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Walt Disney Family Feud: Inside His Grandkids’ Weird, Sad Battle Over a $400 Million Fortune
Before 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.
Meet the Disney family
- The Walt Disney Company is worth an estimated $130 billion.
- That net worth is poised to grow as the company becomes a major streaming TV player. After announcing streaming plans in a December Investor Day, its market value increased by $32 billion.
- The Disney family’s fortune isn’t known, but the family owns less than 3% of the company, according to Walt Disney’s grand-nephew, Roy P.
- Two of Walt Disney’s grandchildren became embroiled in a feud over their trust funds.
- Most of the Disney family members have stayed out of the business and have collectively donated millions to charity.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Disney cofounder Walt Disney wanted to be a cartoonist since high school, taking extracurricular art classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
He later worked at a film ad company in Missouri, where he learned animation and went on to form his first animation studio, Laugh-O-Grams, according to the Walt Disney website. But a bad business deal led to the downfall of the studio: A small theatrical company called Pictorial Clubs reportedly offered Laugh-O-Gram $11,000 for six small films, but it only gave Disney a $100 down payment before Pictoral went bankrupt.
Walt then left for Hollywood. In 1923, he cofounded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, which became Walt Disney Studio, with his older brother, Roy O. Disney. The two had a close relationship: Walt controlled the creative aspects of the company, while Roy ran the business side.
Five years later, “Steamboat Willy” was the first media production to debut Mickey Mouse. In 1937, Disney’s first feature-length film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” debuted and became a box office hit, taking the company from being in debt to being worth millions of dollars.
By the late 1950s, Walt had created a family entertainment world complete with movies, TV shows, and an amusement park.
In 1953, Walt self-funded a private company, WED Enterprises — now known as Walt Disney Imagineering and opened Disneyland two years later. Roughly a decade later, in 1964, Walt and Roy kicked off the development of Walt Disney World in Florida.
That same year, Walt launched one of the most important projects of his career, according to the Walt Disney website: “Mary Poppins,” which received 12 Academy Award nominations.
Today, Disney is one of the biggest media companies in the world, with an estimated net worth of nearly $130 billion. It was named the No. 1 best-regarded company in 2018 by Forbes.
Despite Michelle’s past problems, it wasn’t until she suffered a brain aneurysm and went into a coma in 2009 that her relations with the rest of the Lunds took a dive. For two months, Michelle was hospitalized in an Orange County facility. Doctors described her condition as “grave,” and for some time afterward, even with months of rehabilitation, she couldn’t hold a thought for more than 20 seconds, according to later testimony.
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While Michelle was being hospitalized, Bill informed trustee Wilson that as soon as Michelle could travel, he wanted to take her to one of the best neurological centers in the country — 10 minutes from his and Sherry’s home in Arizona. The trustees began to harbor suspicions, mostly premised on the idea that Sherry was conspiring to gain control over her stepchildren and, ultimately, their inheritance.
Walt Disney’s Daughter, Diane Disney Miller, Dies at 79
At the same time, Michelle herself began to grow wary of her father and stepmother. The prospect of being kidnapped by her father was raised to her. At a later deposition, Michelle testified: “I had a lot of people talking to me about the possibility of what might happen.” She added about her stepmother, “I’ve learned some things about her that just don’t make me feel secure,” probably referring to unsubstantiated rumors that had begun to surface that Sherry allegedly commissioned a hit man to kill her ex-husband William Blair, who lived to talk about it. Michelle consequently hired two bodyguards to physically bar Bill and Sherry from visiting at the hospital and had her father removed as her health care proxy.
A breathtaking flood of litigation followed. Brad sued trustee Wilson’s wife, Gloria, for allegedly assaulting him at Michelle’s hospital (Gloria Wilson admitted trying to hug him). Sherry sued Michelle’s best friend since childhood, Dominique Merrick, with claims that she started the hit man rumor. (Sherry lost the case when it was traced to a family lawyer instead.) And most importantly, the other trustees sued to remove Bill from their fold, based on an allegation that several years earlier, Bill had used trust money to score some $3.5 million in kickbacks from a real estate deal.
When confronted about allegedly taking the kickbacks, Bill presented a 2003 letter from Michelle purporting to authorize the deals. (A handwriting expert examined it, a trustee later would testify, finding it to be a forgery.) Bill exited as trustee, telling THR today that he bowed out voluntarily on the recommendation of his cardiologist. As part of a settlement, he admitted no wrongdoing and, at the behest of son Brad, was granted $500,000 a year for the rest of his life by an Arizona court “as extraordinary fees for past services.”
With Bill out, the inheritance came under the management of Wilson, Andrew Gifford and Doug Strode — the latter two were involved with the financial affairs of the family through their positions at U.S. Trust, a private bank serving high-net-worth individuals. By the time of her aneurysm, Michelle had developed a sense of trust with Wilson and Gifford, naming them temporary conservators of her estate instead of her dad and stepmother.
Bill contested Michelle’s decision, filing a petition to establish a conservatorship over her in 2010. He alleged that Wilson, Gifford and Michelle’s childhood friend Merrick had taken advantage of his daughter’s compromised condition and exerted undue influence to control her $200 million in trusts. According to Wilson’s and Merrick’s lawyer at the time, it was the other way around, repeating word from one of Michelle’s friends who said that there existed “documents that would prove that Bill wanted to pull the plug on Michelle for financial gain, that he would benefit greatly from her death.”
After a trial that took place in summer 2012, Orange County Superior Court Judge Mary Fingal Shulte denied the Lunds’ conservatorship petition, which prevented Bill and Sherry from taking charge of Michelle.