicago, according to court documents.

The case also alleged that Christine Kaplan would leave her husband alone to attend social events without him. Bob Kaplan found society news coverage of her attendance of functions with Attorney General Chris Koster particularly galling, according to court document allegations that weren’t featured in court arguments.

In an answer to defense questions in a court filing, Michael Kaplan said he asked Bob Kaplan about an item on the St. Louis gossip blog Berger’s Beat, an apparent reference to an October 2010 posting about a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra event that described Koster’s escorting Christine Kaplan, “wife of the much-too-ill real estater Bob Kaplan.” Kaplan quoted her husband to columnist Jerry Berger, saying “Bob jokingly told me ‘to go with Chris if that dumb son-of-a-b—- is willing to take you,’” according to the blog.

When asked by Michael Kaplan about the blog, Bob Kaplan said he didn’t want to talk about it, because it just aggravated him to think about it, his son said in the court document.

Koster is a presumed political opponent of Hanaway, who is running for governor in the 2016 election.

“What we thought was the most persuasive evidence was what we put before the jury,” Hanaway said. “We just evaluated it like any other case.”

Koster’s campaign spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.

The case is In the matter of The Robert Kaplan Trust, Michael Kaplan et al. v. Christine Murray-Kaplan et al., 13SL-PR02110.

Estate claims

Claim Status
Challenge to transfer of Kaplan Real Estate stock to Christine Kaplan Jury verdict for plaintiffs March 23
Claim that trust changes are invalid Trial held in conjunction with stock transfer claim; judge to rule
Counter-claim that Kaplan’s children forfeited their shares with challenge to Kaplan’s will Set to be tried; could be moot if judge rules trust changes are invalid
Counter-claim for reduction of estate shares by value of gifts given to children Set to be tried
Challenge to a prenuptial agreement amendment Bench trial to be held; to be heard in conjunction with probate claim
Christine Kaplan probate claim for more than $10 million To be heard in conjunction with prenuptial agreement change challenge
Demand that transfer of National Hospice Management Inc. stock to Christine Kaplan be set aside Bench trial to be held
Plaintiffs’ claim for institutional and trustee fees Trial to be held

SOURCE: Court documents

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