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Bren's Plans Didn't Include Legal Spotlight

Woman's child-support suit puts the reclusive head of Irvine Co. in an unwelcome spot.

May 18, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

A lawsuit filed last week by a former girlfriend seeking more money for two children of Irvine Co. real estate mogul Donald Bren has thrust the reclusive billionaire smack into the public glare he's avoided for decades.

Known as Orange County's Donald Trump for his vast real estate holdings, Bren's public persona is closer to that of Bill Gates. He makes few appearances and guards his privacy, while cultivating his image as a responsible builder of meticulously planned communities.

At 71, the sole owner of Irvine Co. has an estimated worth of $4 billion according to Forbes magazine, which ranked him 39th among the richest Americans and the 78th-wealthiest person in the world.

Before last week, the children Bren had publicly acknowledged were two sons by his first wife, and a daughter by his second wife -- all now adults -- plus a second daughter, now 11, by a New York artist. But talk of other Bren progeny has swirled for years.

Because of his penchant for privacy, his closest friends and associates will not talk about this on the record.

With the lawsuit, "His bubble's burst now," said one. "People like us knew about all this. But now the public knows about it. He's cultivated his image ... but it's all been shattered."

The lawsuit, filed by Jennifer McKay Gold, alleges that Bren has acknowledged paternity and made support payments to their children, a daughter, 15, and a son, 11. In the last two years, however, Bren exhibited increasing coldness toward the children, the suit said, and he refused to sign an additional financial agreement.

Alleging civil fraud and breach of contract, the suit asks for payments for the children commensurate with Bren's fortune and lifestyle. It also seeks damages for emotional distress and mental anguish. While the suit does not explicitly seek a place for the children in Bren's will, it does allege that the billionaire promised "that he would make provision for their economic welfare."

A spokesman for Bren said he has fulfilled all support payments in accordance with a private agreement with their mother and hasn't had direct contact for 10 years with her or the children. He is not listed as the father on the birth certificates.

It is the public reaction to these private decisions that could sting Bren the most, said Stephen A. Kolodny, who represented Lisa Kerkorian in a child-support battle last year against MGM owner Kirk Kerkorian. The hotel mogul found himself, in his 80s, the subject of tabloid fodder and the late-night joke circuit as the public dissected their lavish lifestyle.

Bren's aversion to exposure was the basis for keeping his fatherhood confidential, according to Gold's suit -- and surely was a factor in her decision to go public by filing the court case, Kolodny said.

"Because Bren's a very private guy, he doesn't like what's happened and what's about to happen in the press," he said.

Referring to Gold, he added, "when you use these kinds of tactics, their value only lies in your ability to use them the first time."

Under California law, children are entitled to support payments based on a formula that considers the parent's income. There is no ceiling. The payments continue until the child is 18, or 19 if still in high school.

Parents in California cannot enforce any mutual agreement that limits support payments or the rights of children to ask the identity of their father, several family law attorneys said. Children have their own rights and can be represented in a court by an attorney.

But children in California aren't assured a piece of their parent's inheritance, as they are in some states. A child can be disinherited in a will, though it must be by name.

In Kerkorian's case, he'd been paying $50,000 a month, which Lisa Kerkorian said wasn't enough. She asked for $320,000 monthly, an amount she later increased to $1.5 million. A judge ultimately ordered Kerkorian to pay $50,316 a month after reviewing his income and the parents' lifestyles.

The last time substantial details of Bren's private life appeared in court documents was in the early 1960s, when he and his first wife, Diane, parried over custody of their sons, child-support payments and other details of their divorce. At the time, he was making about $60,000 a year and the battle attracted scant public attention.

"I do not want to discuss your emotions or your history or your past," he wrote in an April 1969 letter to Diane Bren included as part of the court file. "Or for that matter my past."

His second divorce, in 1977, went very differently: He made private arrangements with his second wife, Mardelle. A thin court file on the case shows he was ordered to pay $750 a month in support for his daughter Ashley, then 9. The same year, he and a group of investors bought Irvine Co.

Dealing with romantic entanglements -- and the children left behind -- is part of the California landscape, said Marvin Mitchelson, who has represented a number of well-heeled clients in support disputes. The wealthy often tend to view their situations primarily in terms of the financial cost.

"You can't treat everything like a business proposition," he said. "It's their Achilles heel. I've seen so many people go from level-headed, intelligent-thinking people to where you just shake your head. The affairs of the heart are another world."

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