By Jennifer M. Paine
Attorney, Cordell & Cordell, P.C.
Break out the paparazzi and the popcorn; it’s time for another celebrity divorce drama. I will venture to guess that celebrity divorces are the second most followed legal event in Hollywood, second only to celebrity DUIs accompanied with the occasional rehab check-in, Barbara Walters interview and/or charge for picking up a prostitute (witness: Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears and Hugh Grant). At least it seems so to divorce attorneys like me who, I candidly admit, watch Entertainment Tonight and glance at the headlines in the tabloids – cringing while “lawyers” give divorcing celebrities and their fans legal advice on air and in print. Most of them look and sound reputable. They wear black suits and glasses. They are well groomed. They reference “statutes” and “codes” and “court procedure” in monologues purportedly telling those celebrities what to do, and those fans all they need to know about “the law.”
Speculation over the state of Tiger Woods’s relationship with wife Elin Nordegren is no different. Search “Tiger Woods and divorce” online, and you will find a storm of articles purportedly telling Woods how to preserve his marriage or end it with money left in his pocket and a reasonable amount of parenting time. You might read these for entertainment value (as I said, I do). The problem is, their advice is not all you need to know about the law – it is devoid of factual context and, worse still, often laden with myths.
Myth 1: If it hadn’t happened . . . .
The news has been swamped lately with stories about Woods’s secret life, and it seems that new mistresses emerge every day. According to the Herald Sun, Woods deserted a Masters gala dinner at the Crown Towers Hotel during his Melbourne visit last month to meet party girl Rachel Uchitel, while his mother dined with Premier John Brumby. Uchitel is but one of the alleged mistresses. A voicemail circulating online from LA cocktail waitress Jaimee Grubb’s cell phone is purportedly of Woods pleading with her to “take your name off your phone [because] my wife went through my phone and may be calling you.” These are but a few examples.
Celebrity lawyers point to these transgressions as “the basis” for a divorce. Talking about them at length makes for great television, but it is misleading. In most states, there is no need to prove a “basis” for divorce, other than that the marriage is irretrievably broken. That is, one spouse need not prove the other spouse cheated or is otherwise at fault for the marriage’s breakdown. Divorce in the United States is almost exclusively no-fault, and in those few states that consider “fault” as a basis for divorce, fault is more a formality than the be-all-end-all of the case.
Parties are often confused about the part fault plays in a divorce. Each state has different rules, and you should consult a lawyer in your state for the rules specific to your case. In general, however, fault is a mere formality for obtaining a divorce. In Michigan, where I practice, for example, the party filing for divorce must only allege that there has been a breakdown in the marriage relationship to the extent the objects of matrimony have been destroyed and there remains no reasonable likelihood of reconciliation. Period. Nothing more. In fact, most judges will not even let the parties testify about who was “more at fault” for this breakdown to grant the divorce.
This is not to say that fault is completely irrelevant. Most states will consider fault when dividing property and ordering child custody. In Michigan, for example, fault is relevant if the fault is related to marital property (e.g., one spouse secretly incurred debt to fuel a gambling addiction). Fault is also relevant if it reflects on parenting (e.g., one spouse deserted the children for a lover).
Myth 2: Staying together is better for the children.
According to People magazine, Nordegren plans to stay married to Woods for the sake of the couple’s children, Sam, age 2, and Charlie, age 10 months. “She’s a child of divorce and that’s not something she’s likely going to want to do” to them, a friend told the magazine. She reportedly does not want to divorce because she does not want the children to be the product of a divorced family. Nordegren herself is from a divorced family, as her parents separated when she was 6 years old.
But is it always better to stay together? No. Even anti-divorce advocates like Archibald D. Hart, author of Helping Children Survive Divorce, admit that, in certain circumstances, divorce is better for children. If you are in a domestic violence relationship, for example, separating from your spouse is better for you and your children. Peter G. Jaffe, joint-author of Child Custody & Domestic Violence, reports that children who witness abuse are hampered in their social and school development, internalize anger, suffer anxiety, depression and insomnia, and use aggressive, unpopular strategies in interpersonal problem solving at significantly higher rates than their peers whose parents have divorced.
You should consult the counseling resources in your area to learn what assistance is available to you. If you are a victim of domestic violence, you should seek refuge immediately. If you are religious, you might consider speaking to your worship leader. Know that the ultimate decision to divorce is yours, but divorce does not necessarily wreak havoc on your children. It is possible for you and your children to live happily after divorce.
(Part 2 of this series will appear on Tuesday.)
Jennifer M. Paine is an Associate Attorney in the Detroit, Michigan office of Cordell & Cordell P.C. She is licensed to practice in Michigan, and has been admitted pro hac vice in Illinois, Ohio, and the United States Court of Federal Claims. Ms. Paine received her BA in English and Mathematics from Albion College and graduated Summa Cum Laude. She received her Juris Doctorate from MSU College of Law and graduated Summa Cum Laude.