The dirty laundry of a wealthy Sydney family has been aired in court during a battle over the colourful 90-year-old matriarch’s multimillion-dollar fortune.
Millie Phillips was once considered to be Australia’s richest woman, according to The Sydney Morning Herald , and today she has an estate worth up to $110 million.
Mrs Phillips, who migrated to Australia from Poland as a child, is a self-made woman, originally setting up a boarding house in Ashfield in Sydney’s inner west in the early 1960s after borrowing a modest sum of money.
At the time, the Holocaust survivor was a single mother of three young children following the implosion of her marriage.
Then, in 1968, she invested in a tin mine, and ended up amassing staggering wealth during the nickel boom and becoming the head of International Mining Corporation.
Now she’s worth tens of millions, and has lucrative assets including a sprawling property in Kurrajong Heights near the Blue Mountains, paintings, business interests and other valuables.
But the question of who to leave her millions to is a complicated one.
Mrs Phillips has two surviving adult children who are aged in their early 60s, Sharonne and Robert.
Her third child, Lynette, died in 1978 after setting herself on fire in an act of “self-immolation” outside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
The young woman was a member of the controversial Ananda Marga religious sect – the same group that was initially linked by police to the 1978 bombing of the Sydney Hilton Hotel.
At some point over the years, Mrs Phillips and her son had a serious falling out, and today they have little to “no relationship”, the court heard.
Her relationship with her surviving daughter also became strained after Sharonne and Robert discovered in September 2017 that their mother had secretly transferred their sister’s remains from Sydney to a cemetery in Israel.
As a result, the court heard the relationship between mother and daughter had “not been easy”.
Then, in April 2018, Mrs Phillips had a stroke that left her needing “a high degree of care for daily living” which she receives at a nursing home in Rose Bay, where news.com.au understands she remains in a stable condition.
But Mrs Phillips repeatedly refused to sign a will before her stroke, leaving the division of her massive fortune up in the air, a Sydney court has heard.
In legal documents seen by news.com.au, stunning details of the extent of the family feud are revealed.
Before her stroke, Mrs Phillips had already decided she did not want her son to inherit anything, due – at least partly – to a dispute over a property in Bronte in Sydney’s east.
But she did want to leave some money for his five children, as well as her daughter Sharonne and her 25-year-old son, Anthony Small, and other friends, relatives and organisations.
However, she was concerned about ruining her grandson’s drive and ambition with a large inheritance, telling a lawyer: “You hear about rich grandchildren who don’t do anything with what they’ve been given and waste it and others do good with it.”
Mrs Phillips was repeatedly warned by her legal representatives that if she did not sign a will, her estate would be divided between her two adult children after her death despite her wishes.
She repeatedly clashed with her lawyers, which Mr Small conceded could have been the result of her “quarrelsome personality”.
But he disputed the finding made by a judge that his grandmother was “given to bouts of paranoia” or had a “paranoiac fear that she was being manipulated by others attracted by her wealth”.
The court heard that in May 2017, Robert Phillips visited his mother at her request, only to be told “you didn’t stop the Bronte sale and you are not my son”.
However, she also asked to see her son’s five children, although a meeting with some of them “did not go well”.
Then, in February 2018, Mrs Phillips arranged a dinner with Mr Phillips’ five children at Tetsuya’s Restaurant.
But during the dinner, Mrs Phillips gave “an unpleasant speech”, telling those grandchildren, “I don’t know any of you people” and words to the effect of “you’ve all missed out considerably, and Anthony will do a lot better”.
Despite this, some of them continued to meet up with their grandmother, and the court heard that spending time with them was a great source of “pride and joy”.
Earlier this month, the NSW Court of Appeal ruled in favour of an application made by Mr Small to create a will on his grandmother’s behalf based on earlier versions of her will.
Mr Small’s application under the Succession Act was not opposed by any other member of the family, and now Robert Phillips will inherit nothing, although each of his five children will receive $1 million each.
Mrs Phillips’ former housekeeper and friend will receive $250,000 and her sister $500,000.
Sharonne Phillips will inherit $5 million while Mr Small will receive a $25 million property near Bathurst in NSW including a Bunnings store which generates around $1 million annually.
The mother and son will also share the Kurrajong Heights property and a number of paintings, while the rest of Mrs Phillips’ estate will be divided between Israel’s Tel Aviv University, Sydney’s Jewish Museum and the Millie Phillips Jewish Fund.
Mr Small told news.com.au he believed a good outcome had been achieved.
“I think the will is a good reflection of my grandmother’s wishes, (as) a Holocaust survivor who narrowly escaped the Nazis in the 1930s and held a lifelong passion about fighting anti-Semitism,” he said.
“It was this shared passion and my immense respect for my grandmother which motivated me to bring the application initially. I am glad that I have been able to honour her in this way and that her legacy will be upheld.”
He said he and his mother had “always been a big supporter” of Mrs Phillips’ philanthropy, and that he pair remained “incredibly close”.
“The dispute largely arose because my grandmother suffered a stroke before she had time to get her affairs perfected to her standards, and was unhappy with some of the actions of her solicitors in forming the initial draft,” Mr Small said.
“I and others have gone to great efforts to ensure she receives the respect she deserves after working so hard and having such an impact as a self-made woman who has given so much service to the community through her businesses and extensive philanthropy despite immense adversity.”
According to wills and estates special counsel Joanne Carusi from Barry Nilsson Lawyers, the main issue in this case was Mrs Phillips’ failure to get her affairs in order before her stroke rendered her incapacitated.
“If you don’t have a will, you die intestate, which means the state determines how your estate will be divided through a formula set in every state,” she told news.com.au.
“It is vitally important to have not only a will but also an enduring power of attorney. If you lose capacity and are in a coma (for example) you need a trusted person to make those decisions for you medically and financially, which is revoked upon death.
“Delays are dangerous in estate planning – that was the problem here.”
MILLIE PHILLIPS’ SCANDALS
Mrs Phillips’ messy family life isn’t the only scandal she has been involved with over the years.
In 1974 she was charged with insider trading, although the case was later dropped.
In 2008, an inquest into the death of Donald Fairbairn, a patient at Mrs Phillips’ Yagoona Nursing Home, was held after a nurse allegedly injected him with 10 times his prescribed dose of insulin, The Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time.
The court heard Mrs Phillips “verbally attacked” Mr Fairbairn’s daughter, telling her, “This is your fault we’re having this inquest. He was old and going to die … You’re not going to get any money – he was worth nothing. He was old and sick anyway.”
Mrs Phillips was banned from attending the rest of the inquest.
And in December 2017, Mrs Phillips’ nursing homes lost their government accreditation, with the Blue Mountains Gazette reporting the Ritz Nursing Home at Leura failed 30 of 44 performance markers.