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Lesson of Christie Brinkley's Divorce Case: He or She Who Has More Money Will Have Prenuptial Challenged

Posted: 07/02/08 07:49 PM ET

It really isn't a surprise that architect Peter Cook was seen having a manicure this week. His claws were being sharpened for his divorce trial with model Christie Brinkley.

Mr. Cook, he who was the architect of his marriage's demise by having an affair with an 18 year old, apparently didn't fully realize how much he would lose as a result of his wandering weenie. Life with Brinkley included beautiful homes, a glamorous social life, boats, first-class plane rides and the access his wife's success provided.

And then poof, it was all gone when she threw him out. And naturally, he missed it.

Having been married three times before marrying Peter Cook, Christie Brinkley obviously insisted on a pre-nup. Like many well-heeled people, she thought her lawyers had written a solid agreement.

With her previous husband, musician Billy Joel, the divorce was dissolved amicably and both maintained their own incomes and self-respect. Then came developer Rick Taubman, whom she reportedly paid $1 million for freedom and sole custody of their son, Jack Paris, now 13. Having been financially burned by her relationship with Taubman, Brinkley understandably was insistent that the pre-nup with Cook would be ironclad.

"Unfortunately the word ironclad is a bit of a myth," says divorce lawyer Clifford M. Solomon, partner of Solomon Tanenbaum in Westchester. "Anyone can challenge a pre-nup. And it has worked in some cases. Someone will challenge that the person didn't reveal income or assets in the pre-nup and then the agreement is revisited to their advantage."

Often the wealthier of the two sparring spouses will throw in some extra money or property beyond the pre-nup to just make the case go away. After all, a court trial is as ugly as Christie Brinkley is beautiful.

A generation of divorce has taught many that court trials are brutal battlefields where the verbal bruising causes permanent scars on the children and parents, who still must maintain a relationship post-divorce in parenting the children. This is why 22 states now encourage parents to try mediation before the divorce goes to trial. And why less than 10 percent of all divorces are now decided in a court trial.

As collaborative law expert Allison Bell points out, keeping your disputes out of court allows both parents to retain control over their own lives and steer the course for their family's future. "In court, you are handing over the responsibility for your family decision-making to a judge who doesn't know your family psychology or family systems," she says. "As a custody evaluator, I see only a small slice of the divorcing public going this route and they are those who are so embroiled in their fight that they can't keep their kids at the forefront and take a step back."

Yet Peter Cook had nothing to lose. His stature had already been diminished. By going after Brinkley, he seems to have thought she would cave and come up with more bounty for him.

As one of Brinkley's friends told me, "He's shameless. Christie always paid most of the bills and now, after cheating on her, he thinks she should continue paying for his lifestyle forever."

Would it matter if the trial revealed that he watched porn on the Internet or had other affairs? What's the difference between one or several affairs when your reputation has been permanently tarnished? What would seem to matter to him is that his lifestyle has been reduced considerably since their separation.

In this battle, Cook, an architect in Bridgehampton, N.Y. is challenging his prenuptial agreement, which appears to set aside three boats and several parcels of East End real estate for her that he now wants as well. Brinkley's $30 million home in Bridgehampton is not in dispute. Cook fathered a daughter, Sailor Lee, 10, with the model and adopted Jack Paris, Taubman's biological son.

As lawyers privately admit, a prenuptial agreement has several limitations.

● If a party can prove that the other spouse didn't fully disclose all his (or her!) assets, it can mean trouble. Otherwise the other party has signed off without full knowledge of the assets at issue.
● If child custody and visitation rights have been included in the pre-nup. This becomes a wild card in many challenged divorces. Such an agreement can not be made without considering the best interests of the child. Shouldn't the less wealthy spouse be able to provide an equal lifestyle for the child to that of the wealthier one? It seems a ridiculous question, since kids benefit more from love than from a custom-made love seat, but the issue becomes fodder for many legal fistfights.
● If a judge rules that the pre-nup was made under duress, coercion, misrepresentation, or fraud.
● If the groom or bride didn't have enough time to digest the stipulations in the prenuptial agreement and had to sign off quickly just before the wedding.

An agreement runs the risk of being found "unconscionable" if it stipulates in advance that a lesser-earning spouse waives spousal support or alimony. As Bell also points out, courts realize that "circumstances change since the pre-nup was created and people do things during the course of a marriage that may nullify something in the pre-nup. Even the language in which the pre-nup is written may be contested later on."

So if Brinkley bought a house with her own money while with Cook, he may think he can get a piece of it.

The sad spectacle of the Christie Brinkley trial is that both she and Cook once loved each other, and it has ended in such bitterness. As the editorial director of firstwivesworld.com, a site that helps divorcing women heal through self-love and smarts, we often counsel women to "love your kids more than you hate your spouse."

Some would argue that Brinkley should have spared the children, Sailor and Jack, this media circus by giving up some more cash and property. Her lifestyle would not be that affected. But it is the principle that rankles and clearly Cook was being so unreasonable that she was willing to go this route, even though it will lead to more pain, exposure and damage to those involved.

But one of her key allies in this on-going battle is Alexa Ray, her daughter with Billy Joel, who was quoted saying she supported her mother for standing up for what is right. It may be right, but at a very high emotional cost.

 

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