Johnny Depp has been making films since the mid-1980s, and whilst views may differ (even within this office!) on his acting abilities, I think it’s undeniable that all those years in the limelight have taught him the value of looking like a film star. He swaggers down the red carpet at film premieres in a cloud of cigar smoke, bristling with rings and tattoos, part Keith Richards and part Errol Flynn.
Now 52, Depp was briefly married in his youth but the couple quickly went their separate ways. In 1998, following a number of other high profile relationships, he set up home with French singer and model Vanessa Paradis. The pair had two children, ran a vineyard near Saint-Tropez and spent 14 years together, but, for whatever reason, never married.
Then in 2012, Depp began another relationship, dating actress and model Amber Heard, who at 30, is more than 22 years his junior. Just like Vanessa Paradis, he met her on a film set and this May-to-December romance eventually turned into marriage in February last year.
But Depp’s second marriage ended up generating headlines for wrong reasons. Just months after the ceremony the couple were accused of not declaring her two Yorkshire terriers to Australian customs after flying down under in a private jet. They ended up accepting a deal with prosecutors which included them recording an apology for the incident. The tense and stilted one minute video caused much hilarity on social media.
And now, according to news reports, it’s suddenly all over, just 15 months after they tied the knot. Heard has filed for divorce at Los Angeles Superior Court, citing ‘irreconcilable differences’ – the phrase routinely used for marriage breakdown in California, which, unlike the UK, is a ‘no fault’ divorce jurisdiction. Meanwhile, The Independent reports, Depp has been consulting expensive divorce attorneys.
As a result, the phones have been ringing, journalists eager to consult me on likely developments. They seem especially interested to know whether the soon-to-be ex Mrs Depp is likely to win spousal maintenance. That’s a hot topic over here at the moment, and the prevailing wind is to limit it as much as possible.
So whilst of course, it’s early days yet and we cannot know what will happen as the case continues, to an English attorney it seems highly unlikely. This was a very short marriage and they had no children. And there is plenty of capital to split. Spousal maintenance – in this jurisdiction at least – is only paid when there isn’t enough money for a ‘clean break’ between the spouses.
So as I explained to the journalists, how would it work if the London court, just a stone’s throw from my offices in London, England, heard the case?
No one will be surprised to hear that Depp bought significant non-matrimonial wealth into the marriage: his total fortune is thought to be around $400 million (roughly £273 million). But Heard is no slouch in the earnings department either: at 30, she has already accumulated a fortunate estimated at $14 million and is clearly quite capable of earning plenty more. She is still young and bankable. So a lot of their individual assets would likely be ‘ring-fenced’ (protected from division on divorce),given the substantial funds generated during the marriage. Depp’s earnings during the brief time they were together also run into the millions of dollars so she could legitimately claim half of those at least. And he could claim half of hers. But is that how it would end?
The relevant legislation in England and Wales is now, for some at least, the long-in-the-tooth Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 or ‘MCA’. The needs of each partner are a key consideration for the courts under this act: how much does each partner need to maintain their lifestyles after the separation? How much does each have and how much can each reasonably be expected to earn going forward? The ages of the parties and the length of the marriage are two magnetic factors. Matters of behaviour or misconduct are rarely raised or successful when they are. The starting point would be an equal split of matrimonial capital, it’s a moot point whether it would stop there, as no doubt Depp would argue for a departure from equality.
Sometimes judges do decide to reward brief marriages with sizeable settlements, acting within the bounds of the discretion given to them by the law. The best known example perhaps is the 2006 case of Miller v Miller. which reached the House of Lords, (now the Supreme Court), such was the husband’s dissatisfaction with the outcome. Here was a classic marriage of this type: very short, childless, a husband who brought substantial wealth with him unlike the wife. Somewhat controversially, the wife ended up with an award of £5 million, principally because the husband’s wealth had increased substantially during the short time they were together. The assets were variously valued at over £20m to £30m. Even so it seems a huge amount of money for a very short marriage and I wonder if the outcome might be the same today. Perhaps.
Unlike many other countries, English divorce law gives judges significant leeway, or ‘judicial discretion’ as it is termed: they are not bound by rigid formulae and can mould their decisions to the unique circumstances of each case. Sometimes those circumstances favour the wealthy party – if, for example, much of that wealth predates the marriage, or one party introduced an already substantial earning capacity into the marriage, formed long before it took place. Alternatively, one party may be considered to have made a “stellar” or genius contribution to the wealth.
Spousal maintenance which Heard is rumoured to also be seeking, is an emotive topic, but there’s no doubt that marriage can leave some partners economically disadvantaged, especially if the couple were together for a lengthy period. So it is only right that their rights are protected under law. But the MCA is not about simply setting up one partner as the recipient of unending financial support from the other. Judges are in fact, and contrary to popular belief, mandated to focus on establishing the financial independence of the parties as soon as they can. England is not automatically a ‘lifetime alimony’ jurisdiction and where there is enough capital to buy out a valid spousal support claim – i.e. pay a lump sum instead of ongoing support – that is what happens.
Parallels to Depp v Heard are obvious. Of course, we must not forget that their divorce will take place in California, under US matrimonial law, and surprisingly there was no prenup. But what if there had been one? Such agreements might be seen as cast iron in LA, but here in England they are only another (perhaps very strong) argument to take into account when dividing the assets.
So, who knows? In an era when our legal system seems to be tightening up on big payouts, it is just possible that someone in Johnny Depp’s position could end up doing much better in the English divorce courts, for all their supposed generosity to wives!