Robert De Niro’s paying…

De Niro

Robert De Niro’s paying…

Robert De Niro and Grace Hightower are engaged in a tortuous divorce battle; recently the couple clashed in a virtual hearing over Ms Hightower’s spending habits. Partner Liz Cowell takes a closer look at the issues involved in the split.

The facts

Robert De Niro was married to his wife Grace Hightower in 1997.  Their relationship would be classified as a long marriage in our jurisdiction; this is despite the fact that they separated in 1999 and started divorce proceedings, because the divorce never went through, and they renewed their vows in 2004.

When the couple renewed those vows, they also entered into some sort of nuptial agreement.

The agreement would provide Ms Hightower with a $4.7m house and a further lump sum equivalent to approximately half a million dollars, plus an income of $1m per annum, providing that De Niro was earning at least $15m a year.

Now that the couple have separated again and divorced in 2018, Ms Hightower is seeking 50% of De Niro’s total wealth, which she estimates to be $500m.

Defending his position, De Niro claims that his ex-wife is a spendthrift and he has been forced to continue acting and taking part in films which he describes as “dreadful” to maintain the parties’ lifestyles.  He also claims that he has substantial indebtedness for unpaid taxes which he intends to pay off using the income earned from his next two films.

The matter has reached a preliminary stage in which the judge has pointed out to both parties that their expenses are extraordinary, which is an early indication that Ms Hightower’s demands to maintain her lifestyle spending circa $375,000.00 per month is unlikely to be supported by the court.

What would happen here?

Would Ms Hightower be bound by the nuptial settlement entered into when the parties renewed their vows?

In this jurisdiction there have been a series of decisions by the High Court that where the parties have given full disclosure of their financial position and have had proper legal advice, whilst not binding the court such an agreement will be used as evidence and will influence how the court approaches its duty of fairness.

From the information available in the media, it appears that Ms Hightower is now protesting that she was misled as to the extend of her husband’s wealth at the time of the agreement.  Given her status and financial acumen, such protestations would be easily rebutted if she was given full legal advice at the time, particularly as she had already been living with De Niro for several years and was unlikely at that stage to be ignorant of her husband’s earnings and wealth.

The matter of the extent to which the nuptial settlement should be considered would probably be dealt with at a preliminary hearing.

Division of assets

That said, after a long marriage the starting point for the division of assets is 50/50, taking into account pre-acquired wealth and after the deduction of each parties’ debts, which means that any financial settlement would be derived from the amount De Niro would have after his tax bills were paid.

It seems that De Niro’s legal team are complaining that he is being ordered to provide disclosure – however, in our jurisdiction disclosure is mandatory for all parties going back at least 12 months, and he would be required to provide the same, as would Ms Hightower.  Ms Hightower has been accused of hiding the purchase of expensive jewellery: this would have to be disclosed and valued.

Allegations

Sadly, it would seem that unpleasant allegations are being made about Ms Hightower who is accused of being a spendthrift, one who had started life as a waitress from a poor background.  It is implied that she married De Niro simply for his earning capacity.

Would this be relevant in our jurisdiction?

The answer to allegations about Ms Hightower’s background is that it would be utterly irrelevant, albeit the court would look at Mr De Niro’s pre-acquired wealth as well.

The allegations regarding her spending habits are relevant however; not because she is a spendthrift, but because the court needs to look at the parties’ resources, status quo and what are her reasonable needs.

Our courts would be minded of the fact that Mr De Niro is already 77 years old and cannot be expected to continue working indefinitely.

A challenge for the court brokering a financial settlement between the parties either here, or in the United States, is to try and achieve fairness and that is done here in England by applying a yardstick of equality. It is also mandatory upon the courts in England to achieve a fair, clean break where possible, and this can be done by dividing capital and working out how much income would be available from the capital to meet needs and if there was a shortfall, adding a further capital sum.

The court would be using the facts available to look at the nuptial settlement and maybe capitalise the maintenance payable, but given Mr De Niro’s age it is unlikely he would be expected to continue working for more than two or three years.

If Mr De Niro was before the English courts he would need to be more generous if he wanted settle matters, and he would be encouraged to stop making allegations about his wife, who is the mother of his child and to whom he has been married for more than 20 years. At the same time, Ms Hightower clearly needs to curtail her spending and put forward a reasonable proposal for settlement.

 

If you are are considering separation or divorce and require specialist legal advice, please get in touch today.  We are here to help you.

Variation applications – what do you need to know?

variation order

Variation applications – what do you need to know?

Covid-19 has had an impact on most people’s financial position and for many, the impact has not been positive. When times get tough, people start to audit their finances. Can we afford to keep the subscription to the magazine that usually goes unread, the direct debit to a streaming service that we don’t even remember the password for, or – more significantly- a spousal maintenance standing order? Conversely, we also look at our monthly income and wonder if there is a way we can eke out a little more. Can we up our hours at work, sell some clothes online, or other money-saving measures?

In these times of continuing economic upheaval, it is to be expected that variation applications are on the rise.  Solicitor Heather Lucy explains.

What can the court do?

The court has the power to increase, decrease, suspend, terminate, extend (in certain circumstances), or capitalise the spousal maintenance payments. Capitalising payments simply means that a lump sum is calculated based on the term and quantum of the order, which is then paid and the ongoing obligation ends. This is good for the payee as they have the certainty of having the cash in their bank account and also good for the payer as they do not need to look over their shoulder with regard to a potential application for an upward variation of maintenance if they get a promotion, for example. The issue with capitalisation, however, is usually affordability.

The key thing to remember with spousal maintenance is that it is based on the needs, as agreed or determined by the court, of the parties. It is by showing that those needs, or your ability to meet your own needs, have changed that may give rise to a variation of spousal maintenance.

How do I do it?

The first port of call should be to speak to your ex-partner. Explain the situation to them and see if you can come to an agreement. You can invite them to come to mediation with you to see if the input of a neutral third party assists. If you do not seem to be making progress, you can instruct a solicitor to put the request to them more formally and see if you can come to a resolution outside of the court arena.

If it does not work, you will need to consider making an application to the court. It is crucial to understand the potential cost implications before applying. The usual family law rules, where parties meet their own costs save for exceptional circumstances, are suspended in variation applications. The successful party (be that the party applying for or defending the application) may claim their costs from the unsuccessful party. For this reason, it is sensible to reach an agreement without issuing proceedings wherever possible.

What happens in the court proceedings?

If you have a spousal maintenance order in place, there is a good chance that you have been through court proceedings or negotiations via solicitors. This means that the process of financial disclosure will be familiar to you. The courts need to know about each party’s assets, liabilities, income, and outgoings before they can make a decision. The first step, therefore, is financial disclosure which is usually done by way of Form E1. The court will then be in a position to decide whether it would be fair to vary the original order.

What do the courts consider?

The court’s primary consideration will be the welfare of any children. It has a broad discretion in terms of the orders it can make, as set out above, but they will need to focus on any changes in circumstance since the original order was made. This is important to consider as it will be very difficult to persuade the court to vary the order if nothing material has changed. This means you should be very specific about why you are asking the court to change the current order, for example, are you being paid £100 less a week and need your ex-partner to top up the order by that amount to meet your needs? Are you being paid £100 less a week and therefore need to reduce your spousal maintenance obligation?

The order may not be as straightforward as these two examples, but they are the kind of questions you need to ask yourself.

What’s the bottom line?

If your financial circumstances change, you may be able to vary a spousal maintenance order. Good communication is key and you should start by having a discussion with your ex-partner. This is crucial due to the potential cost implications of bringing an application to the court. Both parties will need to be aware of this and it can encourage negotiation.

It is difficult to provide broad-brush advice on variation as cases will turn on their specific facts. You may wish to take some advice from a solicitor before approaching your ex-partner directly or you might have reached a point where it is clear matters will not be resolved amicably; either way, McAlister Family Law’s team of expert lawyers can advise you.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised here, please get in touch today.  We are here to help you.

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