Fight over the huge estate of a 1950s rock ‘n’ roll dance party host twists through Broward court

By Karla Bowsher, BrowardBulldog.org 

Milt Grant in 1964

Milton Grant made millions as he rock ‘n’ rolled Washington DC television, hosting a highly popular 1950s dance show, among other ventures.

“The Milt Grant Show” featured guests like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Harry Belafonte, who performed for teenagers – girls in circle skirts and petticoats, boys in sport coats and ties – bopped on the dance floor.

But since he died of cancer at age 83 in April 2007, Milt’s legacy has moved from the dance floor to the courtroom. The longtime Fort Lauderdale resident’s fortune – originally worth $58 million – remains hostage to a messy legal estate battle that pits family against family.

Milt Grant’s only son, Thomas J. “Jeff” Grant, has filed estate-related lawsuits several times in two states, including last month in Broward Circuit Court. He contends the professional estate administrators in charge of his father’s three trusts have ignored his father’s wishes and taken sides against him while raking in millions of dollars in fees. He wants the administrators removed and the unjustified fees returned to the estate.

“He would be rolling in his grave if he knew what was happening,” said Grant, 45, of his father.

After his TV show ended in 1961, Milt Grant went on to build Fort Lauderdale-based Grant Communications. In 1966, he launched Washington, D.C. television station WDCA, which he later sold for $13.5 million. He helped start stations in Dallas and Houston, which he ultimately sold for more than $150 million. In 1984, he founded independent WBFS, Channel 33 in Miami.

Today, Grant Communications controls seven TV stations in Alabama, Iowa, Virginia and Wisconsin, including Fox and CW affiliates.

Along the way, Milt Grant also built two families.

He fathered two daughters with his wife, Shirley Grant, to whom he remained married until his death – although court records state they had been estranged for 51 years. She lives in Maryland, and did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment.

Court records state Milt Grant spent the latter half of his life with girlfriend Tommy Jo Price. The couple never married but had Thomas Grant together. Price died in a Miami Beach hospital in April 2008, a year after Milt’s death. She was 64.

COURT DISPUTES

Grant’s November lawsuit accuses Bessemer Trust Company of Florida and Boca Raton lawyer Daniel Mielnicki, his father’s estate planning attorney, of “conspiracy, corruption and greed” that amounted to a breach of fiduciary duty. The complaint asks Judge Speiser to remove Bessemer as trustee and Mielnicki as the legal protector of Milt’s living trust, and seeks money damages to be determined by a jury.

A similar request for a jury trial has been filed in Delaware, where Milt’s two irrevocable trusts are managed.

Among other things, Grant’s complaint contends that his mother was “abruptly fired” from her job at Grant Communications after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Upon her death, Bessemer Trust officials allegedly told him that there was no money in the huge estate to bury her.

“Shockingly, there was apparently enough money for Bessemer to pay its management fees and attorneys’ fees hundreds of thousands of dollars per month,” the complaint says.

Court records show Grant filed a similar wrongful termination complaint about himself shortly after his father’s death. Grant, who sold national advertising for Grant Communications, claimed that his father’s will had provided for his continued employment at a salary of $125,000 a year.

But Broward Circuit Judge Mark Speiser ruled against him – determining that a job was not a property right that could be passed down through a will.

An appeal is pending in Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal.

Court documents filed by Grant’s lawyer state that Grant and Shirley are each projected to receive approximately $20 million from the estate.

But Grant’s new complaint accuses Bessemer of “extravagantly favoring” Shirley.

“Bessemer’s blatant collusion to hide information from Thomas while providing it to Shirley, entering into secret agreements with Shirley and to pay her more money than Milt intended, and actions to divide Milt’s estate for Shirley and Bessemer’s benefit to the detriment of Thomas are multiple reasons to justify the removal of” Bessemer as trustee, the complaint says.

For example, Grant’s lawsuit claims that Shirley, who received $1,500 a month from Milt Grant after they separated, has received about $3 million from estate assets since his death. But Price and Grant, who were financially dependent upon Milt Grant, have received about $250,000 since his death.

Bessemer has filed a motion asking the judge to put Grant’s lawsuit on hold until certain issues in the case are resolved.

“Bessemer Trust believes that Thomas Grant’s claims are unfounded,” said Bessemer in-house lawyer Julian Swearengin in an emailed statement.

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST?

Attorney Mielnicki is accused of having conflicting interests in his dealings with the estate. For instance, the suit says, as an attorney at Greenberg Traurig Mielnicki “drafted an approximate one-million dollar gift to himself” in Milt’s estate plan.

Mielnicki, now a partner in the Boca Raton office of Berger Singerman, had other roles in the estate. He wrote himself in as the trust protector of several of Milt trusts, a post intended to represent the decedent’s intentions. He also chose Bessemer, according to the suit.

“The many hats worn by Attorney Mielnicki is a concern for us,” said Grant’s Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Jennifer Walker. “He was all over the place.”

Mielnicki did not respond to interview requests.

Despite the prolonged legal battle, Grant remains hopeful.

“There’s no guarantees, but I’m very optimistic,” he said.

Milt’s legacy, which includes headlining a TV show with an audience that reportedly exceeded Philadelphia-based Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” continues outside court.

“We were part of the great new beginning of television, and there was just so much energy,” Grant once said to the Washington Post. “It made me fall in love with television and all its powers.”

Karla Bowsher can be reached at kbowsher@browardbulldog.org.

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