Family feud over unclaimed fortune after ex-Russian billionaire’s mysterious death

Billionaires

On December 4, real estate baron Dmitry Zelenov became one of the latest Russian oligarchs to mysteriously pass away after he got ill during a dinner party in the French Riviera, fell over a stair railing and succumbed to critical head injuries.
Dmitry Zelenov and his widow Natalia, pictured here in Miami in 2016. Image: Getty

Though they suspect no wrongdoing, French police are still investigating Zelenov’s unusual and untimely death. At just 50 years old, Zelenov left behind a wife and four children (his family learned of one minor after his death)—but no will or estate plan to divvy up his assets.

Less than two months later, some of his family members say they’ve been locked out of his fortune. According to a complaint filed in Florida court on January 24, Zelenov’s widow, Natalia Dvoryanynova, and their adult son, Michael Zelenov, have filed suit against Dmitry Zelenov’s parents, adult daughter and financial advisor, for allegedly trying to disinherit them from some of Zelenov’s biggest assets around the world. In one instance, the complaint alleges the defendants changed the locks on Zelenov and his wife’s home in Moscow and took more than two dozen of his cars—including four Mercedes, two Bentleys and a Rolls Royce—collectively worth more than seven figures.

Phone calls and messages to Zelenov’s parents were left unreturned, but the defendants have until February 16 to respond to a court summons before proceedings begin.

In the complaint, Zelenov’s wife and eldest son further allege they’ve lost access to rental proceeds from a luxury ski chalet in Courchevel, France, as well as a sprawling seven-bedroom estate (last assessed at US$5 million) set on 2.4 acres in the upscale enclave of Alpine, New Jersey, home to billionaire hedge founder Larry Robbins and celebrities like comedian Chris Rock. Dvoryanynova and her two children with Zelenov reside on the exclusive Fisher Island, the nation’s wealthiest zip code that’s only accessible from Miami by ferry (or yacht).

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“Where things really go wrong [in estate planning] is where there’s neither a will nor a trust of some sort,” Michael Karlin, a partner at Los Angeles-based international estate planning law firm Karlin & Peebles, told Forbes in a phone interview. Trusts are often used as substitutes for a will, Karlin added. In the case of Zelenov’s fortune, however, assets weren’t only held personally or through trusts, but instead via limited liability companies, corporations and other structures ultimately owned by Zelenov himself. A family “where everybody’s at each other’s throats” always offers a major complication in carving up a late relative’s estate, according to Karlin.

Once among the youngest billionaires in Russia—and all of Europe—Zelenov ascended to Forbes’ billionaire ranks in 2008 at the age of 36 and built his fortune largely through a vast commercial real estate empire in his home country. Zelenov, who worked at a Russian bank after attending Stony Brook University, cofounded the construction giant Don-Stroy in the 1990s, building numerous shopping centers across Russia and the 61-story Triumph Palace skyscraper in Moscow, Europe’s tallest apartment building when it opened in 2003.

However, his fortune went south as the real estate market crumbled globally during the Great Recession. State-controlled Russian bank VTB took a controlling stake in his company in 2009, and it’s unclear just how much Zelenov’s assets are worth now. Even the plaintiffs acknowledge they’re unsure what he was worth, though the complaint lists out bank accounts, jewellery and cars, and Dvoryanynova’s attorneys note the assets include “tens of millions of dollars” in Russian real estate and as much as US$90 million in France.

Zelenov is one of at least 12 ultra-wealthy Russians who have suddenly died under unusual circumstances since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine last February. Though no evidence suggests the fatalities are connected, now-deceased outspoken critics of the invasion include the 65-year-old sausage tycoon Pavel Antov, who died in December after falling out of a third-story hotel window in India, and Ravil Maganov, the 67-year-old chairman of Russian oil giant Lukoil who died in September after plummeting from a sixth-story hospital window in Moscow.

Jason Giller and Hilary Schein, the Miami-based attorneys representing Dvoryanynova and her oldest son, say predatory behavior targeting valuable assets is often employed following the mysterious deaths of Russian oligarchs. They point to the Florida-based intrafamily struggles involving the estates of Russian centimillionaire investor and yachter Oleg Burlakov, who died in 2021 from Covid-19 while on a jaunt from his Canada home to Moscow. In a November court filing, plaintiffs including Burlakov’s widow allege some of the oligarch’s relatives conspired to misappropriate and fraudulently claim and control as many Burlakov family assets as possible following his death.

A number of factors have made it difficult to oversee Zelenov’s estate. For one, Zelenov was never a permanent U.S. resident but based in the more tax-friendly Cyprus at the time of his death, according to Giller and Schein, who began legal proceedings in the tiny Mediterranean country. According to Karlin, the differing legal systems in each country could complicate the case, with civil law, for example, prevailing in Russia and France—two of the countries where Zelenov owned large assets—as opposed to the U.S.’ common law structure.

Even the plaintiffs acknowledge the complicated nature of the case, writing in the complaint: “Absent discovery into… bank records, personal financial statements, wire information and other economic forensic/historical records, the breadth of Zelenov’s holdings will [likely] never be brought to light.”

This story was first published on Forbes.com

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