'Secret child' of late mining heir sues for $12.6 million

'Secret child' of late mining heir sues for $12.6 million
Ms Olivia Mead's case has created much gossip among Perth's mining community.

In an extraordinary legal case in Australia, the "secret daughter" of one of the nation's wealthiest men has emerged from her humble surroundings to make a claim on his mining fortune.

Ms Olivia Mead, a 19-year-old university student, stunned the tight-knit mining community in Western Australia when she revealed that she was the fourth child of Mr Michael Wright, a mining heir who died in 2012.

In a case that resembles a Charles Dickens novel, Ms Mead is suing two of Mr Wright's daughters and the executor of the will for a A$12 million (S$12.6 million) stake from his A$750 million estate.

If granted, it would be the biggest court-ordered award from an estate in Australian legal history.

Ms Mead was born after an affair between Mr Wright and a woman in Perth named Ms Elizabeth Mead. He had three children from a marriage to Mrs Jennifer Wright, who died last year.

In a bizarre set of opening claims made in the Western Australia Supreme Court on Feb 2, Ms Mead said she needed money for a A$2.5 million house - five times the median house price in Perth - as well as A$1.5 million for a crystal-encrusted grand piano, A$250,000 for a bass guitar, A$30,000 a year for holidays and A$150 a week for wine for the rest of her life, which she said would end at age 96.

She also raised eyebrows by asking for various annual amounts to care for pets, including A$8,500 for a dog, A$4,000 each for a ferret and a rabbit, and A$2,000 for an axolotl, or Mexican walking fish.

"I looked at my needs, how I want to start a family, and what I'd like to do with my life," Ms Mead told the court.

Ms Mead's lawyer, Mr Lindsay Ellison, later agreed to drop some of the jewel-encrusted items but insisted that she was not spoilt.

"The irony is that that is exactly what she wasn't - there was very little money spent on her," he told the court. "She is not a spoilt child."

The lawyer for the Wright family, Ms Jane Needham, dismissed Ms Mead's claims as a "fairytale".

"She provided a schedule of claim that had no basis in reality," she said.

"Is it proper that a 19-year-old is put in a position where she will never have to work? We say no."

The first clue to Ms Mead's existence was a small death notice in May 2012 describing Mr Wright as the "Dearly loved Dad of Olivia".

Ms Mead's parentage was not publicly known and shocked long-term friends of the Wright family, but her father had always privately acknowledged her.

She was born when he was 58.

"For nearly two decades… no one outside the Wright family and Mead's mother's family knew about his 'secret' fourth child," the Australian Financial Review reported.

"If people knew about her, they certainly didn't talk publicly… But Mead is 'secret' no more."

Father and daughter apparently saw each other only rarely but he paid for her schooling, as well as A$20,000 a year in child support while he was alive.

Mr Wright, who owned Western Australia's Voyager Estate winery, bequeathed her A$3 million which she could access at age 30 - but it was evidently too little and not soon enough.

Mr Wright's other daughters, Ms Leonie Baldock and Ms Alexandra Burt, are intensely private while his son Myles Wright, a musician, has chosen not to be involved in the family business and is not a defendant in the case.

The daughters apparently met their younger half-sister only on the day of their father's funeral.

The court reserved its decision, which could take some months. In the meantime, the case has prompted much gossip among Perth's mining set and a media backlash against Ms Mead's exorbitant claims.

Mr Wright was the son of Mr Peter Wright, the partner of the late mining pioneer Lang Hancock, the father of Australia's wealthiest person, Ms Gina Rinehart.

The elder Mr Wright and Mr Hancock, friends from school, were famous for doing deals over handshakes.

Perhaps presciently, Mr Hancock warned his old friend in a letter in 1982: "We will both have to do our best to solve the problems right away rather than pass on the mess to the next generation - a mess which, if not properly handled, could result in lawyers getting a large share of the pickings."

jonathanmpearlman@gmail.com


This article was first published on February 15, 2015.
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