You’ve perhaps heard that Angelina Jolie has sued Brad Pitt to obtain sole physical custody of six children (petition starting the lawsuit) plus a share of money that Pitt earned during the marriage and perhaps before the marriage (“quasi-community assets”). The lawsuit is improperly characterized as primarily seeking a “divorce” due to the fact that California is a no-fault state and Jolie would be guaranteed a divorce per se simply for showing up to the courthouse and filing a form (no attorney necessary).
One interesting angle is press coverage noting “In her filing, Jolie does not ask for spousal or child support” (CNN article specifically titled “What’s at stake”) despite the fact that the Petition plainly states “the court will make orders for the support of the children upon request and submission of financial forms by the requesting party.” Jolie will be entitled to collect child support back-dated at least to when she filed her lawsuit regardless of when in the litigation she gets around to filing the requisite financial forms.
Is Jolie likely to win? As noted in the California chapter of Real World Divorce, the jurisdiction has a winner-take-all character and courts generally seek to promote one parent to “primary” (winner) status while the other is demoted to “secondary” (loser) status. Thus it seems reasonable for her to hope that a judge will decide that one parent should dominate (see this chapter for whether or not running courts this way is a good idea for kids). Census 2014 data show that 94 percent of Californians collecting child support are women and therefore Jolie could expect a high statistical chance of winning custody simply based on her current gender identification.
A Massachusetts lawyer told us that divorce litigators here refer to children as “little bags of money” due to the fact that each one will generate up to 23 years of tax-free cashflow, potentially in excess of the state’s median family income. What are the six “little bags of money” potentially worth to Jolie?
California’s online calculator kicks out a result of roughly $6 million per year, tax-free: the completed calculation. As the youngest children are (twins) are currently 8 years old, California children stop yielding a return at age 18 (Massachusetts is 23; New York is 21), and the total cashflow will taper down as the older children age out of the system, Jolie’s quest to become the primary parent is potentially worth roughly $50 million (tax-free). If we take $7 million per movie as Jolie’s likely earnings going forward (this source says $7-15 million but Jolie is getting older and presumably future contracts are more likely to be at the lower end of the range) and assume a 50 percent marginal tax rate (California state plus federal), she would need to act in 14 movies to earn $50 million after taxes.
Here are the assumptions:
- the defendant’s net worth at $350 million and the plaintiff’s at $275 million (source: Journal of Popular Studies)
- a 5 percent income from investments, either real or imputed by the judge, resulting in $1.46 million of “interest received” for Pitt and $1.15 million per month for Jolie
- earned income for Pitt of $31.5 million per year (Forbes) and $15 million per year for Jolie (tougher to find an authoritative estimate; I used this source)
- six children
- the children spend 20 percent of their time with the loser parent (this is the form default)
[What would “justice” look like in a different jurisdiction? Simply by showing up in court and identifying as a woman Jolie would automatically win primary custody in Denmark or Germany, but her revenue would be limited to $8,000 per child per year, i.e., $48,000 per year instead of $6 million per year. In neighboring Nevada Jolie’s child-related revenue would be capped at less than $13,000 per year per child and, as of October 1, 2015, state law favors 50/50 parenting (see “New Nevada Custody Laws Going Into Effect on October 1, 2015”). Thus Pitt could have saved himself a considerable amount of heartache over losing the kids, legal fees (a divorce litigator I met at the Reno Air Races charges a fixed $3500 to handle a divorce plus an additional $6000 if the case goes to trial), and financial exposure if he had insisted on establishing a primary residence in Tahoe or Las Vegas and Gulfstreaming into Hollywood as necessary.]
- the California child support guidelines are presumed to apply but judges can deviate from the guidelines if they can find reasons for doing so
- Jolie’s lawsuit is being handled by Laura Wasser, who was in the news recently for defending Johnny Depp from Amber Heard (Bloomberg says that the unmarried Wasser has out-of-wedlock children with multiple fathers and is thus able to collect child support at California rates but can shield her own earnings from a potential alimony claim)