He famously built The Happiest Place on Earth, but half a century after Walt Disney’s death, two of his own grandchildren are embroiled in a bitter legal row over hundreds of millions of dollars.
This week, while families from around the world make a festive pilgrimage to the home of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the great animator’s own descendants will meet in a less joyful setting.
In a soulless court room, located just 20 miles from Disneyland itself, acrimony, recriminations and allegations of deceit far removed from the magical world Walt created will play out.
In happier times ... Brad, Bill and Michelle Lund. Photo: Today
At the centre of proceedings are Brad and Michelle Lund, Disney’s 43-year-old twin grandchildren who have not seen each other in four years.
They are the children of the cartoon maestro’s daughter Sharon, who died on February 16, 1993. She left trust funds for the twins which together are estimated to be worth more than $300 million, and are looked after by trustees.
It was Sharon’s intention that the twins should each receive lump sums, amounting to tens of millions of dollars at a time, on their 35th, 40th and 45th birthdays. At each of those milestones they were to be given a 20 per cent slice of whatever was in their trust.
According to the terms of her will, trustees were instructed to withhold payment if either of the children had not ‘‘demonstrated the maturity and financial ability to manage and utilise such funds in a prudent and reasonable manner’’.
Brad was told that he did not meet the standard, while his sister did and she has received her payments. The ensuing row has torn the family apart. Brad is backed by the twins’ father Bill Lund, a real estate developer who married Sharon Disney in 1968 and helped build Walt Disney World in Florida. The couple divorced in 1977.
Now aged 79, Mr Lund said recently that Walt would have been ‘‘absolutely appalled’’ by the current situation and that the family was ‘‘broken’’.
The schism appears to have intensified in 2009 after Michelle suffered a brain aneurysm. While she was recovering her father tried to move her from California to a rehabilitation centre in Arizona, but the trustees disagreed. When she recovered Michelle appears to have sided with the trustees, and she and her brother have not seen each other since.
In a petition to the court, Brad Lund is now accusing the three trustees of a breach of trust, demanding payment of his birthday lump sums, the removal of the trustees and punitive damages against them.
His side say he is someone who is ‘‘extremely modest in his spending’’ and ‘‘lives well below his means’’, contrasting this with his sister, who they say purchased ‘‘numerous multi-million dollar homes’’ and threw ‘‘$50,000 parties’’.
They claim Michelle has never had a job and spent ‘‘lavish amounts’’ on security guards and chartering private planes. After her aneurysm the trustees decided she could have her 40th birthday payment because she was ‘‘98 per cent back to normal’’. But Brad rebuts the claims, saying in his submission to the court that she is ‘‘not 98 per cent back to normal and has substantial brain injury’’.
For their part the trustees have suggested that Brad is not able to manage his share of the fortune due to ‘‘chronic cognitive disability’’. Neither twin has been diagnosed with the conditions described.
Explaining the decision not to pay Brad in a statement issued to NBC News before the trial, the trustees said they have ‘‘full discretion to withhold distributions if [the beneficiary] doesn’t demonstrate the maturity and financial ability to manage the funds wisely’’.
In a video deposition in a previous legal encounter, one of the trustees told a court: ‘‘Brad is entitled to what he believes is in his best interests. I’m entitled to believe what I believe is Brad’s best interest.’’ At one point Michelle and other relatives of Brad petitioned a court and secured an independent court-appointed guardian for him.
However, a lawyer for Brad told the Telegraph: ‘‘It’s not Brad against Michelle, it’s Brad against the trustees.’’
In 2002 the twins’ half-sister Victoria died, leaving no children. According to Brad’s side her 35th birthday distribution was made ‘‘even though she was abusing drugs and alcohol’’ and the trustees had ‘‘questions regarding her maturity’’. Following her death, what remained in her trust was believed to have been added to, and swelled, the hundreds of millions of dollars in the twins’ trusts.
The start of the case on Thursday, which is expected to last three weeks, comes just a few weeks after the twins’ aunt Diane Disney Miller died in California’s Napa Valley at the age of 79. She was an original trustee of their trusts but resigned in 1997.
She and the twins’ mother Sharon were part of the inspiration for Walt building Disneyland. Diane Disney Miller once recalled: ‘‘He’d take me and my sister Sharon to the merry-go-round at Griffith Park (in Los Angeles) and stand there all day waiting until we were ready to go.
‘‘As he stood there, he kept thinking there should be more for parents and children to do together, and the idea for Disneyland was born.’’
The Telegraph, London