Beloved Philly restaurant, Victor Café, in midst of family turmoil, offers a lesson in the importance of family estate planning
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on March 15th, 2012
The charming and colorful Victor Café in South Philadelphia has been home over the decades to talented waiters and waitresses who have sung opera to their patrons as they took orders and served luscious meals. Today it is in the midst of a family legal battle that probably didn’t have to happen.
The family matriarch, Lola DiStefano, is 89 years old, frail and in the midst of a difficult family feud over the control of her restaurant, according to a recent story in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her memory about business transactions isn’t what it once was, and her children have been fighting with each other in court over control of the family’s holdings, according to the Inquirer story.
More than two years ago, DiStefano apparently signed papers giving control of the Victor Café to a lawyer she’d known only a few months, the paper reported. “Within weeks, one of DiStefano’s six children sued to overturn the documents, including a power of attorney given to a lawyer outside the family, laying bare a scathing family feud.”
The case is still in legal limbo and is in the courts as control of the café is up in the air.
The business began in 1920 by family members as an RCA Victor phonograph shop, then later began serving food and wine, according to the Inquirer. By the 1970s, the place began hiring singing waiters and waitresses who were voice students at local colleges and universities.
The problem is that stories like these are not so uncommon, says MyPhillyLawyer attorney Saul Langsam, who specializes in family law, wills and estate cases.
“I see that, in the estate area, there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t get someone calling about a family situation,” Langsam says. “It’s the typical situation that happens where families don’t have close relationships and these kinds of disputes break out due to a lack of communication over what will happen as parents and relatives get older.”
“When there are channels of communication where everyone is connected, then you usually don’t have this kind of dispute,” he says.
In cases where family members being embroiled in similar disputes, it usually comes down to family members manipulating others or flexing some muscle to get others to do things they didn’t choose to do, Langsam says. Often the family members who become involved in these kinds of disputes for control of family money and property do so after years of non-involvement with family members, he says. “They didn’t have a relationship for years and now they want to come in and take control. God only knows that I see these things. It’s reality.”
Usually, the only way to resolve disputes like the one involving Victor Café is to go to court, Langsam says.
“In this case, there may have been a parent who is vulnerable and other family members may have been able to influence her behind the scenes,” Langsam says. “If that is found to be the case, that is an actionable case where there was undue influence, but it has to be litigated. Often times in such cases, greed is the absolute motivator in these situations. Greed calls everyone’s bluff. Somebody wants to get more than someone else is getting.”
So if you or a loved one is involved in a difficult family estate case, what should you do?
Critical to all families is to be sure that parents and other family members have estate plans that lay out what is to happen with all property, money and other assets in case of death or disability, Langsam says.
In addition, a living will is critical to ensure that your wishes are followed in the event that you become incapacitated and can’t verbalize your wishes for medical treatment.
If your family is ever involved in any kind of internal dispute over property or other assets, the best thing to do, Langsam says, is to start by talking it all out to see if you can reach a workable solution to the dispute without going to court.
“Once you’ve made a good faith effort to have a family meeting face to face and that fails, then you should talk to a lawyer and decide how to proceed,” he says. “That’s what you need to do anytime you want to protect your interests.”
Langsam said he recently handled a case where three members of a family had a dispute over a property. “I got the family into my conference room and they talked and worked out an agreement, put it into writing and then the family ended up selling the house and divided the proceeds three ways. If we weren’t able to bring about that family meeting, we would have had an eviction and an ugly family situation and it would have been expensive for everyone to resolve.”
“It’s just unfortunate” when such cases can’t be resolved amicably, he says.
If you need help with a difficult family legal dispute, call us here at MyPhillyLawyer. We stand ready to help you and your family to resolve your case and begin the healing process.