Walt Disney's Fortune Caused A Ruthless Family Feud

In the pantheon of legacies and massive net worth, Walter Elias Disney, aka Walt Disney, was a giant amongst mere mortals. When the founder of Disneyland and Walt Disney World died on December 15, 1966, he left a fortune so vast, that according to Celebrity Net Worth the $100 million to $150 million fortune he left behind would be worth close to $1 billion in today's dollars. Leaving all that money to his heirs, including his two adult daughters, Diane Marie and Sharon Disney Lund, along with their 10 children (via Insider), Uncle Walt set his kin up for very, very comfortable lives.

Of course, with so many heirs, there had to be rules and stipulations on to whom and how much each of his heirs would receive of his fortune. According to  The Orange County Register, Walt's grandchildren were set up in a combined trust. The account had a timetable that allowed for a payout of a 20% distribution of the trust's total value, in Disney stock. According to the rules of his will, each heir would get three payouts at set ages: 35, 40 and 45, with each payout amounting to almost $30 million.

How fortunes are built

According to a May 2014 story by The Hollywood Reporter, that money wasn't just doled out when the heirs hit the age requirement set by the trust. Early on, Walt's younger daughter, Sharon, imposed a group of trustees to have final approval of the payouts. The group of trustees included herself, her husband Bill Lund (who scouted out the 27,000 square miles that would become Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida), and her older sister, Diane Marie. The trustees had the power to withhold any payouts to any heir due to any improprieties that may have occurred, or for the simple fact that said heir could not be trusted with that amount of money.

Spoiler alert: The board enacted the right to withhold payments — and not just once, either. Sharon Disney Lund, Walt's younger daughter, had three children of her own. Victoria Disney, born in 1966, was adopted by Sharon and Robert B. Brown. Unfortunately, the marriage was short lived. Robert Brown died in September 1967. Sharon would remarry a year later, this time to land developer, Bill Lund. Two years later, twins Brad and Michelle were born in June of 1970 (via Disney Family Tree).

Tales of abuse and addiction

According to The Hollywood Reporter, both of Sharon Disney Lund's children suffered from disabilities. Michelle was diagnosed with dyslexia, while her twin brother, Brad, was at different points thought to have suffered from either fetal alcohol syndrome or Down syndrome. Both Michelle and Brad attended private schools for children with learning disabilities, however. And while Brad held several jobs over the years, including working for various restaurants and retail establishments, his sister Michelle has never been gainfully employed.

While Sharon did her best to protect her children from all the fame and notoriety that surrounded the family name, her eldest daughter, Victoria, somehow slipped between the cracks. Born in 1966 and died in 2002, Victoria was Brad and Michelle's half sister from Sharon's first marriage, to Robert B. Brown. Adopted by the couple in 1966, not much is known about Walt's granddaughter. However, there are a few stories that swirl around Victoria's final years. There were accusations of heroin use that was so bad, it's been said that her fingertips were blackened from abuse. Other tales tell of Brown wasting money and putting a suite on a Disney cruise ship in such a terrible state that then CEO, Michael Eisner was left to contact the trustees to fix the massive damages Victoria inflicted.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Hidden addictions in the Disney clan

Even with all the drug abuse, wanton spending, and all-around excess, Victoria Brown Disney was still awarded her allotted $20 million, as stipulated by the trust, when she turned 35 in 2001. Unfortunately, a year later Victoria died due to unspecified health complications. Due to her tragic death, Bill Lund's fifth wife, Sherry Lund, would later go on to question the trustees' decision-making capabilities. She went so far as to state that the board shouldn't have allowed Victoria to have access to that kind of money, based purely off her reckless and lavish lifestyle.

And while Victoria Brown would become known for her colorful behaviors, she was not the only Disney/Lund sibling hiding an alleged addiction. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Brad's twin sister Michelle had a history of addiction issues she was harboring, as well. Bill Lund's fifth wife, Sherry, again later provided testimony that Michelle continued to abuse alcohol and prescription drugs throughout her life.

Can you trust a trust?

With Victoria's death and per the terms of the Lund children's trust, the balance of her assets were added to the twin's (Brad and Michelle) accounts. In 2005, Brad and Michelle became eligible for the first $20 million installment by turning 35. The board decided to give Michelle the money that was allotted to her, but denied Brad his share of the fortune.

Citing "financial immaturity" as the reason, the board of trustees decided to retain Brad's portion of Walt's inheritance. At that time, as The Hollywood Reporter points out, Brad was still receiving $1 million a year, through other family trusts. Experts citing this as his reason for not initially suing the board of trustees, Brad towed the line until 2009. Twin sister Michelle suffered a sudden brain aneurysm that left her with declining mental capabilities (via The Orange County Register). That tragedy would go on to tear the Lund side of the Disney clan apart.

Litigation ensued

Hospitalized for over two months, Michelle spent the better part of that time in a coma (via NBC News). When she finally awoke, it would take months of rehab before she would be able to hold a single thought for more than 20 seconds . As her prognosis improved, however, Michelle would begin to question her parents' motives. Rumors of Bill and Sherry attempting to kidnap her in order to take control of her trust began swirling around Michelle, causing the twin to hire two bodyguards to keep her parents from physically entering her hospital room.

Entering an unprecedented time of litigation, the Lund family continued to rip itself apart. With just about every family member suing the other, the culmination of all the lawsuits came when the board of trustees sued to remove Bill Lund from the board. After allegations of prolonged money laundering, Brad and Michelle's dad ultimately stepped down as a trustee of his children's fund, but not before admitting to no wrongdoing and being granted an annual salary of $500,000 for the rest of his days, by the board (via The Hollywood Reporter).

Of conservatorships and money

With the twins' father off of the board, the trustees remaining were all non-family members. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the board was composed of Robert Wilson, a family financial advisor, along with Andrew Gifford and Doug Strode, both advisors to the Disney clan that represented US Trust (a bank that tailors to high net value individuals), and so some of Michelle's fears were relieved. From her hospital room, she named Wilson and Gifford conservators of her estate, completely bypassing her parents. Bill and Sherry filed a petition against Michelle's newly instated conservatorship, which the court ruled against, ultimately siding with Michelle.

Things for Brad meanwhile continued to trend downward, however. In 2009, around the time Michelle was recovering from her brain aneurysm, several family members (including Michelle herself and a few half sisters) petitioned an Arizona court to appoint them guardians of Brad's trust, stating that he was unable to make responsible decisions due to "chronic deficits and mental disorders" (via The Orange County Register). A trial date was set for December 2013.

No end in sight

In 2010, with financial matters still held up in the court system (via Phoenix New Times), Brad and Michelle turned 40. Activating the next installment of their trust, another $20 million+ was set to be paid out to each of the twins. However, just like in 2005, the board of trustees came to the same conclusion: Michelle would be entitled to her allotment of money; Brad, however, would not.

In December of 2013, Brad Lund's lawsuit against the board commenced. Contentious as any public trial, meanness and bad blood flowed during the proceedings. After several long months, the court decided in favor of the trust in March of 2014, stating that: "The court is convinced that the Trustees sincerely believe that Mr. Lund does not have the maturity and financial ability to manage and utilize a substantial trust distribution." Of course, Brad is appealing that decision. As of 2021, Brad is still locked in a stalemate with the courts.  In a recent decision, the judge on the case was quoted as saying:  "Do I want to give 200 million dollars, effectively, to someone who may suffer, on some level, from Down syndrome? The answer is no" (via TVA Law).