Donald L. Bren, the billionaire owner of the Irvine Co. who is ranked among the nation’s wealthiest individuals, is challenging a court order that would compel him to reveal details of his personal wealth.
The intensely private Bren, 73, of Newport Beach, is locked in a child support battle with the mother of two of his children, and is fighting their attempts to determine just how rich he is. But a state appeals court ruled that he must be more forthcoming.
Bren is “a man of vast wealth,” said a two-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in a ruling this month. “Whether a supporting parent is merely 4rich or is very rich can make a difference in [support] because a child is entitled to be supported in a style and condition consonant with the position in society of its parents.”
Through his attorney, Bren declared he earned an average of $14.4 million a year since 1988, when the older child was born. But the court said there was no evidence presented that the amount “would have approximated his annual gross income.”
Bren has asked the court to reconsider its ruling. In a statement provided by a company spokesman, Bren said he has honored every child support obligation from his legal agreements with their mother for more than 17 years.
“Not only does he believe those agreements were fair, over time he has made payments that exceeded the terms mutually agreed upon for the children’s well-being and education,” the statement said.
Bren’s actual wealth has been a topic of speculation for decades. A business executive, developer, philanthropist and art collector, Bren was ranked by Forbes magazine this year as the nation’s 40th wealthiest individual, with an estimated worth of $4 billion. He was ranked sixth-highest among the Californians on the magazine’s list of the nation’s 400 richest people. In 1996, Forbes calculated his wealth at $2 billion, ranking him 58th among the country’s richest.
Hillel Chodos, the Los Angeles attorney for the children and their mother, Jennifer McKay Gold, used the Forbes figure of $4 billion and added 6% a year in estimated interest earnings to contend that Bren’s income was closer to $240 million a year. Plugging that amount into the state’s income-based child-support calculator would yield total monthly payments of about $2 million.
Bren’s principal asset is thought to be the privately held Irvine Co., the largest landowner in Orange County and a developer of neighborhoods, shopping malls and business centers.
He has seven children: two adult sons from his first marriage, an adult daughter from his second marriage and a son born in Los Angeles in August 2003 to his current wife, entertainment lawyer Brigitte Muller. He also has acknowledged three children by two former companions.
The issue of Bren’s wealth and child support arose with a civil lawsuit filed by Gold and the children in May 2003. The lawsuit, which alleged fraud among the causes of action, contended that Bren withdrew promised emotional and financial support for their children, a daughter, now 17, and a son, now 14.
Gold said in Los Angeles County Superior Court that Bren cajoled her into private support arrangements after the children were born as a way to keep the matter out of court, and then four years ago reneged on his promises. Bren has vigorously denied the allegations.
The case reaches far beyond the details of Bren’s wealth into the much-litigated area of wealthy people attempting to protect their financial privacy in court. High-profile individuals involved in these legal disputes have included actor Emilio Estevez, former New York Knicks basketball player Larry Johnson, Fitness USA President William Hubner and former MGM owner Kirk Kerkorian.
Bren, through his attorney Daniel Petrocelli, has pledged to fight a disclosure order, claiming that because his wealth makes him able to pay any reasonable amount of child support, his right to privacy trumps Gold’s right to know details of how much he has earned.
State law requires child support to be based on the parents’ income, so the child can share in the same standard of living as the wealthiest parent.
There is no upper limit on the amount of support that can be ordered.
In fighting the disclosure ruling, “Bren believes he’s rich enough that he can make his own rules,” Chodos said. “His attitude is that he’s going to do what he wants with regard to the children.”
In an earlier ruling on Bren’s financial disclosure, a lower court judge -- Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George H. Wu -- ruled for Bren. He held it was not necessary for Bren to disclose details of his annual earnings, since his declared earnings of $14.4 million a year would generate child-support payments of $130,000 a month, which Wu said was more than what the children would reasonably need.
The appeals court overruled the judge, saying it was impossible to calculate child support without knowing Bren’s total income, and ordered Wu to allow the children and their mother to inquire further. But it stressed that it was not giving the Golds unlimited leeway to probe all aspects of Bren’s finances.
“This is not to suggest that the Golds established good cause for the exhaustive inventory of financial information they sought to compile, particularly from business entities related to Bren; they did not,” the court said. “The Golds’ requests called for detailed lifestyle and net worth financial information that would not have been available [to them] in a child support action.”
Another hearing is scheduled Dec. 16 in Los Angeles County Superior Court.