Divorce can be a messy experience – especially when the husband is facing harassment charges. If the topic of divorce comes up, how are the wives of Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein and Garrison Keillor going to safeguard their part of the marital estate?
“It’s important to act fast in divorces involving serial harassers,” advises New York City divorce attorney, Dror Bikel. “Harassers’ wives and victims could have competing rights to the marital estate. Wives need to work to protect their share of the assets and of the funds available for spousal and child support from judgements and liens against their husbands.”
Here are a few more tips on how women like Annette Roque, Georgina Chapman and Jenny Lind Nilsson can avoid becoming collateral damage.
1. Don’t expect harassment allegations to determine child custody
Can Ex-Today Show Host Matt Lauer really be trusted to parent children Jack (16), Romy (14) and Thijs (11) after being accused of sexual abuse by multiple women? After all, he may be engaging in unlawful conduct, perhaps criminal conduct.
Wife Annette Roque may feel she has child custody in the bag when it comes to their divorce. Not necessarily.
“Somebody can be a complete jerk in the workplace and still be an excellent father,” said Bikel.
“At the end of the day, a wife can make the argument that her husband is a harasser, but the truth is, the judges may not care if they otherwise have good parenting skills,” he said. “One doesn’t necessarily have to do with the other.”
Instead, wives must prepare to support their child custody claims as in any divorce, examining time spent with the child, school and family locations, and potential for supporting the child’s development through life.
2. Don’t pay for husbands’ liabilities
If Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor has to pay $20 million to his accuser, does this mean wife Jenny Lind Nilsson gets docked $20 million in a divorce settlement? Sorry harassing husbands, but no.
If Keillor has a $50 million estate, Nilsson should get half of the $50 million (or her portion depending on jurisdiction), not half of the remaining $30 million. Keillor has to bear that $20 million out of his part of the marital money, not his wife’s.
“When the husband is engaging in conduct that is unlawful and that activity was outside the marriage, it should be a debt that comes out of his share of the pot,” said Bikel. “That’s going to be a winning argument.”
3. Recover money cheating husband spent on girlfriends
What if Matt Lauer not only harassed a co-worker, but also spent thousands flying her around to exotic locations, wining and dining and buying her expensive jewelry? Does wife Annette Roque have a right to recover the money he spent on his girlfriend.
Yes, according to Bikel. “Regarding the concept of martial waste, if a husband buys his girlfriend gifts and spends money on hotels, he is using marital money outside of the marriage,” he said. “The wife should get credit. The husband has to put that money back, then the wife gets her half of that total.”
4. Get divorced as fast as possible, before estate dwindles
It may be tempting to stick by your husband through his harassment trial and wait to see what happens. After all, you still believe he could be innocent. But use wise judgement here.
If your marital estate is worth $50 million, and the court awards the harassment victims a sum total of $10 million, you get a split of the remaining $40 million, not the original $50 million.
“If you are the wife, you want to get divorced as soon as possible, because that money is going to be gone,” said Bikel. “Particularly if it’s a serial harasser like Lauer or Weinstein. You want to get divorced fast. Once you are divorced, it’s your money. Nobody can claw that back.”
5. Know your husband’s legal defenses
Husbands who are charged with harassment have an arsenal of surprisingly powerful defenses they can pull out in divorce cases. Lauer may claim the $45,000 week-long trip to St. Barts was for business purposes (not for wooing his latest victim).
Weinstein may say wife Chapman knew all along that they had an open relationship. ‘Newsflash, I cheated with you on my former wife. So don’t get all high and mighty and say this was not known and I was outside the marriage. You implicitly consented to it.’
Harvey can also say he hasn’t committed any crimes or been convicted of any crimes. ‘Just because Asia Argento goes on Twitter and says I assaulted her doesn’t make it true.’
These and other such defenses can be quite successful if the wife doesn’t obtain an experienced trial lawyer and litigator specializing in family law to help protect her assets in divorce.
6. Put a lien on cash to take precedence over future creditors
What if your too late? What if Weinstein is already ordered to pay up and judgement creditors are knocking on the door? Is there a procedural way for Chapman to put a lien on half the cash that would take precedence over future judgement creditors?
Chapman may be able to secure a restraining order preventing Harvey from dissipating the assets. The wife and victim of the harassment have competing rights to the estate, and the Judge is likely to consider the size of the estate itself in deciding who gets what.
Say it’s a $100 million estate. The judgement is for $10 million to the victim of the harassment. The judge may let that $10 million go to the victim under the theory that there is plenty of money in the martial estate to fight over that credit.
In this case, the wife is not prejudiced because she can still get the $10 million out of the estate.
“Once the marital estate starts to dissipate, it becomes an issue,” said Bikel. “If there not enough money to go around, then you have competing creditors. The matrimonial judge may restrain payments to victims of harassment if there’s not enough money.”
7. Create a trust or advance settle to secure child custody
We’ve got little Weinstein babies out there. And like we said, whatever Harvey is doing at work, he could still be a great father. Both parents want to take care of their kids, but they see potential financial Armageddon coming their way.
A smart way Weinstein and Chapman can ensure children India Pearl (8) and Dashiell (6) have everything they need is to settle child custody and to distribute the assets between them, so that the wife’s assets are not subject to judgement creditors or criminal fines.
Another method is to create a trust for the children. But the question then becomes, are you now unlawfully conveying money in anticipation of a lawsuit? Is the trust going to holdup?
“In divorces, trusts can be broken, especially when people put money into trusts without the other sides knowledge or consent, or when the trust money is locked up by some provision,” explained Bikel.
“Let’s say you put $50 million in a startup and can only retrieve it in the event that the startup, ten years from now, makes half a billion dollars,” he said. “This $50 million is not going to be effective as a child trust because you’ve locked it up in a subscription agreement. It may be viewed as a fraudulent conveyance to avoid other legal obligations.”
“When it’s clearly for the benefit of children, it will be harder to untangle and break the trust,” said Bikel.
Dror Bikel is a New York City trial lawyer and litigator specializing in family law, custody, paternity, equitable distribution and child and spousal support.