Raoul Felder has been called the "Duke of Divorce," and with good reason--he's known for duking it out in court for his clients. After 30 years as America's most famous divorce lawyer, representing such clients as Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Peter Cook, the wives of Patrick Ewing and writer Tom Clancy, as well as model Stephanie Seymour, he has a few things to say on the subject. He shared a few of them on the phone from his New York office this week. Look for more in his forthcoming book, The Good Divorce: How to Walk Away Financially Sound and Emotionally Happy, out in March (and no, Felder himself is not divorced--he's been married to the same woman for decades).
Since you started your career, we've seen the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and TMZ. How have these things changed the way you do business?
They've made everyone's private life in terms of court documents public property and now everyone's complaints and normal stresses in everyday life are now in the public arena. People don't look at privacy the way they used to. You have strangers reading it for amusement and cocktail chatter and more people looking through peepholes. The 24 hour news cycle has increased the rhythm of life and infects the way people look at things. Boom boom boom, everyone is ready for the next thing: Marriage? An affair? Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro? Andy Warhol said you're famous for 15 minutes but now a divorce complaint takes five minutes.
Recently, there was a story in the news about a man who may go to jail for reading his ex-wife's email. Should he?
Yes. This is now, properly, a question of criminal law. It is a crime in most states. A defense is that "she lets me into the computer since it is the family computer." It's hard to prove. But it is very violating to the basic principle of privacy. Back in 1929, Secretary of State Stimson said "gentlemen don't read other people's mail." He was mistakenly talking about government spying which I think is where you can read other people's mail. But in relationships, privacy should be maintained. Even more now in this age. There should be consequences when people violate other's privacy.
However, having said that, emails are now used in courts as smoking guns. I found in the seeking of computer evidence, private investigators often go through people's emails successfully. In the old days when I worked as a federal prosecutor, it was tapping a phone. Now it's finding information in emails. Different ball game.
A judge recently ruled that an ex-husband can try to get back some money he paid in a divorce settlement because much of that money turned out to be part of the Madoff ponzi scheme, and therefore worthless. Do you think that's fair?
This is a difficult case and I think the judge ruled fairly. The judge didn't have the comfort of past cases for a ruling but it was common sense and the right thing to do. The wife shouldn't gain more after the divorce than she would have if she was still happily married to the man. That's not equitable results. Before Madoff, no one would have thought this would become an issue.
What's your opinion on the Dodger Divorce ruling? Do you think the judge ruled fairly to give Frank and Jamie co-ownership and throw out a marital property agreement that would have given Frank sole ownership?
This scenario gives the courts problems. It's easy to say, "Okay, we split the business in half and two people who hate each other don't have to show up to work together." So the courts strive to give equal assets. They can't always do it but try. It's a human dilemma. Courts can't simply split the business 50/50 because then the parties end up in court two weeks later. They're not better friends divorced than when they were married. Good judges try to give a distribution in cash instead but many people can't write a large check. In commercial law, when a partnership where both people owned 50 percent can't get along, there's a procedure for dissolving the partnership. But the courts don't do that in personal situations. That is, close the company. They try to render justice but sometimes it doesn't work well.
There was recently a 'Vows' column in the New York Times about a man and woman who divorced their respective spouses to be with each other. Is a union that starts under such contentious circumstances doomed?
It's doomed I think because anyone who would be that tasteless is promoting this type of marriage has narcissism in their DNA and that will surface in this new marriage too. You take yourself wherever you go. Few, I think, change. Unless they get a DNA transplant.
Look, people fall in love with their friends' spouses because that's who they're meeting. But you don't publicize it in America's newspaper of record. What they should have done is both get divorced and wait two years to get married. Falling in and out of love happens but you don't put it in the newspaper like that for the kids and ex-spouses to see.
Legal matters are public record in California. Given that, why do certain celebrities go to trial?
They have no choice. It's the rules of the road, because you get divorced where you live and public disclosure is the law. That's why many mediate but you can't mediate if another person is crazy. Or canny. When a spouse knows it's in the public record, they can coerce a settlement by threatening to make it public. And often they are successful doing that.
Is there such a thing as an "iron-clad" pre-nup?
Yes, but that doesn't mean someone isn't going to fight it. Money is an odd commodity. The more someone has, the cheaper the currency becomes. You have a CEO with a pre-nup and the wife then shows how if she did the work of the cook, the nanny and chauffeur it would be worth $400,000 a year. You can't stop a spouse from suing but then the spouse decides which way it is more expensive: paying lawyers or give the ex some extra money to simply go away. Trying to set aside a prenuptial agreement is the only deal where after you sue and lose you're back to the deal you bargained for in the first place.
What's the strangest thing--an object, a person, anything--anyone has fought over in one of your cases?
I had someone fight over a wine decanter--not wine but only a decanter. It was like World War II. I had another divorce over whether the wife lost 14 pounds as per an agreement where there was an inclination to stay married. She didn't and he considered that she broke the agreement. He wanted to trade her in for a newer model and these guys who are wealthy can do it.
I understand that the majority of your clients are women. Why is that? Is it more difficult to argue on behalf of women or men?
Men have business lawyers in their lives already. If the woman was a homemaker she likely has no business relationship with a lawyer. The husbands often go to the business lawyer when they are divorcing. Women come to me because they need or are seeking out someone well-known. Men are accustomed to lawyers and negotiations and business affairs since they are in the business of making money. But it often turns out to our advantage since business lawyers are not necessarily skilled divorce lawyers. So the women can benefit.
What percentage of your clientele are repeat customers?
Look at the stats. Many. I'd say 30 percent are on their second and third divorces. Though whenever I ask to see pictures of their new girlfriend that will soon become the next wife, they often look exactly like the wife they're leaving. In a few years, they start to sound like them too. And for the wives, the new boyfriend who talks to them and listens to them unlike their grumpy CEO husband eventually turn into, warts and all, their former husband.
What is the biggest trend in divorce?
The rise of geriatric divorces. All of the sudden I'm having an 80 year old coming in and saying "enough". And you wonder, why now? Viagra has really changed what people expect or think they can have. People who are getting divorced are naturally hopeful. Otherwise they wouldn't be taking the risk. The other trend is gay divorce and those have a great quantum of anger. The anger is different because they have had to endure societal abuse and were treated like legal step-children, mauled by society and laws. They went through a lot to get married and when it breaks up, the disappointment is great and they have justifiable anger.
What can you tell us about more recent divorces?
Eva Longoria and Tony Parker? That's not really a marriage. No kids only three years. It's really a long date. Same for Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds. Both couples also have their own finances so lifestyles aren't changing. Sandra Bullock and Jesse James? It reminds me of the story of when Ava Gardner was with Frank and had an affair with a Spanish bullfighter. Humphrey Bogart pulled her aside and said, "Where is your head!! Every woman in the world wants to be with Frank Sinatra and you want to be with a guy who wears ballet slippers and a cape." Jesse is an idiot and now is with some tattooed bimbo. It was a case of humiliation but Sandra is loved and handled it as best she could. Mel Gibson is another story. Judges are human beings and don't like the idea of someone beating up a mother with a baby in her arms. Gibson's hatred of humanity--he makes fun of blacks, Jews, gays, hates everyone and is tasteless--is not going to make him sympathetic to the court even though the courts are supposed to look only at the facts in deciding distribution. Judges are, after all, and should be human beings.
Your commentary on celeb divorces has been insightful. Any more you want to add?
Whenever we read a statement that says, "We respect, we admire, we each hope for the best with the other person and we'll be friends forever," just translate it to be, "We hate your guts and hope you drop dead by Thursday."
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