by Anna Marie Macías
Oct. 14, 2008
Convincing a court to overturn a will is a formidable job that rarely succeeds.
However, it is a feat that attorney Lenard Leeds has tenaciously and skillfully accomplished more than once, each time making headlines and building a reputation as a tough litigator who helps both the rich and famous and the general public claim their inheritances.
“In all cases, whether we are simply revising a will for one of our clients or representing the legitimate heirs to a fortune in litigation, building long-term relationships with those we represent is the foundation of our practice and the foundation of sound estate planning, as well,” Leeds said.
Leeds said the work of disputing a will involves intensive and detailed research, which could include contracting expert witnesses and gathering evidence such as a handwriting analysis. On the other hand, he strives to help clients in all aspects of estate planning, including drafting an unquestionable will.
That philosophy is reflected on Leeds’ website:
Your estate plan is an expression of who you are and what you value. For the attorney who helps you develop one, it involves translating the very personal decisions you make into legal documents that will stand up to challenges — something that cannot be done if they have not taken the time needed to get to know you.
The senior partner of Leeds, Morelli and Brown in Carle Place, N.Y., has won some of the largest estate and highly contested probate cases in the New York area. Among his notable clients are Viola Sommer, described by the local media as “the richest lady in New York City,” and model-actress Anna Nicole Smith, widow of billionaire oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II.
One of Leeds’ most unusual cases came in 1984 when he convinced a Nassau County jury to overturn the will of Mary DiJurico. In what Leeds described to the local media as “a classic case of undue influence,” he argued that DiJurico’s brother used hypnotism to influence his disabled sister to sign over her estate. The jury ultimately removed the brother as heir and granted the entire estate to DiJurico’s only surviving son.
The decision — hailed as the first time in a decade that a will was overturned in Nassau County — was followed by others in neighboring Queens and Westchester counties in which Leeds argued successfully for wills to be set aside.
Leeds again grabbed headlines in 1990 by obtaining hundreds of millions of dollars for beneficiaries of the largest estate ever probated in Nassau County. In a related case, he represented the widowed Sommer as she waged a legal battle that accused her former attorney of overcharging and fraud in managing her deceased husband’s estate.
‘A High Degree of Care’
Firm partner Jeff Brown attributes Leeds’ success to his ability to forge a strong relationship and bond with clients.
“He fights passionately for his clients,” Brown said. “He’s like a pit bull, actually.”
Leeds prides himself in taking “a high degree of care” of his clients. Perhaps that is why he traveled to Texas to spend about nine months accompanying Anna Nicole Smith, even consoling her at her ailing husband’s bedside in a hospital intensive care unit.
“I was probably the first lawyer who advised her on matters of the estate,” Leeds said. “She trusted us and relied on us. She felt comfortable with us.”
While Leeds eventually ended his professional relationship with Smith to return to his practice in New York City, in subsequent years he became known as one of her confidants. When she died Feb. 9, 2007, of a drug overdose at age 39, Leeds appeared as an estate expert on Larry King Live and at least 40 other national news shows.
Part of a Historic Case
Leeds did not represent Smith when her case eventually rose to the U.S. Supreme Court because courts in California and Texas each claimed jurisdiction in the case and also reached conflicting rulings regarding the Marshall estate. Nevertheless, Leeds was proud to have been part of the historic process.
“It’s rare that the Supreme Court would hear a case of this type,” he said.
The justices ruled that Smith was entitled to the estate and that it should be resolved in a state court. A California judge ruled in March 2008 that Smith’s daughter, Dannielynn, is the sole heir to the estate.
Whenever Leeds appears on national news and talk shows, he inevitably is asked to comment on Smith’s personal life. When he does, he seems to relish recounting the nuances of estate law in the case just as much.
“I’ve spoken a lot about this case to groups of law students,” he said. “This is something that students will read about in law classes in the future and will be used to decide similar cases in the future.”
Anna Marie Macías is an associate editor for GetLegal.com and FuenteLegal.com.