MILAN, Italy — A court in Turin is set to rule in the coming weeks on an inheritance dispute dividing the Agnelli family, the founders of the Fiat car company and arguably the best known of Italy’s business dynasties.
The case stems from the estate of Gianni Agnelli, the celebrated Fiat boss who was a symbol of Italy’s post-war economic boom and who died two decades ago.
It pits Agnelli’s daughter Margherita, who inherited 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion), against three of her eight children including her eldest, John Elkann, the chairman of Ferrari and carmaker Stellantis.
In the dispute that has riven one of Italy’s elite families, Margherita is fighting to overturn agreements she signed after her father’s death in order to eventually benefit her five children from a second marriage, sources close to her say.
Should the Turin court decide in her favor, Margherita, who is 67 and Gianni Agnelli’s only surviving child, could stake a claim to half of her late mother’s estate and a share in the Elkann family business.
The center of the dispute
The dispute has its origins in an inheritance deal known as the “Geneva pacts” that Margherita, an artist and philanthropist, signed in 2004 after the death of her father the previous year and agreed to when Fiat was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Under the first pact, Margherita received property, works of art and other liquid assets from Gianni’s estate and renounced any future influence in the Dicembre (December) company, a key part of the ownership structure of Exor, the Agnelli-family holding.
The pacts cemented John Elkann’s position as Gianni Agnelli’s chosen successor and effectively took his mother Margherita out of the equation.
John Elkann, 47, now leads Exor, which owns slices of prestigious businesses and brands including national newspapers and the soccer club Juventus.
The second pact covered what would happen to the estate of Margherita’s mother Marella, who died in 2019 aged 91.
Marella passed her Dicembre stake to three of her grandchildren, John, his brother Lapo and sister Ginevra, from Margherita’s first marriage to journalist Alain Elkann.
Margherita wants the pacts to be rescinded to be able to give her children with second husband Serge De Pahlen, a Franco-Russian former Fiat executive, a share of their grandmother’s estate, sources close to her say.
Margherita also argues that undeclared wealth belonging to her father was discovered after his death and that she is entitled to a share of this along with other family members.
A source on Margherita’s side dismissed suggestions that the initial settlement covered the possibility of additional hidden assets being found from Gianni Agnelli’s estate.
Switzerland or Italy?
Marella’s death prompted the legal claim that is at the center of the case that opened three years ago in Turin, the home of Fiat and traditional base for the Agnelli clan.
It is the latest in a series of court battles over the inheritance, spread between Switzerland and Italy over the past 15 years.
Margherita’s lawyers in Turin argue that the “Geneva pacts” should be declared null and void because they were signed on the basis that Marella’s residence was in Switzerland, which they dispute. Italian law prohibits such inheritance pacts.
Documents filed by Margherita’s lawyers with the court of Turin, which have been reviewed by Reuters and include reports by private investigators, claim that from 2003 to 2019 Marella never spent more than four months a year in Switzerland and should not have qualified as a Swiss resident.
Sources close to the Elkann camp maintain that both the Swiss and the Italian authorities confirmed Marella Agnelli’s status as a Swiss resident when she died in 2019 and also in 2004 when the inheritance agreement was signed.
The source on Margherita’s side disputes that interpretation.
Shares in the firm
Following Marella’s death, John Elkann has a 60% share of the Dicembre holding while brother Lapo and sister Ginevra each have 20%. Dicembre is at the heart of a web of companies spanning the vast Agnelli family investments.
It is the largest shareholder, with a 38% stake, in Giovanni Agnelli BV, which groups around 100 shareholders representing around 200 living descendants of original Fiat founder Giovanni Agnelli.
Giovanni Agnelli BV in turn has a 53% controlling stake in listed Exor, which owns stakes in Stellantis, Ferrari and Juventus.
The sources close to the Elkanns maintain there is no legal outcome that can reverse the transfer of the shares in Dicembre to the Elkanns. The claims of Margherita seek to obtain unwarranted further financial advantage, they say.
A verdict is due in Turin before the summer break but it might not be an end to an affair that has left Margherita estranged from her first three children.
The Italian judges have the option of suspending judgment pending a ruling from a Swiss court in a parallel case on the legality of the Geneva pacts.