It’s been more than a decade since their parents divorced, but the adult sons of real estate magnate Elie Hirschfeld, himself the son of famous eccentric Abe Hirschfeld, have come of age and filed suit against their dear old dad. They’re asking for $50 million in damages and alleging that Elie has withheld a trust established for them as children that includes a significant cut of his real estate empire. The whole rigmarole seems to be a product of the lengthy estrangement that Elie has experienced with his first family and the brutal divorce that ended the marriage.
It started in 2008 in a spat so bizarre that it made headlines. The family, including Elie, his then-wife Susan, and their three sons, Benjamin, Jonathan, and Matthew, were vacationing in Sun Valley, Idaho. At the end of the trip, they headed to the Sun Valley airport to await their flight. But Elie had stomach trouble at the gate and excused himself, he said, to go to the bathroom.
It was all a lie. Instead of diarrhea, he had a private plane he had chartered for $40,000 to fly home separately, and first, at which point he rushed to their Fifth Avenue apartment and stripped it of everything he could take. He pulled $30 million of art off the walls, $10,000 of medieval figurines that the boys enjoyed, and bizarrely, he grabbed their toys, their Nintendo Wii, all the video games, their schoolwork, and even their beds. It’s not clear what he was thinking exactly – perhaps that his sons would want to come and live with him that night – but the result was a divorce suit by Susan. She reported that Elie had been using escort services for several years and had profiles on dating websites, and demanded that he financially support his family.
At the time, New York had very strict divorce laws that made it extremely difficult for a person to impose a divorce on an unwilling spouse. While divorces today are treated basically like business disputes, at the time they were more akin to criminal cases, where a spouse would have to present evidence to prove their case on one of several grounds, like adultery or abandonment. If the other spouse didn’t want the divorce – and Elie did not, at the time, want the divorce – they had plenty of tools to stop the process.
For Elie, this meant signing an agreement where he pledged to “fully support” his wife and children with a $12,500 monthly payment, plus shouldering the costs of the boys’ schools and other expenses. According to Susan, the agreement fell apart immediately, and in February 2009, she returned to court with a demand for $500,000. She alleged that Elie had defaulted on his obligations almost immediately, and was $520,000 behind on payments. That wasn’t her only complaint though. She told the court that Elie made her and the boys stay in a Manhattan apartment without air conditioning and had barred them from the family’s home in the Hamptons.
That home would become a source of lingering bitterness and ongoing legal action for years to come. The pair finally did divorce after the 2009 suit, and the settlement awarded Susan “exclusive use and possession” of the 10,000-square-foot, eight bedroom, nine bathroom beachfront home with 200 feet of direct ocean frontage on Georgica Beach through September 2017. It sounds like it would be a wonderful place to visit or even live in, but Elie didn’t seem to be overly concerned about the terms of the divorce settlement. Not when there was money to be made on a prime Hamptons beachfront property. He began renting it out, including on at least two occasions, to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Susan was forced back to court to sue for damages based on Elie’s decision to ignore her exclusive use and possession of the home. She prevailed, but rather than comply, Elie chose to appeal the decision, adding another year or so to the process. He fared no better with the appellate panel, which found that he owed his ex-wife the $1.9 million he had collected in rents from the property over a four year period. When he finally regained possession of the property in 2017, he sold it for a quick $29 million.
That’s some of the backstory to the current lawsuit that his sons, now all legal adults, have filed against him. They say that Elie, whose property portfolio includes more than 1,000 apartments and more than 1,000,000 square feet of commercial real estate, has withheld cash and property that legally belongs to them through one or more trusts that the parents established when the boys were young. They claim that their father transferred interests “directly or indirectly” to them years before the ugly divorce.
The lawsuit claims, “Now, with Elie estranged from his three children, who have all recently reached the age of majority, Elie refuses to acknowledge plaintiffs’ interest in these properties or to account for the income these properties have been earning since these interests were irrevocably transferred to plaintiffs. Elie has hidden these interests from his children and continues to cover up these interests in an effort to defraud the plaintiffs. Indeed, a note by Elie contains the following ‘[o]nly liability is kids may sue me later.’”
When the Post sought comment from the father, he said that the suit is just more anger from his ex-wife. “The most innocent explanation for these meritless claims, dating back over 10 years, is that my sons and their lawyer simply are misinformed,” he said. “Unfortunately, another likely explanation is that the claims are another in a series of legal battles related to the contentious divorce between me and my sons’ mother.”
It’s a lot of chutzpah from a guy who’s already been found by the courts to have misappropriated real estate that was not his to use. We’ll have to wait to see how he handles the lawsuit, and how the courts handle him.
When your marriage in Queens is ending, the team at Zelenitz, Shapiro & D’Agostino has the experience and perspective to make sure you come out of it in the strongest position possible. Call us today at 718-523-1111 for a free consultation with an experienced Queens divorce and child custody attorney.