RICH PICKINGS: Birthright to billions

The Bren family dispute is undoubtedly one of the most high-stake family court battles, but there are many other examples of the often explosive combination of cash and chromosomes.

It was the hottest courtroom drama of the Los Angeles summer.

On one side was one of the richest men America, who is also considered to be one of the nation’s most reclusive billionaires.

On the other, his former girlfriend and his two illegitimate children, who claimed they were owed $US134 million in retrospective child support from a father who did not live up to his promise to look after them for life.

If this sounds like the plot for a new Hollywood blockbuster, think again. This was a real-life court battle between Donald Bren, who is ranked by Forbes as the 16th richest man in America with a fortune of $US12 billion, his former girlfriend Jennifer Gold and their two children, David Bren, aged 18, and Christie Bren, aged 22.

Bren’s children claimed that he made fraudulent promises to take care of them for life, and claimed retrospective child support of $US400,000 a year since their birth – a claim that comes to around $US130 million in total.

Bren, whose fortune is based on a real estate portfolio that Forbes says includes 475 office buildings, 115 apartment communities and 41 retail centres, denied the claims.

While the case became a big headline-grabber in LA, the wider issue raised by this case – and a handful of other cases from Australia and abroad – is how the always complex relationships between parents and children can change when vast sums of money are involved.

The normally private mogul appeared regularly in the Los Angeles Superior Court to witness what quickly became a very public exploration of fatherhood and love at the richest reaches of American society.

In his opening remarks, Bren’s lawyer John Quinn went so far as to tell the court that "this is not a case about whether Mr Bren was a good father, a bad father or an indifferent father.

"He wasn't around, so he wasn't a father for most of the time… He's never going to be to those children father of the year."

During the trial, Quinn also said Bren paid his son and daughter a combined $US3 million during a 14-year period and met his financial obligations.

While the children’s legal team laid bare the details of what they claim is Bren’s lavish lifestyle – including claims Bren had a fleet of five jets with two full-time pilots, a 240-foot yacht with a crew and lavish homes – Bren was been forced to provide intimate details of his feelings towards Gold.

"I was attracted to Jennifer; she and I had a dating relationship. I never told her I loved her," Bren told the court.

When showed cards and notes he had signed with messages such as "lots and lots of love and big kisses", he was forced to explain further.

"There's a big difference to me in sending a happy birthday card with the printing 'with love' on it as opposed to telling someone, 'I am so in love with you I want to be engaged with you and marry you and have your children.' I never said that to Jennifer."

Bren also conceded he regretted not spending more time with his children.

"I do… even though we had a very unconventional relationship, a contractual relationship, a relationship that was not family."

But the children’s lawyer, Hillel Chodos, wasn’t buying it.

"We are not here because they didn't have enough to live on," Chodos told the jury during closing arguments.

"We are here today because they were deprived by Donald Bren's fraudulent promise of their birthright. These kids have a right to share Donald Bren's standard of living."

In the end, the jury in the trial disagreed. On Friday morning (Australian time) Bren emerged triumphant when the children’s claim was rejected.

Family feuds are always ugly, but court fights between parents and children are particularly nasty. Unfortunately, the Bren case isn’t the only battle where families have been split along parent/children lines.

Another bitter battle raging in the courts involves Liliane Bettencourt, France’s richest woman and owner of a large stake in cosmetics giant L’Oral.

Her estranged daughter, Franoise Meyers-Bettencourt, is currently pursuing legal action in an attempt to claw back money and gifts that her mother has given to a friend, socialite and photographer Franois-Marie Banier.

Francoise alleges Banier and others manipulated a mentally fragile Bettencourt into doling out the gifts, which reportedly include paintings by Picasso and Matisse and an island in the Indian Ocean. But to win her case, Franoise must prove what the Financial Times described as "her mother’s mental fragility”.

It’s worth noting that this case has taken a decidedly dramatic twist in recent weeks after Betterncourt’s butler revealed he had recorded conversations involving Bettencourt, Banier and Bettencourt’s financial advisers, which involved the allocation of Bettencourt’s offshore tax havens. There have also been allegations that Bettencourt made illegal donations to the election campaign of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The claims have been denied.

Australia has seen a few parent-children spats too.

One of the most notable recent cases involved healthcare veteran and rich list member Doug Moran, who is no stranger to family turmoil. In 2001, the Moran family's British business collapsed, leading to a legal battle between Doug and son Shane.

A second legal battle between the pair started this year when, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, Shane Moran launched legal action against trustees of a Moran family trust.

Another well-know battle involved the late Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, who founded the Transfield empire in 1956 with fellow rich list member Carlo Salteri. In 2001 – four years after the business partners went their separate ways – Franco’s son Marco became involved in a bitter legal dispute with his father after falling out with other members of the family.

Eventually, Fanco reached a financial settlement with his one-time heir. Marco is now estranged from the family.

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