It’s All About Control

Stacy D. Phillips

As a family lawyer specializing in high net worth and high profile cases for more than 35 years, you can imagine that I have seen it all. Representing many celebrities—often involving complex, high conflict matters—I have observed that whatever the salacious headlines, particular facts, and circumstances of each case, there is one important commonality: control.

It is a given that every case I handle will have its share of “issues,” many of which go beyond the division of assets. Frequently, some urgent situation or chronic problem creates a dispute involving the need/desire/obsession of one party to dominate the other. Neither gender has exclusivity when it comes to pursuing, possessing, and asserting control, whether during the marriage, the divorce, or its aftermath. The reality is: Control is prevalent in any relationship. And, when couples are jockeying for it, a legal case becomes a contest. All too often, contests escalate to wars because, by nature, human beings are competitive.

Control is a fickle power. It can change hands at the flick of a need or want, or due to external forces (such as employment or health problems), or internal circumstances (such as falling in love with someone else). The battle for control is amplified in most personal relationships that fail, and may not be limited to the former couple. It can also include various personal and business associates.

Celebrity clients often face the same issues as other divorcing individuals; however, there are important nuances at play. There are issues of income, support, child custody, and legal fees, of course, but not of the garden variety. Often it is precisely these complications that can cause the Control Wars, leading to prolonged litigation and negotiations. There are no cookie-cutter solutions.

Many wealthy individuals, and especially celebrities, often face what I have come to refer to as “The Deep Pocket Syndrome.” It is an unfortunate reality that men are targeted in paternity cases, no matter if they know the “accuser” or not. Some women, it seems, make it their job to become pregnant by men of renown—and in some instances, it becomes a serial job position. Innocent children become a lever for control. Moreover, if paternity is established, the father could be set up for substantial child support responsibilities, considerable legal fees, and, although the court filings in paternity cases are sealed and the Court has the power to seal the hearings, professional images can be tarnished by leaks to the media from the party trying to gain leverage. Sadly, after the dust settles in these battles, the children of such “relationships” frequently become collateral damage.

In dissolutions of celebrity marriages or domestic partnerships, intellectual property rights, profit participation, residuals, and royalties often represent the most valuable of all the assets and they frequently become a battleground for control. Contracts are typically made over long periods of time, and are constantly renegotiated and amended. Valuing such assets can quickly become a hotly contested issue. These assets require a sophisticated and experienced family law attorney, working with a top forensic accountant, who understands the nuances involved.