Billionaire Family Feuds
Luisa Kroll, 10.24.07, 6:00 AM ET
Rich, dysfunctional families are back in vogue on prime-time television with new shows like Cane and Dirty Sexy Money. But these fictional families have nothing on the real-life tales of feuding billionaire clans, wracked by generational schisms, sibling rivalries, jealousy and greed.
For these wealthy dynasties, there just doesn't seem to be enough money in the world to convince them to get along. Instead they turn on each other, and very often, take their relatives to court.
We've recapped some of the most riveting billionaire family sagas of the past decade, including a then 19-year-old member of the Hyatt's Pritzker family, who successfully sued her father and almost a dozen other relatives, and a father and his beauty-queen fifth wife suing his son over the family fortune. Exactly half of our favorite feuds involved American families; other fights took place or are taking place in Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, India and Switzerland.
Even people who don't follow the sagas of the world's wealthiest most likely got a peek at one of recent history's most salacious feuds, involving former stripper and Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith. For a decade, the tabloid celebrity battled her much-older billionaire stepson, E. Pierce Marshall, for the right to inherit some of the fortune of her late husband, J. Howard Marshall, to whom she was married for just one year. Then, in a bizarre twist, E. Pierce Marshall and Smith died within months of one another. The case was still pending.
In 2002, Liesel Pritzker, then an undergrad at Columbia University, launched a $6 billion lawsuit against her father and 11 older cousins, accusing them of looting her trust funds and those of her brother Matthew. The battle eventually led to the carving up of the family fortune; it was split 11 ways, resulting in 10 more Pritzkers joining the Forbes 400; the most members of any family. Liesel and Matthew are not among the rich-listers, having received a reported $500 million apiece.
A more recent battle involves the world's 78th most powerful woman and U.S.' 204th richest person, Marilyn Carlson Nelson. Marilyn, who runs Carlson, the $37 billion (system-wide sales) travel conglomerate founded by her father, is being sued by her son Curtis Nelson. He accuses her and the company of suddenly removing him from his position as president and chief operating officer, unfairly ending his longtime expectation of becoming the company's chief. He claims he is owed a buy-out of his interest in the business and damages for loss of employment. The company says the suit has no merit and that it was not in its best interest to elect him chief.
After divorcing his fourth wife, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, Swiss billionaire and one of the world's biggest art collectors, signed control of his $2 billion empire over to his son Georg in 1983. Almost two decades later, he and fifth wife Carmen "Tita" Cervera, a former Miss Spain, sued to get it back. A three-year, $60 million court battle followed, ending only after the Baron summoned his long-estranged Swiss family to his Madrid villa in early 2002 to make amends. He died a few months later; his fortune, worth $2 billion in 2002, was allegedly split between his four children, his widow and her son.
Sometimes fighting has a silver lining, as has been the case for Indian brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Unable to get along, the brothers began fighting publicly in late 2004 for control of Reliance Industries, one of India's largest conglomerates. The situation became so untenable that their mother Kokilaben brokered a court-approved peace settlement that entailed divvying up the family businesses. In 2005, the brothers were worth a combined $7 billion; in our March 2007 survey of billionaires, Mukesh was worth $20.1 billion and ranked 14th in the world. Anil had $18.2 billion and ranked 18th.
But even for billionaires, family fights can be painful. Divorced from his wife of 52 years and now married to a new wife 40 years his junior, Sumner Redstone was sued by his son Brent in November 2006 and by his nephew Michael earlier this year. Redstone settled with Brent for $240 million. The case involving his nephew was dismissed. It was cold comfort: "The two days that Brent and Michael sued me are two of the saddest days of my entire life," Redstone said.
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