The newspapers today only seem to have one focus, the ‘Brangelina’ split, and not unexpectedly their stories are light on content and heavy on photos of a very glamourous couple. The lifestyle of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie is gold to editors of tabloid newspapers and no doubt this one will run and run.
But I’m a divorce lawyer, so I’m looking at the sad breakup of this marriage from a rather different angle. Yesterday I mentioned the custody angle and I was pretty disapproving of the confrontational tone that has been set from the get-go, something which I believe is in neither of their interests.
Today I’m taking a different position. It’s fascinating to me, this marriage, because it’s been so very short. They haven’t been married anywhere near as long as you may think. These high profile Hollywood superstars who have filled the pages of our tabloids many times over the years actually only married two years ago in France. They lived together for around nine years beforehand and if this was an English case, I’d have said it’s a damn good job for Ms Jolie that they did eventually marry (making a marital hat-trick for her). As a cohabitee, she would only have been entitled to her own assets when leaving that relationship. As he is reputedly twice as wealthy as her, she might not have been too happy about that, given most people regard them now as a joint “brand” with all the ownership implications that come with that.
We jealously protect the difference between divorce settlements and the end of cohabitating relationships. There is no specific law in this country aimed at couples who live together, although there is some protection in Scotland. Even in more liberal California, cohabitees don’t do anywhere near well as divorcees in a financial settlement. On divorce, if there isn’t a pre nup, in the Sunshine State an equal split of community property applies, but kept separate are what we would call on this side of the Atlantic “non matrimonial assets” and the income from those assets. Therefore assets belonging to one party prior to the marriage would fall into that category.
But given the length of premarital cohabitation and the earnings and assets of the parties which were rolled up, how easy would all that be to prove here?
This divorce will actually require an army of professionals to establish values and then divide up the spoils. Commercial and company lawyers will be called in – not just family lawyers, as well as valuers, accountants and tax advisers, all dealing with assets in different countries. And this situation may get even worse if disclosure throws up deficiencies (financial shortfalls). It will be an expensive process and judging from how it has begun, with nasty allegations about Brad Pitt surfacing already, it will be ugly as well. But it’s all likely to result in a very substantial settlement for Ms Jolie, especially if Brad Pitt is keen to close down all those career-damaging allegations as fast as he can. The latter issue, by the way, would not be such a concern over here in England. On this side of the Atlantic, an injunction would be put in place very quickly and any breach of that could cost the other party a lot of money.
Had the couple not married though, Angelina would have been in a very different legal situation and certainly would not have been able to set in train such a mammoth divorce.
And that’s the fascinating bit. I’m a subscriber to the truism that “leopards don’t change their spots”. It’s hard to believe that Mr Pitt has suddenly morphed into a different personality, unfit to parent his children, over the last two years. Ms Jolie had plenty of time to assess his character and must have known over the long period before their marriage what he was like. So why marry him?
Sometimes lawyers must give clients personal advice on the current state of the law – because that is their job. Making moral judgements, however, isn’t. So I have some very wealthy but cohabiting clients who regularly contact me to ask whether the law has changed and whether I’d still advise them not to marry. Readers know I advocate frequently for cohabitation law in England but in such instances I’m advising a client. I give those clients the advice I do not because I’m anti-marriage, but because I know a divorce could be finally disastrous for them. Cohabitation seamlessly moving into a marriage is taken into account in English law, and will most likely increase a pay-out. So my advice as a lawyer to those unmarried clients has to be clear: don’t get married.
Sometimes too I’m approached by the less wealthy person in a cohabiting relationship, someone who isn’t happy and is thinking of leaving. My advice is tailored accordingly. I tell them that if they leave the relationship as a spouse, there may be a significant pay-out, but if they do so as a cohabitee there’ll be nothing at all. I tell them that they would do better getting married and taking stock and if things still don’t work out, leaving then. In other words, get a divorce and a fair settlement that reflects the years they have put into the relationship.
I’m not saying Ms Jolie planned her third marriage to get divorced – but it’s not unknown for people to do this. I’ve had cases where this argument has been raised against my clients too.
There may be another factor at play here. Sometimes couples who were perfectly happy living together, knowing that they can leave at any time, simply can’t stand the pressure of being legally “shackled”. Statistics show that a long cohabitation may not survive a marriage. What worked well as a cohabitation floundered after the wedding.
So, irrespective of the gossip and the unpleasant allegations across the tabloids this morning, much more interesting for me as a divorce lawyer is why this marriage only lasted two years.
I’m waiting to see what happens next. On Radio LBC this morning presenter Nick Ferrari asked me whether I thought the finances would settle. I think they probably will, although a hell of a lot of water will flow under the bridge before then.