As we close the book on 2014, I find it helpful to evaluate the preceding year for trends that may ultimately impact our firm since historically, January is the most heavily-filled divorce decree month of the year. After enjoying weeks of holiday festivities on the arms of spouses, children and family in concert with holiday hubbub, some find themselves re-evaluating their lives, goals, dreams, and sometimes, even their marriages. Our office phones ring more heavily in January as individuals actively seek out advice on how to manage a divorce as positively and smoothly as possible, and as always, we remain available to help.
Looking at the year past however, it seemed there were even larger numbers of high-profile divorces in 2014. At least one was ascribed to an oil magnate, while Hollywood celebrity or athlete types weren’t far behind (Giada De Laurentiis and Todd Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, etc.) Additionally, the run-of-the-mill Average Joe and Jane divorce began to take a back seat to same-sex divorces, tugging at news headlines in the states where gay marriage is legal and now, divorce laws and properties must be reviewed to accommodate breaks in same sex marital unions.
As our firm is based in New York, we gain our fair share of high profile clientele which occasionally includes a celebrity, athlete or millionaire. What we’ve learned is that high net asset divorces are unique not simply because of finances and custody, but how each state legally handles family law. For example, when Katie Holmes filed for divorce from Tom Cruise in 2012, she filed in the state of New York. Although the couple often split time between California and New York, under New York’s Custody Enforcement Act, sole custody can be awarded if residence in the state has been established in the past six months. Holmes, who had taken up residence in New York with her daughter Suri, was seeking sole custody, while her husband Tom Cruise, sought joint custody. Generally, New York courts do not order joint custody if the parties have an acrimonious relationship, and joint custody is typically arrived only when both parents agree to it. Therefore, the finer details of how each state court handles legal matters such as custody, can certainly play an important role.
The actual decision to divorce ultimately becomes the great equalizer between celebrity and the common man. Celebrity couples not only have the typical woes of divorce circling above them, but more complex concerns relative to individual and coupled assets, real estate and children (custody). In addition, they must also face the emotional distress and upheaval associated with terminating a marriage – stress that is often further exacerbated by intense public scrutiny. Yet, the premise of divorce remains the same for all couples. Just as marriage is a legally binding contract, so is the decision to terminate it. The complexity of each case is truly what defines it.
The most unusual portrayal of this past year’s celebrity divorces was the ‘conscious uncoupling’ of actress Gwyneth Paltrow and musician/singer husband, Chris Martin. The sheer number of headlines, spoofs and viral videos which emerged after the pair announced their separation proved without a doubt that divorce isn’t just a legal process for celebrities, it’s a public relations challenge in and of itself.
As we send a fond farewell to 2014, we thought it useful to share a few best practice tips for any who may be contemplating dissolution of their marriage:
- Consult with an attorney. We often get asked if couples ‘need’ an attorney to get a divorce. Technically, you do not. You are free to represent yourself if you wish. However, if your spouse has an attorney, you will be at a severe disadvantage. In addition, a divorce action involves complex issues of custody, spousal support, child support, equitable distribution and enhanced earnings which would make it extremely difficult to resolve on your own. We therefore recommend consulting with an attorney, if for no other reason, to better understand the process, forms, laws and expectations associated with the decision.
- Prepare for the court of ‘public opinion.’ Aside from family and friends (and sometimes, the press), there will be of course various external audiences to be mindful of when a decision to divorce is made including your children’s school administrators/teachers, work colleagues, utility and phone companies, as well as a host of others. Some may simply appreciate your sharing the information, while others may sear you with unpalatable and unwanted questions. The best defense is a good and proper offense. While we often assist our clients by arming them with answers, the most optimal response to unwanted conjecture is: “This is an overwhelming time for me/our family, and all we ask is your understanding and patience as we navigate the situation to the best of our ability.” Most people don’t want to intrude. They instead wish to help. Let them know that the best way to help is simply to give you the space or support you need.
- Differentiate emotion from process. Clearly, the decision to terminate a marriage isn’t an easy one, and one frequently riddled with intense emotion. Acrimonious divorces can cause emotional bloodshed and our advice is to do all you can to look past the emotion and focus instead on the process. Marriage is legally binding, so ‘unbinding’ takes time and paperwork—a lot of each. One single decision may hinge on another, so preparing yourself to focus more on the process rather than the emotion ultimately makes the situation easier to mitigate.
*The information contained in this blog is presented as general information and is not to be construed as legal advice to apply to any person or particular situation. Please keep in mind that the law is constantly changing and therefore you should always consult an attorney for legal advice based on the individual circumstances of your situation.