The Appellate Division, First Department, yesterday upheld the will of deceased restaurant mogul Rocky Aoki, which left his Benihana restaurant empire to his third wife, rebuffing a challenge from four of his six children from previous marriages. Aoki came to America from Japan in 1959 as a member of a Japanese wrestling team. He studied restaurant management in New York and in 1963 he founded the first Benihana restaurant on West 56th Street in Manhattan. The venture expanded into a global business, which today owns or franchises more than 100 restaurants.
Aoki had three children from his first marriage, which ended in 1981, and another three from his second marriage, which ended in 1991. He also had a seventh nonmarital child. In 1998, Aoki executed a will leaving his entire estate to his marital children. Aoki married Keiko, his third wife, in 2002, “arousing considerable apprehension among his children,” according to yesterday’s opinion, which was signed by Justice Peter Tom (See Profile). That apprehension grew into “an irreconcilable feud pitting Rocky and Keiko against Rocky’s children from his two prior marriages in a contentious struggle for control of the Benihana empire.”
In 2007, Aoki wrote a new will leaving all of his assets to Keiko. When Aoki died of liver cancer in 2008, at age 69, four of those six children, and the nonmarital child, challenged the entry of the will, claiming their father had been cognitively impaired and that Keiko had exercised undue influence over him.
Manhattan Surrogate Kristin Glen (See Profile) overruled their objections. In affirming, Tom wrote that there was no evidence Aoki had been impaired or unduly influenced. He was joined by Justices Leland DeGrasse (See Profile), Helen Freedman (See Profile), Rosalyn Richter (See Profile) and Nelson Roman (See Profile) in In re Will of Aoki, 7231.