Poor Little Rich Boy?

updated 12/12/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

By most standards—make that any standards—13-year-old Alex Hughes leads a jaw-droppingly privileged life. He and his mother, Suzan, reside in a three-bedroom, lavishly appointed Beverly Hills home worth about $8 million in today's market. He attends a private school, and they go on ski trips to Switzerland. Mom has taken Alex, an avid football fan, to the past three Super Bowls. "That's my job," explains Suzan, 42, "to take him and make sure he has every opportunity and every experience."

But for Suzan and Alex, contentment is one luxury they apparently cannot afford. Mark Hughes, Alex's father and Suzan's ex-husband, was the charismatic founder of the Herbalife diet and personal-care-products empire; five years ago, at 44, he died suddenly of an overdose, apparently accidental, of antidepressants and alcohol. He left Alex, his only child, a fortune now estimated at $400 million. That makes him one of the richest kids in the world, but with a catch—the money is largely off-limits, under the control of a trust, until he turns 35. For the past four years Suzan has fought an increasingly bitter and expensive legal war with the trustees to get more of the money now. In her eyes the fight—which will come to a head in court in the coming months—is a matter of principle. The trustees think it's more about her own greed. "Suzan loves Alex," says trustee Conrad Klein, who was a close business associate of Mark's. "But I can't believe she does not, like most human beings, have her own needs."

The debate over Alex's future has a lot to do with his father's past. Mark Hughes spared himself no extravagance while he was alive. He purchased Grayhall, the legendary 22,000-sq.-ft. Beverly Hills mansion once owned by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, as well as a Malibu estate on seven beachfront acres. He also had a complicated personal life. Suzan, a former Miss Petite U.S.A., was his third wife, to whom he was married for 10 years. Mark and Suzan divorced in 1998, and he soon was remarried to Darcy LaPier, the recently divorced wife of action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. In a twist, Suzan and Van Damme also started dating about the same time, though the relationship didn't last long. After their divorce Mark and Suzan shared joint custody of Alex, who spent weekends and holidays with his dad.

It's the time Alex spent with Mark that forms the crux of Suzan's legal argument. She maintains that while Alex now enjoys a comfortable life, he's entitled to the same standard of living he had with his father. Suzan, who received a divorce settlement from Mark of roughly $10 million and draws $520,000 annually from the trust, complains that the three trustees—including Mark's father, Jack Reynolds—have refused to turn over items such as a $10,000 chandelier that belonged to Mark, and have balked at paying $80,000 to help underwrite a summer-rental home in Malibu. "Alex and Mark loved Malibu," she says. As for the chandelier, "Alex, as a toddler, would sit and try to catch the light from it. ... I'm asking the trustees to give Alex the things his daddy would have wanted him to have."

But the trustees suspect that such requests have more to do with improving Suzan's standard of living than Alex's. "We think the mother wants these things," says Edward Ziskin, a lawyer for the trust. "It's hard to believe a child wants a chandelier. And does a young child need $80,000 to rent a home in Malibu for a vacation?" Indeed the trustees say that, after consulting with child experts and clergy, they have made a conscious decision to try to ensure that Alex isn't spoiled by his wealth. Certainly someone seems to have done something right by Alex, who turns 14 this month. The eighth-grader is studious and athletic. "He has a great sense of humor and always has a smile," says his teacher Eric Mandel.

While the trustees may be sincere in their concerns, the court may ultimately side with Suzan anyway. Mark's will stipulated that Alex would inherit small chunks of the trust starting at age 25, before getting the balance of the funds at 35. (Trust lawyer Ziskin says by then his fortune could be well over $500 million.) But the will also set aside $35 million in a custodial account that is intended for Alex's "use and benefit" while he is a minor. As Ed McCaffrey, a family-law professor at the University of Southern California, points out, a judge could allow that source to be tapped now. "It comes down to the language 'use and benefit,' " says McCaffrey. "Alex's world is so much different than most of ours."

Meanwhile the two sides have already run up substantial legal bills—Suzan's total alone is $3.5 million. Laments McCaffrey: "Alex may evolve into a philanthropist, and if he does, it's a pity to see all this money going to the lawyers." But Suzan has no doubt that right is on her side. "They see this as just about money," she says. "I see this as about my child."

Bill Hewitt. Maureen Harrington in L.A.

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