Lessons from Celebrity Divorce for the Non-Famous

Celebrity Divorce Lawyer Christopher C. Melcher for Divorce and Beyond Podcast

[Source: Divorce & Beyond Podcast]

Celebrity Lawyer Christopher C. Melcher, who is ranked as a best family law attorney in California, breaks down lessons from celebrity divorce for the non-famous.


Susan Guthrie:

Hello and welcome to the Divorce and Beyond podcast. I’m Susan Guthrie, your host. As a top divorce attorney and family law mediator for 30 years, I know what you need to know to get through your divorce and most importantly, how to move beyond it to thrive and transition to your new future. My experts and I are here to give you the insider view into the process. So listen in for the wisdom and expert information you need on your journey through divorce and beyond.

Hello, listeners. I want to introduce you to this special end of the year double episode. I am joined again by celebrity lawyer Christopher Melcher. He is back with me and we are talking today in this special two-part episode about Breaking Up Like The Stars, lessons you can learn from celebrity splits for the non-famous. And again, I’m joined by top family law attorney Christopher Melcher, partner of Walzer Melcher Yoda LLP-which is ranked as a best family law firm in California. So listen in and you’ll hear all kinds of interesting and good stuff this week.

And then tune in next week on December 25th for the second half of this really informative behind-the-scenes look of celebrity divorces. And listeners, I have one of our former guests with us again, you remember Attorney Christopher Melcher. He joined us back, oh God, Chris, it’s about two years ago when the Free Britney movement was all over the news.

You joined us for an episode, Essential Lessons from the Free Britney movement, and you’re back again. Chris and I ran into each other actually several months ago at the American Bar Association Family Law Sections Conference where we were both speaking and I said, “I need to get you back on.” And it just took a little while with both our schedules. But I’m loving this topic because it’s something that my listeners know I bring up all the time and post about on social media a lot.

We’re going to be talking about lessons from celebrity splits for the non-famous with Chris Melcher, who is a celebrity divorce attorney. In fact, your main clientele I believe are celebrities, tech founders, executives of public companies, really high-profile folks. You’re a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, AAML.

And importantly, because we’re going to touch on this topic, you wrote one of the leading books on premarital agreements for practitioners. So we’re going to dive in because Chris has some behind the scenes, behind the curtain sort of insights on what you listeners can learn from all those cases you love to read about in the headlines. So thank you so much for coming back, Chris.

Christopher Melcher:

Well, thanks for having me, Susan. And this is a topic that I’m really interested in because as practitioners here, we are assisting people going through very difficult times in their life. And what I found is that we’re all the same. I mean, certainly there are celebrities who have lots of money and support systems that other folks don’t have, but I have noticed differences between the ways that celebrities have handled their cases and the rest of us have done that, looked at best practices really from that and what we can learn and actually applying concrete steps for anyone else that’s going through a divorce so that we can do things the best that we can.

Susan Guthrie:

You mentioned the topic and I immediately jumped on it because one of the things that I’m always emphasizing to my listeners is that we see all these sensationalized headlines all the time about celebrity divorces, yet we know that very often they work quite hard to keep their divorces amicable, to keep them sort of out of the news.

And so much of what we see in the media is either sensationalized or frankly made up to a certain degree or inferred. And I think that’s something right there that people can learn and that I know that you deal with when you are dealing with your celebrity clients is that much of what actually happens does not happen in the public eye. Isn’t that right?

What’s Hard in Celebrity Divorce


Christopher Melcher:

Yeah, that’s right. What’s hard for celebrities and where they have some difficulties compared to everyone else is that their divorce is going to be news. Now, of course, for all of us, any person going through breakup, there is news there, but it’s in their circle. So their circle is their family, their friends, their co-workers, and that’s going to be a big event that’s going to be shared around and people are going to talk about.

Now, celebrities, it’s at scale. So certainly their own inner circle knows, but then everyone else in the world knows or is talking about it. And because of the pressures of the media to get clicks, there is a really insatiable demand for these stories and also to be first to publish. And as a media commentator, as my kind of side job, we’re seeing that these stories break and we’re getting out there with comments immediately and with limited information.

And so kind of reading tea leaves, somebody filed a divorce petition, which is check the box form, and now we’re like, “Why’d they check that box instead of another box?” And then rumors become headlines and people read headlines, but they don’t read the story or they don’t check the source.

And so this can be extraordinarily hurtful for a couple going through a divorce, having the normal issues with a breakup that anyone would suffer from, but then to have it publicized. And then for the poor children who are seeing their parents separate, but then also seeing at the grocery store when they’re checking out or every time that they go on their phone seeing pictures and stories about their parents, it is just really devastating for those kids.

Divorce Check the Box Forms


Susan Guthrie:

Yeah. Well, and you’ve mentioned something there that I think most people don’t understand. You mentioned the check the box forms that get filed. And I think this is something that sort of transcends both celebrity divorce and our average Betty and Joe or our more average families going through the process is one that always would cause a lot of consternation I know is when the box is checked for spousal support, even though maybe the couple has talked about the fact that they don’t think there’s is a spousal support case. “Oh, but she’s asking for it” or “She’s asking it not be awarded” or whatever that might be. And a lot of times people don’t realize that it’s pretty form to be checking those boxes when this paperwork gets filed.

Spousal Support and Attorney Fees


Christopher Melcher:

This is a really big concern for all divorces and really where it comes down to is a lack of communication and planning between the divorce attorney or professional and the client. And you’re absolutely right. In celeb cases, the latest one that I can think of was Britney Spears divorce from Sam Asghari. And so when Sam filed for divorce, he checked the box for alimony/spousal support and attorney’s fees.

And I can tell you that every time we have what’s called the out-spouse, so the one that doesn’t have the vast fortune here or control over it, they’re going to check those boxes. They’re going to say, “I want spousal support and I want the other person to pay my attorney’s fees.” That’s standard operating procedure. But the difference here in Sam’s case is they had a prenup where they had waived the right to spousal support.

And so then on social media with Free Britney folks or Britney fans were criticizing Sam saying, “You’re going against the prenup, you’re asking for something, you’re trying to challenge it now.” And all that got read into because the attorney checked the box without thinking about it. And then Sam had to go out and do social media posts and saying, “No, I’m not asking for that. I am following the prenup.”

Hire an Attorney Who Communicates


But because that box got checked incorrectly, he got skewered for days. And like you’re saying, the same thing happens for all clients. When we receive a petition or response from the other side, boxes are checked, we read into this, we get angry, we react. And so my tip here is that if you are going through divorce or planning one, is to hire an attorney who’s going to communicate with you and is going to explain those things and is not going to check boxes on your behalf without checking with you and knowing what the effect of that is.

And if you don’t have a lawyer that’s willing to put in the time for that, then hire somebody else.

Don’t React When Upset


The second tip is don’t react. This is a piece of paper, it’s not going to hurt you and it’s not worth getting upset about, but we can see that people react very quickly and it can put the case in a bad direction. So my tip is that when feeling upset, put it down, take a step back, take a breath, think about it, talk about it. Ultimately, I think nine times out of 10 it’s not worth being upset over.

Susan Guthrie:

Right. And I love that, it’s not worth being upset over. And if people understood ahead of time and were able to communicate, “Hey, the paperwork’s getting filed, let’s talk about it.” I’ve had clients who will even share copies of the paperwork with their spouse before it even gets served so they know what’s coming so that we don’t have this big startling moment. Because as one of my partners told me back when I was a baby lawyer, paper won’t refuse ink. So they can put anything down on the piece of paper. You need to take that deep breath before you overreact or get upset.

Breaking Up Questions to Discuss


Christopher Melcher:

And if you’re anyone here listening to this contemplating a breakup, think about, “How are we going to message this?” And talk to your partner about that and say, “Who are we going to tell first? Who’s the next layer? Can we just post it on social media? Tell me what are your reasons? Why do you think we’re breaking up? I’m going to tell you what my reasons are for why I think we’re breaking up. Are we on the same page on this?”

Susan Guthrie:

One of the things though we know about the headlines and celebrity divorces or maybe that you and I know but listeners might not know, is that very often there is an entire system at work behind the scenes protecting brands because celebrities are their brand, right? That is actual currency that gets them their jobs and they get paid for that.

And you mentioned the out-spouse very often in these celebrity divorces. I mean, we have celebrities like Ben Affleck and Jennifer, J.Lo, right? Two celebrities married to each other. But very often it’s a celebrity married to a non-celebrity. And so there’s a great deal that goes into crafting everything from that perspective of not harming the brand, wouldn’t you say?

What Celebrities Can Control


Christopher Melcher:

Well, that’s it. I mean, if you think about any of these folks, artists, entertainers, public figures who have spent most of their life thinking about how they were going to portray themselves in the public. So they’re very guarded of that, and they want to be known for what they want to be known for, and they have control over that. They have control over what they post.

They have control over publicists that they hire, events that they attend, things that they attach their name to.

What Celebrities Can’t Control

But in a divorce case, it’s completely out of control. This is public record, this is adversarial. We now have an opponent who’s going to say things about the celeb with a media that is like a hawk. The moment that anything’s filed, they’re on it, they’re taking shots, screenshots of that, they’re running with it with headlines and they love it.

So this is now very dangerous to the celeb’s image. That’s the reason why most of these cases settle very quickly. And you might be thinking, “Well, basically every time I open up the news or feed, I’m seeing about some celeb breakup.” Yes, you do, but how many of those cases do you actually see several stories written about rather than the one story that they broke up? Maybe there’s a second story about, “Hey, now they settled.”

That’s the configuration of most of these cases- celeb cases I honestly don’t make a lot of money on because they settle so quickly. Even though they’re large matters, the people who fight are the ones that have lots of money that we’ve never heard of before because they don’t have that concern about their public image like the celeb has. So it really forces a celeb to settle.

We’ve also seen kind of extortionate demands being made sometimes explicitly or sometimes implicitly settle or else. That has to be taken seriously because if they’re getting ready to do a Disney project and all of a sudden now there’s… you could basically imagine what kind of information that this intimate partner has from a long relationship, that project could be in jeopardy.

How to Settle Divorce Quickly


So there is reason to settle very quickly. And the takeaway for the rest of us is, well, if they can settle quickly, why can’t we? This is what has started the kernel of thought in my mind about this show, which is if they can do it, then we can do it. Yes, they have money which helps to hire a bunch of professionals, but ultimately the decision to settle comes from the client and the other side.

So, it’s not a money issue, it’s a decision to resolve the case quickly. And if they can settle these cases that involve vast amounts of money, highly complex legal issues in the course of one or two months, then certainly everyone else who doesn’t have all that complexity in their divorce can do it in the same time.

Susan Guthrie:

And that’s such a good point. I think that bears repeating for people because it truly is the decision to bring your divorce to a settlement, to bring it to an end, to find the way, the path forward is something that is a mental decision. It is not whether you have tons and tons of money or no money, it is whether or not you can emotionally get to a place where you can come to agreements you can live with and move forward.

And there’s another side to this though, and we’ve seen this, I think probably both of us in our careers, we’ve been talking about this from the point of view of the celebrity’s incentive to settle, but there’s also for the non-celebrity in those cases, and this translates to your average listener, doing things in the heat of the moment that harm the breadwinner or harm the person who is the golden goose, so to speak, right? That’s kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face, right?

If you’re going to be waiting for support or child support, spousal support on an ongoing basis, yet you will harm the income earning ability of the person who’s going to be paying that, that’s another reason for the non-celebrity spouse to also not bring those cases or that intimate information as you were mentioning about. But we see people make in the heat of the moment some poor choices sometimes.

Christopher Melcher:

This is the hardest thing to control because obviously there’s a breakup going on and there can be some very raw feelings and especially if somebody got cheated on or abused, and so there’s going to be a natural instinct here to fight back or to have the public see it from this person’s perspective that, “I was wronged.” Selfishly, it would probably feel good to go out and saying like, “Hey, I’m going to tell the world here about this person, this person that projects themselves as being nice is actually horrible.

See these text messages. This person who health and fitness person that’s going around selling people on how to have this really great lifestyle and how centered and balanced they are in their life, here is a video of them fall down drunk.” Sure, in the moment that’s going to feel really good. They’re going to put themselves into this better light by doing so.

Negative Effects of Exposing Exes


But there are definitely downstream effects. So if that person was exposed, the celeb, whatever public figure in that way, then obviously the public is not going to find that person really appetizing anymore and is going to want to stop buying their brand and projects are going to get canceled and streams of income are going to dry up, and that was the money that was going to pay support to this person who got revenge.

Now, hey, if they’re that calculating and they figure, “I don’t need the money, I don’t care about it, whatever,” then fine. But if they actually need the support, which most people I would say actually need the support, whether they’re for themselves or for their kids’ sake, you don’t kill the golden goose. So that again, takes really help of the support group, whether that’s the lawyer, therapist, friends, family, somebody saying, “Hey, you know what? Before you hit send on this message, lets kind of think about this. How is this going to affect you financially?”

Okay. The other thing that I’m doing with folks is, “Okay, fine. You have a need for revenge. You were wronged. The public should know about this person.” So now I’m validating what they feel, “But you have kids together and how is your child going to feel about their parent being exposed like this? How is that going to affect and embarrass them? What are your children’s friends going to think? This is on the internet forever. Have you thought that through?” So that kind of usually that stops the action before it happens.

So this is extremely difficult because a lot of times those messages get sent before anybody can intervene. The damage is done. So what can we learn as mere mortals from that? It’s like, again, it’s a question of scale. We all have our fan group. Okay? And our greatest fans are our family, our friends, our coworkers, future people that we want to work with. These are the people that we’re concerned about maintaining that reputation. And so it doesn’t matter that it’s five people or five million people.

So I think that we got to think that through. If we’re anticipating getting support from this other person, do we really want to damage their ability to make income and therefore pay support? Do we want to damage their reputation so badly that we have now created a very difficult circumstance for our children to survive? And so again, it’s questions of scale. We should all be acting in a dignified way, whether we have a small following or a large following.

Susan Guthrie:

I like that term, “In a dignified way,” because as we know and we’ve worked with so many people going through divorce, it is a very difficult time, and even the best of us can have our emotions take over. And what is it that they say? Criminal attorneys see the worst people at their best behavior and divorce attorneys see the best people in their worst behavior. It’s a very difficult time.

I’ve always told clients, “Don’t hit send before you’ve had taken a deep breath and given yourself the grace of space to really think about.” But I think the most important thing there is the effect upon the children. Because even if you feel better in that moment, your children are not going to feel better that that’s out there and as you say, permanently about their other parent.

And that goes to another point that we see in so many high-profile divorces is almost every one of them starts with an Instagram announcement that they’re putting out a joint statement, carefully crafted, announcing that they’re separating and asking for privacy and moving forward with love, etc.

There have been several of those. I know Hugh Jackman and his wife Deborra-Lee Furness just put that out a couple of weeks ago about their divorce. But as you mentioned, we all have our fan groups and there’s something to learn, I think for your average couple who’s not a celebrity in that messaging as well.

Crafting Public Break Up Messages


Christopher Melcher:

Yeah. I’m always intrigued by these messages into seeing the conscious uncoupling, Gwyneth Paltrow. There’s a lot of examples there. We see them, and I’m very skeptical about these things. I do think there’s lessons to be learned, which I’ll get to, but when I read them, I generally will laugh or kind of read between the lines on these things because first of all, who’s writing these?

Is it truly the couple that sat together at the keyboard and while they literally hate each other and working up this message, or is it really a PR person? And some of it is just so sugary sweet that it’s just unrealistic. And a lot of times I don’t get involved in these message writing, and I wish I would a little bit more because to me, I’d rather just be more direct and honest about it and in nicer words, but basically saying, “Yeah, we hate each other.

We cannot live together. We’re going our separate ways, but we’re going to do this in a respectful way and we want our privacy and…” So at least it just seems a little bit more real than like, “Oh, we love each other and we cherish each other.” Well, then why are you getting divorced?

Susan Guthrie:

Right. Right.

Christopher Melcher:

So there’s always that inconsistency when they try and go too sweet with the message. Now, the thing though that we learned from that, however fake this might’ve been, there was some attempt to think through, “How are we going to deliver this message to the public?” Because it’s hard enough for the couple to come to the decision, or at least one of them that, “Hey, I’m out.” But then almost nobody goes to the extra level of trouble of thinking how we’re going to message it.

A lot of people will do it for the kids, and they’ll think about, “Okay, we’re going to have a joint meeting. We’re going to settle the children together as family. We’re doing this and assure that the children are going to be okay.” And that’s a wonderful thing to do. But most people haven’t thought to the next layer, “What are we going to say to family and friends and how are we going to announce this? How are we going to answer questions?”

And I think that’s super important because couples may start off their separate journey with the thought of that, “Hey, this is all going to be fine and we’re not going to fight, and it’s going to be amicable.” But then when they start hearing feedback like, “Hey, you told this person?” Or “This person’s now saying that I cheated on you” or whatever. Now it’s like they’re in a big fight.

So I think it’s good idea that if you’re anyone here listening to this contemplating a breakup, think about, “How are we going to message this?” And talk to your partner about that and say, “Who are we going to tell first? Who’s the next layer? Can we just post it on social media? When we’re asked questions, why did you break up? Tell me what are your reasons? Why do you think we’re breaking up?

I’m going to tell you what my reasons are for why I think we’re breaking up. Are we on the same page on this?” Is maybe something did happen, maybe there’s a substance abuse problem or a cheating problem, gambling problem, you name it problem. “Are we going to say this or are we going to keep this between us?”

Communication is Key to Settle Divorce


I think getting on the same page on that, because what I tell my clients is, and I have some standard questions in these initial interviews, but one of them is like, “How are you getting along? Do you communicate? Do you have a line of communication?” And, “Oh, yeah, yeah, we do.” And I say, “That’s gold.” Okay. Everything else is secondary to this.

Because if you’re able to have this line of communication, you need to maintain that at all costs. Because once you lose that trust and ability to communicate, we’re not going to be able to settle anything. It’s all going to be through lawyers, going to be very contentious and expensive. So the more thought that we can give into our communications with others, we’re more now being protective of that ability to problem solve going forward.

Susan Guthrie:

Well, you just mentioned you tell your clients that thread of communication is gold. I think that that tip is gold for my listeners because that is really a key element that people do not understand that if you do still have the ability, and I realize in many cases there’s been damage done to the trust between a couple who have hit our doorway by that time, but if you are still able to communicate, going out and messaging about your divorce in a way that will damage that ability to communicate as you go forward, even if you’re doing that unthinkingly or unknowingly, is really harmful to the future prospects of how that divorce will unfold.

As you mentioned, when it gets to the point where all communication needs to go through your lawyers or intermediaries and third parties, you have just turned your divorce into that one that we all hear about, read about, think about that, the very expensive, very long, very contentious divorce. So that is a golden tip. And having those conversations, those are hard, right? “You have a substance use disorder, that has a lot to do with why we’re getting divorced from me. Are we going to talk about it?”

That’s a hard conversation to have. You’ve had it in many iterations probably, but so valuable if you have an understanding of how you’re going to message that to the outside world. I think that that is truly gold for my listeners. Thank you for sharing that.

©2023 Divorce and Beyond Podcast. No claims made to copyrighted material. Aired 12/18/23.

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