The Litigations of 1978-1982

Ben Kneubuhl died suddenly on December 17, 1964.  Lena lived 16 more years, reaching age 90, when she died in American Samoa on August 9, 1980.  Although some tried earnestly, her children could not fill the void of the loss of Ben’s crucial position as the strong moral and ethical center of his family.

Lena was always supportive and consistently said “yes” to every financial request.  But, as her frailties grew and funds dwindled, the time came when, at age 88, she was removed from the Board of Directors.  With this very controversial decision,  Jim, Ben and John began the hunt for a will. We do not have a full record of John’s participation, other than the fact that he prepared the holographic will itself for Lena to write out in her own hand.

Their search led them to Roy Hall who reported that her last and final will was in a bank box in Hawaii.  We will never know if they found that version, but we do know from the Latham and Watkins files that she had written one in 1969.  They must have seen the later version(s), since John was promptly and urgently dispatched by James and Ben to fix things.  John arranged for Lena to prepare a holographic will (handwritten) in which she simply stated she wanted her six children to be treated “equally.”  To this day, many loving witnesses recall an atmosphere fraught with whispering and secrecy surrounding her before her death.

Just two days after she died, the probate contest began with a will which speaks for itself.  It sought control over the marital trust and virtually all family assets, including the land trust. Furthermore, 5 additional lawsuits were begun; these are listed in the 1982 Settlement Agreement, and presumably remain in the High Court files. Frances was by then living in Europe or California and did not participate in any of these litigations.  James, since Trustee, would have excused himself from the Probate, given his potential personal liability as trustee.  Frances had requested an audit of James’ distributions (and non-distributions), which James in fact welcomed as a professionally appropriate precaution.

John’s will prevailed (See Order).  The family executed the 1982 Settlement Agreement.  Their Agreement settled almost nothing, since, as ever, the “Kneubuhls [still] live in court.”

In the lawsuits, Mike was most often represented by (then) Attorney F. Michael Kruse, now the Honorable Presiding Chief Justice of the High Court; the other family were represented by Roy J.D. Hall, Jr., who promptly switched sides to represent Mike in subsequent transactions including the present litigation, to which family have now firmly objected.  James, as Trustee for the estate,  was represented by the Los Angeles law firm  Latham and Watkins, who actually wrote the legal memoranda, did the research, and managed the Settlement Agreement.  The (then) youthful Hall was merely local counsel for them.   James directed the litigation from afar in Los Angeles, while Hall was there to file papers and to ink the deal (see lawyers).  To discern the roots and extent of the discord, one must read the Minutes of the BFK Board of Directors and the ancillary correspondence, which appear in the pages of Estates in Commerce.

The most important claim they had to defend against was that the 1960 land trust was invalid.  If so, they would have lost everything, since not qualified to own the land. Several theories were advanced, none of which prevailed.  Interestingly, Hall and Kruse agreed the interests were life estates, a point objected to by Hall in the present litigation (which ultimately prevailed).  The second claim (eviction and damages) was that a company house at Olo was personal real property of Mike and Suzie, or at least theirs to purchase, despite that other family had lived there year round as a company benefit for over a decade.  Plaintiff claimed Olo land ownership free of trust by separate deed to himself. Joseph Brooks, who had been hired, sued the family for breach of contract when he was shortly thereafter dismissed.  That outcome is unknown.  It is believed, but not known, that James was sued in a separate action as Trustee for fiduciary breach, which, of course was never litigated.

Some of the claims were denied by Judge Miyamoto, in his “Order Granting Partial Summary Judgment,” L&T 012-80, filed March 24, 1982, while the rest were resolved (for the time being) by the 1982 Settlement.  The present litigation resulted, in part, from abandoning, departing from, or completely ignoring that “final”  Agreement.

The six or so memoranda prepared to address the issues in the Latham and Watkins files are of interest mostly to lawyers, especially where the parties now take opposite positions, despite that they are by law estopped from doing so (see estoppel in the research section).

In the end, ironically, the dispositive evidence for today is a simple one page letter to the “beneficiaries” of Lena’s estate:  When Lena’s heirs were noticed of the final distribution of her estate, Mike was not included.  See probate notice letter)