'All in the Family' Producer's Death Sets Off Trust Battle Over Artwork

Bud Yorkin died last year at the age of 89. His daugher Nicole ('The Killing') alleges his widow Cynthia ('St. Elsewhere') took advantage of him.
Courtesy Everett Collection

The surviving relatives of the late Bud Yorkin, who executive produced All in the Family and Sanford and Son, are now in probate court discussing his final days and what should happen to a valuable painting made by abstract expressionist artist Hans Hoffman.

Last August, Yorkin died at age 89, and the one-time partner of Norman Lear left behind quite a legacy. Besides being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2002 after producing sitcoms that garnered 25 Emmy wins off 63 nominations, Yorkin produced a family much into entertainment. His second wife, Cynthia Sikes Yorkin, starred on St. Elsewhere in the 1980s, and the daughter from his first marriage, Nicole Yorkin, was co-executive producer of the AMC/Netflix drama The Killing.

Nicole has now filed a petition in Los Angeles Superior Court over her father's estate.

According to court documents, Bud left nearly all of his sizeable assets to Cynthia, but Nicole is disputing an amendment to the trust that caused the Hoffman painting to also be given to the widow.

Through her legal action, Nicole claims that, in the mid-1980s, her father prepared his children from his first marriage — including David Yorkin (writer-producer of Spitfire) — for his eventual demise and wanted to do something for them. He was an avid art collector.

"In or around 1985, Bud told Nicole and David that he wanted to leave each of them a painting of their choosing upon his death," states the petition. "Bud escorted Nicole and David through his art collection and asked each of them which piece they would want to have. Nicole chose the Hoffman Painting. When Nicole chose that painting, Bud told her that many of his other paintings were more valuable and asked whether she wouldn't prefer one of them. Nicole told her father that she selected the Hoffman Painting for its great sentimental value and the warm memories of her father that it evoked, irrespective of whether its monetary value was less than some of the other pieces."

Although it might not have been as valuable as the others, paintings by the German-born American Hoffman have recently been going for several million dollars each in recent art auctions. Nicole says that she helped her father pick it out on a trip to a New York gallery in the late 1970s and it has since been hanging in the living room of his home.

Bud married Cynthia in 1989 at the age of 63. Together, they produced two more children, and according to the petition, there were at least 15 amendments to his trust over the years. 

Cynthia was the beneficiary of most of the estate, and up until recently, assets including the Hoffman painting not bequeathed to her were listed as separate property on trust documents.

The petition goes on to state that Bud's physical and mental faculties began deteriorating significantly in 2008, and that by 2012, his physicians diagnosed him with dementia. He was allegedly very confused during this time, and the court documents describe a few events including birthday parties where his condition was evident.

The controversy now pertains to the fifteenth amendment to the trust in January 2012, which among other things, is said to have included a "harsh no-contest clause" as well as the deletion of a paragraph distributing the Hoffman painting to Nicole.

Nicole, represented by attorney Sheldon Eisenberg, says there was no reason to believe Bud had the intention of not leaving her the Hoffman painting, and she blames Cynthia for what happened.

Cynthia "took or obtained Bud's personal and separate property [the Hoffman Painting) through undue influence within the meaning of California Health and Welfare Code section 15610.30 by exploiting her status as Bud's spouse and fiduciary to obtain his signature on the 15th Amendment, which was contrary to his testamentary intent and which he did not fully understand and would not have signed but for Respondent's exertion of influence and control," alleges the petition.

Nicole also asserts that Cynthia "is trying to or has already sold the Hoffman Painting to a third party."

The daughter is seeking an order invalidating the 15th Amendment, disbursement of the painting and/or an order setting aside any sale, as well as compensatory, treble, exemplary and punitive damages for such claims as breach of duties, financial elder abuse and conversion.

At the time of Bud's death, Cynthia told The Hollywood Reporter that Yorkin had returned to their home in March after spending 18 months at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Country Home for treatment of dementia. In response to Nicole's petition, Cynthia's attorney Christopher Chatham responded, “This action is meritless and we will vigorously defend against these baseless claims. Mrs. Yorkin is deeply saddened to see her beloved husband’s privacy violated, wishes challenged and legacy tarnished over a material object.”