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Who will get Epstein's hundreds of millions of dollars?

CBS News logo CBS News 8/13/2019 Stephen Gandel

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If Jeffrey Epstein actually had hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal, the fight over who gets that money just got more complicated for his victims.

Epstein was found dead in his New York City jail cell early Saturday morning from an apparent suicide, a month after his arrest by the federal government on sex-trafficking charges. Epstein lived a lavish lifestyle with mansions in New York and Florida and a Caribbean island he owned. A recent filing in his criminal case suggested he is worth $559 million.

But the line to get that money could be very long. Even before he was charged in the most recent criminal case, Epstein had settled civil lawsuits with women who claim he had abused them, and was facing the prospect of more suits. Two of the lawyers who represent women who allege they were abused as girls by Epstein say they'd been allowing the criminal case to proceed before filing civil suits against Epstein. 

Now that Epstein is dead, prosecutors are likely to drop the criminal charges against him as early as this week. That means civil cases will proceed. And the list of accusers is likely to grow now that he is dead, legal experts said.

Epstein was not married and does not appear to have any children. But he does have a brother, who would also have a claim to Epstein's estate. Here's what know about Epstein's millions and who could get it.

How rich was Jeffrey Epstein?

It was often reported over the years that Epstein was a billionaire, but there is little evidence that has was anything more than very, very rich. Epstein owned a townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that is valued at more than $50 million. He also had a mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, with a price tag of around $12 million, a ranch in New Mexico valued at just over $17 million and an apartment in Paris worth an estimated $8.6 million. The Carribean island, Little St. James, was recently assessed at nearly $64 million.

Photo Gallery: Who Was Jeffrey Epstein? (Business Insider)

The New York Times has reported that Epstein made more than $200 million during his a decade-plus relationship working as a financial adviser for the retail tycoon Les Wexner, the CEO of L Brands. But it's not clear if the price of the Manhattan townhouse, which was transferred to Epstein from Wexner in 2011, is part of that sum. 

What's more, Wexner last week wrote in a letter to his foundation that Epstein improperly took "vast sums" of money from him in the mid-2000s and said Epstein in late 2007 and early 2008 repaid some of Wexner's money with a $46 million donation to a charity linked to Wexner's wife. It is not clear if Wexner could bring a suit against Epstein's estate. 

Epstein also appears to have provided other wealthy individuals with tax and estate planning advice, including Leon Black, the billionaire chairman of private equity shop Apollo Global Management. It's not clear how much Black paid for the advice, but in 2015 a charity controlled by Black made a $10 million donation to a charity run by Epstein, according to Bloomberg News. 

As part of Epstein's criminal proceedings, he filed a financial statement saying he had $559 million in assets. But the filing listed no debt, and provided little detail other than saying he had nearly $200 million in hedge fund and private equity investments. Given the number of people looking to sue him, it's likely Epstein would have wanted to understate his assets.

Will Epstein's victims claim parts of his fortune?

While the government can't bring a criminal case against a dead person, civil cases are allowed to be filed or proceed against a person's estate. But Epstein's death potentially introduces a new hurdle, legal experts said. 

Verdicts in criminal cases are admissible in a civil case, and a guilty verdict is very good evidence of wrongdoing. Federal prosecutors said they amassed considerable amounts of evidence against Epstein. Still, his victims will have to establish his guilt on their own. 

The good news is that the burden of proof is a lower bar in a civil case. One must prove the evidence shows it is likely that the defendant committed the offense. The "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard only applies in a criminal case.

The other good news is creditors, and that would include anyone suing Epstein's estate, generally have a right to Epstein's money before it goes to family members or anyone named in his will -- if he even had one, which is not yet clear. Legal experts say the order of who has the right to an estate is established by each state individually. The order in New York is that the government gets to settle any tax liens first, and then comes creditors, and then named beneficiaries. 

Epstein's legal residence was in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and it is likely that his executor, if one is named in a will, would try to claim that residence as the jurisdiction for any claims against Epstein's estate. "I don't think it will be offered for probate in New York," said Herbert Nass, an estate lawyer in New York City. "I wouldn't." Nass said, describing the U.S. Virgin Islands as a "less formal legal domicile" for estate cases.

How long could it take until Epstein's estate is resolved?

Short answer: Years and years. The first step is finding out who is in charge. If Epstein had a will, it would name the executor. If he didn't, then the job would go to his closest next of kin, his brother, Mark Epstein. 

But Epstein reportedly abused at least dozens of women, potentially creating a legal bill that is larger than what is in the estate. For that reason, Epstein's brother could take a pass on administering the money, especially if acting as executor could expose him to any liability, said Bruce Steiner, an estate lawyer in New York City. 

If Mark Epstein declined to be executor, one of Epstein's creditors, namely one of his victims, could apply to be an executor of the will, Nass said. As an alternative, the court could also assign a public administrator. But that is the law in New York, the experts said. Estate law in the U.S. Virgin Islands is less clear.

The bigger issue could be finding all of Epstein's assets. After all, he sold wealthy people advice on tax shelters. His 2008 conviction in Florida for sex crimes found that most of his wealth was split between multiple corporations and offshore accounts. Unraveling all that, especially without Epstein, will take time. 

That's been true with other high-profile estate cases: In 2017, nine years after the death of real estate billionaire Leona Helmsley, her children and others were still fighting over her will, which included $12 million for her dog, Trouble. The Maltese, which died in 2011, ended up getting only $2 million.

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