And you think you've got tax problems?

A judge in California has issued a preliminary ruling that heirs of financier J. Paul Getty must pay a whopping $1.1 billion in capital-gains tax out of interest income from the $4.1 billion proceeds of the sale of the family's Getty Oil Co. to Texaco Inc.

But according to a lawyer in the case, the ruling is a little vague and doesn't even begin to answer other questions about exactly who should foot the Getty family's tax bill.

The Gettys are feuding over the disposition of the $4.1 billion that the family trust -- the Sarah C. Getty Trust, named after J. Paul Getty's mother -- received as its share of Texaco's $10.1 billion takeover of Getty Oil. One side of the family has argued that the capital-gains tax on the money should be paid out of the principal of the trust, while the other side has argued that the taxes should come from the trust's interest income. Each side has its own reasons for its suggested method of payment -- some Getty family members already are benefitting from interest income, while others eventually will divvy up the principal under provisions of the trust.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Richard P. Byrne issued a memorandum to lawyers in the case on Monday, saying "it appears to the court that the . . . trustee [is required] to pay the capital gains taxes when due and payable from income, to the extent that there is income available to pay taxes, and the balance from principal."

But Moses Lasky, an attorney for Gordon Getty, son of the late billionaire and sole trustee of the family trust, said yesterday that the judge has not yet made it clear exactly where the line must be drawn between tax payments from interest income and from principal. The annual interest income on the trust is about $300 million a year, hardly enough to pay the whole tab of $800 million in federal taxes and $300 million in state taxes. "The income for no one year is going to be enough to pay those taxes," Lasky said in a telephone interview.

Lasky said he hopes that the judge will make the distinction clearer when his final order in the case is made in a few weeks -- hopefully in plenty of time for the Gettys to make the tax-filing deadline.

Still to be answered, however, are a variety of other questions about the future of the trust, including where the money can be invested, whether Gordon Getty can be replaced as trustee, and whether he, as sole trustee, should be required to pay all of the capital-gains taxes himself -- the contention of a group of his nieces who opposed the sale of the family oil company. The latter case will be heard, appropriately enough, beginning on April 15.

"When you've got people with an interest in a hell of a lot of money, they find a lot to fight about," Lasky said.