Aug. 20, 2010 -- It's hard to know what matters most -- the money or alleged broken promises. Both are at the heart of a child support case involving billionaire Donald Bren and his two grown children from a former girlfriend.
Bren, chairman of the Irvine Co., has an estimated net worth of $12 billion and is 16th in Forbes Magazine's ranking of the 400 richest Americans. He is known as a generous philanthropist and political donor, yet his children, Christie Alexis Bren, 22, and David Leroy Bren, 18, are suing him for $400,000 a month in child support retroactive to the time they were born -- a price tag that comes to roughly $100 million.
They and their mother, Jennifer McKay Gold, sued Bren in Los Angeles Superior Court in May 2003 for fraud and breach of contract, alleging the real estate magnate had given only minimal emotional and financial support to the children. The brother and sister are now involved in their own lawsuit because they are adults.
On Thursday the billionaire real estate mogul testified that his relationship with Gold was not exclusive, and that at the time he was "shocked and surprised" by her pregnancy because she told him that she was "protected." Bren said that he told Gold that he wasn't "even sure the child is mine." He also testified that he never loved Gold, and that he informed her he would "do his best to provide financial support" after she told him that she wanted to have the child.
Gold took the stand following Bren on Thursday and presented a very different picture of their relationship. She testified that they were in love when their first child was conceived, and that Bren told her it "was nice" when she informed him of her pregnancy. She also said that he was aware that she wasn't using contraception when both of her children were conceived.
In opening arguments in a Los Angeles courtroom, Bren's lawyer, John Quinn, told the jury that the 78-year-old Bren didn't make or break any promises regarding the children. He just had no relationship with them. "This is not a case about whether Mr. Bren was a good father, a bad father or an indifferent father," said Quinn. "He wasn't around so he wasn't a father for most of the time…He's never going to be to those children father of the year."
Gold and her children for years had an out-of-court agreement with Bren that he would provide financial support to the children and maintain a parental relationship. On average, he was providing each child with about $10,000 a month during those years, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Quinn showed jurors a series of four legal agreements involving child support entered into by Gold each time she became pregnant and after the children were born. The contracts, beginning in 1988, rose from $3,500 a month to $18,000 a month between 1992 and 2002.
Hillel Chodos, attorney for the children, said that along with written agreements, Bren verbally promised to take care of them for life and acknowledge them as his. Chodos said that Gold would have received much more money for the children had she not abided by Bren's wishes to protect his privacy and instead gone to court for more support years earlier. According to Quinn, Bren paid his son and daughter a combined $3 million during that 14-year period. Quinn maintained that Bren met his financial obligations to both.
In court records, Gold described Bren's lifestyle: a fleet of five jets with two full-time pilots, a 240-foot yacht with a crew, lavish homes in Bel-Air and Orange County, Calif., a ranch in Idaho and large staff of servants. "It costs a lot of money to keep all of these things going," Gold recalled Bren saying in a conversation about his spending.
Chodos says the children deserve more, given the $3 million to $5 million per month Gold says Bren told her he spent on personal expenses. Chodos contends that the law requires that an obligated parent pay support "according to the parent's circumstances and station in life."
Bren's attorney disputed the per month spending figure of the mogul, saying the figure was likely closer to $125,000 and the planes were part of a private jet leasing company he owns.
"Donald Bren is able to live and does live like a maharajah," Chodos said in court.
Quinn made no apologies for his client's wealth and described him as being obsessed with privacy, working seven days a week and barely taking vacations. "He doesn't have a chauffeur. He has only one car. He's a man who shines his own shoes, pumps his own gas," Quinn said.
The billionaire's attitude toward the children was always clear to their mother, Quinn said. "Those promises were never made. There's not a scrap of paper. There are no witnesses. She never told anyone about these promises," Quinn said.
Quinn acknowledged Bren, who has other children from other relationships, was not a typical father figure for Christine and David.
What set off the legal fireworks? According to published reports, when Bren brushed off the children when they by chance ran into him at a upscale restaurant nearly a decade ago, Gold decided to sue.
The jury's decision on how much the children deserve will hinge heavily on how Gold describes Bren's wealth during their time together, 1984-1996. It's not as though the children received nothing. Chodos conceded they lived a nice life. "But this is about what they were entitled to," he told the courtroom.
Attorneys for both sides could not be reached and daughter Christie declined to comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.