With the next phase of the Sumner Redstone saga underway in a Boston courtroom, much press has been devoted to how the 93-year-old media mogul created a situation where family members are pitted against one another in the battle over control of his entertainment empire.
In the final analysis, “these cases are about families and they’re about people,” said Elizabeth Adinolfi, counsel in the litigation and matrimonial and family law departments at Phillips Nizer LLP.
“The biggest takeaway from the Redstone case is that people have to manage their family as much as, if not more so, than they manage their money,” Adinolfi said. “If you don’t have a family that has healthy, functional relationships, when situations like this arise, when someone is declining, there are going to be battles and fights, especially when there is this much money on the line.”
Redstone has reportedly been estranged from his children for many years, but more recently reconciled with his daughter Shari. He remains estranged from his son Brent, who sued Redstone in 2006 for favoring Shari in the family business, according to press reports.
Adinolfi noted that people can be very successful in their professional lives, yet lack the skills to be successful in the family business.
Looking to her own practice, Adinolfi said she has never seen a guardianship case go to court without sacrificing family relationships.
She said an advisor can play a crucial role in averting an end-of-life or post-mortem crisis in wealthy families. He or she must engage the client in an admittedly difficult conversation about family relations. If these are fractured, is it possible to repair some of those fractures—for example, by reconciling with an estranged child or making peace between squabbling siblings?
The advisor must point out to the client that if these relationships are not mended, they will almost inevitably lead to fights later on. Many advisors are understandably uncomfortable delving into such personal matters, Adinolfi said, but that is part of what they are being paid to do.
She said that in the most fraught family situations, the advisor may recommend professional counseling to help with the process.
Adinolfi said it is best for a client to make estate plans when competency is not an issue. “People often wait to take action until they show signs of decline,” she said. This can then lead to accusations of undue influence exerted by interested parties, as it has in the Redstone case.