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 of the Group’s specialist family and children law practice McAlister Family Law takes a closer look at the issues involved in the split.
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.
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.