Photo Credit: Gary TaxallBefore Walt Disney’s youngest daughter, Sharon Disney Lund, died in 1993 of breast cancer at age 56, her three grown children gathered in a North Hollywood office and were told about the vast fortune that awaited them. Brad and Michelle were the then-23-year-old twins from Sharon’s second marriage to Bill Lund, the real estate developer who scouted the 27,000 acres in Orlando that later would become Disney World, Walt’s second “Happiest Place on Earth” after Disneyland in Anaheim. And then there was Victoria Disney, then 27, the daughter adopted by Sharon (who herself was adopted) with her first husband, Robert Brown. All three already lived comfortably. But this was a whole other level of wealth on the table.
Per the terms of their combined trusts — today worth about $400 million — Walt Disney’s grandchildren were to receive 20 percent distributions, a good portion of it in Disney stock. The payouts were to be dispensed to the three children at the ages of 35, 40 and 45, once amounting to about $20 million (and now closer to $30 million) for each every five years. But there was one important caveat: Sharon empowered three trustees — including, at the time, ex-husband Bill and older sister Diane Disney Miller — to withhold distributions in the event the children did not demonstrate “maturity and financial ability to manage and utilize such funds in a prudent and responsible manner.”
The caveat would prove to have a catastrophic impact on the Lund branch of the Disney family. Its interpretation by the trustees on the twins’ 35th and 40th birthdays would lead to accusations of conspiracy and mental incompetence and would culminate in ugly depositions, complete with insinuations of incest, leading up to a two-week-long battle of a trial in December in Los Angeles Superior Court. On one side of the lawsuit is Brad, now 43; his lawyers; his father, Bill, 83; and his stepmother, Sherry Lund, Bill’s fifth wife. On the other: the three current trustees, each paid up to $1 million annually (and some years more) for their role, who counted Brad’s twin sister, Michelle, as a witness, and who were represented by lead attorney Peter Gelblum. Brad’s side was contesting the trustees’ rulings for his 35th and 40th birthday distributions that determined he lacked the mental abilities to oversee them. The trustees had reached the opposite conclusion about his twin sister, Michelle, awarding her millions on her birthday despite word of her history of drug addiction and a brain aneurysm in 2009 that had left her with uncertain mental abilities.
The heated testimony included Sherry accusing the trustees essentially of brainwashing her stepdaughter Michelle against her and Bill. She also blamed them for trying “to ruin our family” and attempting “to kill my husband over this,” as Gelblum probed whether Sherry was behind a “campaign to sue everyone who gets between [her] and Brad’s money.” For a $140 billion company built on appealing to families, the inheritance war has been an ugly sideshow. And it is a far cry from the way things used to be in the Disney dynasty.
Since Walt Disney died in 1966 at age 65, his two children, Diane and Sharon, shied away from Hollywood. Diane had seven children of her own, while Sharon — who briefly became a model and actress (she had a small role in the 1957 film Johnny Tremain) — settled into a comfortable life as a mother of three kids. Says Jim Korkis, who now writes for an all-things-Disney site called Mouse Planet: “When I worked at Walt Disney World and asked about Walt’s grandchildren, the response was, ‘They spend their time managing their portfolios.’ Walt was adamant about keeping his children and grandchildren away from the business.” With the exception of Walt’s nephew, Roy, who helped bring in Michael Eisner as CEO in 1984 to revitalize the company — and later fought unsuccessfully to remove him — the family largely has stayed away from corporate affairs, choosing to exert their wealth and power in other ways, including philanthropically.
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