Battle for Epstein's estate kicks off

Lawyers seeking compensation for victims of late former financier's alleged sex crimes want a freeze on his assets, raising the prospect of a legal process that could drag out for years

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 8, 2019, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman announces charges against Jeffrey Epstein in New York City.  The wealthy US financier Jeffrey Epstein, indicted on charges he trafficked underage girls for sex, committed suicide in prison, US news media reported on August 10, 2019. Epstein, who had hobnobbed with politicians and celebrities over the years and was already a convicted sex offender, hanged himself in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center and his body was found around 7:30 Saturday morning, The New York Times and other media said, quoting officials.  / AFP / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / STEPHANIE KEITH
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With opulent homes, a Caribbean island and a private jet to Jeffrey Epstein’s name, the battle to claim his assets is on.

Even as questions swirl around the former financier’s death while in federal custody, attention will shift this week to the next drama: identifying what’s in his estate, who can claim his assets and which jurisdiction takes up the case. Lawyers seeking compensation for victims of his alleged sex crimes are calling for a freeze on the estate, raising the prospect of a legal process that could drag out for years.

It’s unclear whether Epstein, who wasn’t married and has no known children, left a will. What is known is that his wealth included a $77 million (Dh282.7m), 40-room mansion on New York’s Upper East Side, the island of Little St James in the US Virgin Islands, a ranch in New Mexico and homes in Paris and Palm Beach, Florida. His business was registered in the Virgin Islands.

“It’s going to be incredibly complicated,” said David Ring, an attorney in Los Angeles who has represented victims of sexual abuse and assault. “It’s going to be a lot of different folks who are going to be battling over this estate and these assets and I hope the victims come out on top. I think they deserve it. But I don’t think the estate is just going to hand it over to them.”

Epstein’s known relatives include his brother, Mark, and a niece and nephew, who live in New York.

Mark Epstein and a friend had offered to guarantee a bond as part of his brother’s bail request, which was denied. Epstein was awaiting trial on federal charges with sexually trafficking underage girls when he died on Saturday at age 66 in an apparent suicide.

While the criminal case against Epstein closed with his death, his accusers have brought numerous civil lawsuits. Investigators gathered more evidence when they searched Epstein’s New York townhouse after his arrest, including photographs of what appeared to be naked underage girls.

Attorney Lisa Bloom, who represents three female plaintiffs, called on his estate’s administrators to freeze all of his assets.

“Our civil cases can still proceed against his estate,” Ms Bloom said on Twitter. “Victims deserve to be made whole for the lifelong damage he caused. We’re just getting started.”

FILE PHOTO: Facilities at Little St. James Island, one of the properties of financier Jeffrey Epstein, are seen in an aerial view, near Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo
Facilities at Little St James Island, one of the properties of Epstein, in the US Virgin Islands. Reuters

That will involve trying to establish the full scope of what US prosecutors called Epstein’s “vast fortune”, which is more difficult now that he’s dead. Based on limited financial records, prosecutors estimated he made $10m a year and had a net worth of at least $500m. But details of his assets remained “largely concealed” from the New York court, according to prosecutors.

Where estate proceedings might play out depends partly on which of Epstein’s homes is considered his main one.

Documents submitted by his lawyers in a bail request after his arrest in July indicated his primary residence was his compound on the island of Little St James in the US Virgin Islands. But New York or Florida also appear to be good possibilities.

In New York, primary residence is defined as “the county where the decedent lived and considered their primary home address before they died.” If a person had more than one home, it would be the place where they “intended to return”.

Wherever any will is filed, it would first go through the probate process, where a judge determines whether it’s a valid statement of what Epstein wanted to happen with his property after his death.

Once the will is determined to be valid, an executor named by the decedent would be officially appointed to divide up their estate.

The process would be overseen by the Superior Court in the Virgin Islands and the Surrogate’s Court in New York. In Florida, the will would have to be filed by the executor of the estate within 10 days of receiving notice of a death in a court in the county where the person lived.

Prosecutors could still seek to seize individual assets through a civil forfeiture proceeding if they determine that the property was used to facilitate a crime or was the proceeds of criminal activity, said Sharon Cohen Levin, a former federal prosecutor who headed the Southern District of New York’s money laundering and asset forfeiture unit.

They would have to file a complaint against an individual asset, such as Epstein’s New York mansion, lay out the basis for the underlying crime and the evidence showing it was committed - similar to the indictment - and prove how it was it was used to facilitate the crime, Levin said. Unlike in a criminal case, prosecutors would only have to prove that the crime more than likely occurred, not that it was beyond a reasonable doubt.

“It could literally be the same case,” Ms Levin said. “Maybe there are other people they might be charging. There might be other theories. But this is something I would assume they would be seriously considering.”

Seperately, two French ministers on Monday called for an investigation into possible French victims of Epstein, saying that US probes into his alleged sex trafficking have indicated links to France.

Marlene Schiappa, minister for women’s affairs, and Adrien Taquet, a junior minister for the protection of children, said an investigation was necessary because Epstein’s death means his trial expected next year on charges of molesting teenage girls and sex trafficking will never take place.

“The death of Mr Epstein must not deprive his victims of justice,” the French ministers said in a joint statement. “It seems fundamental for the victims that an investigation be opened in France so that all light can be shed.”

Epstein owned an apartment near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and was arrested in early July at an airport near New York upon returning from France. He died of an apparent suicide on Saturday.