How to avoid the ‘Hurley’ Burley of a disputed trust or estate

The son of actor Liz Hurley, Damian Hurley, is set to inherit a share of his grandfather’s estate after a decision handed down by Judge Daniel Juarez…

The son of actor Liz Hurley, Damian Hurley, is set to inherit a share of his grandfather’s estate after a decision handed down by Judge Daniel Juarez of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County.

Background

In 2001, Liz Hurley publicly announced that she was pregnant and, after a widely reported dispute over who the father of the child was, a DNA test later proved that American businessman, Steve Bing, was Damian’s father.

Separately, but also in 2001, a DNA test also proved that Steve was the father of former tennis player Lisa Bonder’s child, Kira Kerkorian.

It is reported that on or around 22 August 1980, Dr Peter Bing, Steve’s father and Kira and Damian’s grandfather, set up a family trust to “benefit [his] future grandchildren”. 

In March 2019, Kira made enquiries/assertions as to her entitlement under the trust, which prompted the trustee, Robert Burch, to file papers seeking confirmation from the Court that Kira was not a trust beneficiary, as well as seeking to prevent her from obtaining trust-related information.

Dr Bing’s position

Dr Bing stated that:

  • “My intention at the time…was to benefit grandchildren who were raised by my children as part of their families”
  •  “I believed that they [the trusts] would not benefit any person born out of wedlock…my intent in this regard is clear”
  •  “I have never met Damian or Kira and neither of them was raised by Stephen as part of his family”
  •  “Because neither was raised by him during their formative years I do not consider them my grandchildren”
  •  “I do not consider Damian and Kira to be beneficiaries of the 1980 GC Trusts and confirm that this is consistent with my intention at the time I executed the 1980 GC Trusts”

The main issue for the Court to consider was therefore how the word "grandchild” was to be construed.

If Judge Daniel Juarez approved of Dr Bing’s analysis and interpretation of "grandchild”, both Damian and Kira would have effectively been disinherited under the terms of the trust. Both Damian and Kira were "born out of wedlock” and were not "raised by [Dr Bing’s] children as part of their families”.

The decision

It was ultimately held by Judge Daniel Juarez that "There is no ambiguity in the trust’s use of the term 'grandchild’… The Trustee’s interpretation of the trusts is unreasonable, and the trustee’s construction of 'grandchild’ is simply unfounded”.

On this basis, both Kira and Damian are "grandchildren” for the purposes of the trust and will stand to benefit under the trust accordingly, despite Dr Bing asserting that this is not (and never was) his intention.

Conclusion

Although this matter fell under the jurisdiction of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County and was not subject to the laws of England and Wales, the fundamental point to take away from this highly publicised dispute is that people setting up trusts and/or preparing wills need to be clear when defining a class of beneficiaries.

It is vitally important to take appropriate advice when setting up a trust, preparing your will or, if the opportunity to do so has passed, if there is the likelihood of a potential dispute arising. A properly considered and professionally drafted will or trust can go some way to reducing the potential for future disputes. It is equally as important for people to keep their affairs under review, revisiting any trusts/testamentary documents to ensure that they are in line with their current intentions.

David McGuire is a solicitor in Weightmans’ litigation and disputed wills and estates team. For more information contact david.mcguire@weightmans.com.

Share on Twitter