Public figures and divorce
Discretion and capable guidance are crucial for highly visible individuals
Like many people, public figures get divorced with some frequency. Unfortunately, because of the public’s interest, highly-visible people and their families are often subjected to increased scrutiny during an already difficult time. Those who are highly visible should consider a few important points before proceeding into the challenging territory of divorce.
- Courts are public forums: Except in certain limited circumstances, any member of the public can attend hearings and review court files. Few people would like others to know the details of their divorce, especially details relating to the demise of their marital relationship, sensitive financial matters, business matters or parenting.
Damaging allegations about personal and business matters may surface during the course of divorce litigation, which is one of the many reasons most public figures resolve their divorces outside of court. If a matter is litigated, absent a protective order, documents concerning sensitive personal and business matters may be accessible to competitors, business contacts, colleagues, employees, friends, family and the general public.
- Confidentiality agreements or protective orders may afford some privacy: Confidentiality agreements and protective orders are means to protect sensitive information from public review during the divorce process. Upon request, the court may decide to protect or seal all of the file, some of it or none of it. In cases generating significant public interest, it is not uncommon for the courts to receive such a request, particularly relating to parenting plans, as the safety of children should outweigh the public’s interest.
Confidentiality agreements are often employed to memorialize agreements to restrict sharing of or access to sensitive information. Such agreements specifically detail what information cannot be released. Some agreements govern the means by which such information can be reviewed, shared within the litigation and maintained.
- Alternative dispute resolution is the best option: The vast majority of public figures resolve their divorces through a private and confidential dispute resolution process, specifically negotiation, mediation, collaborative process or arbitration. When the parties and attorneys agree upon such a process at the outset, a divorce can be handled from start to finish outside of court. In such cases, only the most basic documents, devoid of allegations and harmful content, are available in the public file.
- Choose excellent counsel and trust counsel’s advice: It is important to choose counsel early and well. Choosing counsel early can avoid critical early missteps that could influence the outcome of a case. Choosing counsel well ensures competency, client confidence, a cooperative relationship and avoids the perils of switching counsel later in the case.
It is important that counsel for both parties understand the important issues, including the involved businesses or other interests, sources of income and unique concerns of the parties. Counsel should be someone with a strong reputation, whom the client trusts, likes and with whom they are comfortable. If the client hopes for a private resolution of the case, counsel should support that goal, rather than advocating for a litigated public spectacle.
- Sometimes divorce is a team sport: The divorce of a public figure often requires collaboration with several other professionals. Public figures often have a team of professionals who are trusted, knowledgeable and critically important to them. In some cases, the professional team may know important facts better than the involved parties. Such professionals are often important members of the team, but counsel must also consider preservation of the attorney-client privilege to protect the client on sensitive matters.
- Exercise extreme caution in discussing the divorce: Regardless of visibility, parties should avoid public discussions of their divorce, especially disparagement of those involved on social media. Discussions should be limited to a small and trusted circle. All others who inquire should be redirected (i.e. “that is not something I wish to discuss” or “no comment”). It is often best to memorize a bland, short statement that can be consistently repeated so that there is no variation in the explanation. In general, if there is less available information, a divorce will receive less attention.
However, in many high-profile cases, information finds its way into the public realm through social media, gossip, eavesdropping, family or acquaintances with poor discretion or the like, so it is important to be selective about the few people who will receive greater detail.
Since public figures and their families are particularly vulnerable during the divorce process, discretion and capable guidance are crucial. Consideration of the points outlined above before proceeding with a divorce can minimize stress and complications in a difficult time.
Margaret Kerouac of the law firm of Orr & Reno is a family law attorney who specializes in high-asset and complex divorce cases. She can be reached at 603-223-9151 or firstname.lastname@example.org.