The Big Payoff: Settling a $4 billion quarrel

Settling a $4 billion quarrel

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For most people, an annual income of $35 million would be reason to celebrate. But heirs of Billionaire Oilman J. Paul Getty, who died in 1976, chose to litigate instead. In a bizarre and bitter feud, family members sued to break up the $4 billion trust that has been the source of their fortune and to remove Gordon Getty, 51, a son of J. Paul's, as sole trustee.

Last week, after 18 months of acrimonious court battles, family members agreed to settle the case. Under terms reached in Los Angeles, the Sarah C. Getty Trust -- named for the oilman's mother -- will be split into six parts. The agreement ends Gordon Getty's control of one of the largest U.S. family fortunes and divides the authority among the four branches of the Getty line, which includes 26 heirs. Said Seth Hufstedler, one of some 20 lawyers in the landmark case: "Great efforts have been made toward family peace. The alternative is clearly years and years of bitter litigation."

The settlement was an apparent victory for the three daughters of George Franklin Getty II, the eldest of Getty's five sons, who died at 49 of an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol in 1973. The daughters (Anne, 32, Claire, 30, and Caroline, 27, known collectively to the lawyers as the Georgettes) had received $35 million annually, in contrast to the more than $100 million that Gordon got, and resented his power over the trust.

A major issue was Gordon's decision to sell the trust's 40% ownership of Getty Oil stock to Texaco last year as part of Texaco's $10 billion acquisition of the Getty firm. While the sale of Getty stock greatly enhanced the trust's value, the Georgettes argued that the deal violated provisions of the trust and that Gordon, who sings and composes opera, had abused his authority as sole trustee.

Another victor was a Getty heir with the unlikely name Tara Gabriel Galaxy Gramaphone Getty, an ally of the Georgettes' in the legal battle. Tara, the son of Eugene Paul Getty and grandson of J. Paul, turned 17 on the day the settlement was reached. The teenager stands to inherit a chunk of the trust's assets on the death of the last of J. Paul's three surviving sons. The settlement calls for Tara to begin immediately receiving $250,000 in annual income.

One Getty who will receive nothing from the agreement is Los Angeles Businessman Jean Ronald Getty, 56, J. Paul's son by the third of his five marriages. After a bitter 1932 divorce from Jean Ronald's mother, the senior Getty cut his son off from the family fortune. Although Jean Ronald's children will eventually get a share of the trust's assets, their father will continue to receive only what J. Paul allowed him: $3,000 a year.