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Amber Heard filed for divorce from Johnny Depp just two weeks ago, but already their split has become an ugly legal and press battle. The question facing lawyers for both sides is how the fight playing out in the media will impact the legal proceedings — or whether the public relations war is the only war that really matters.
From the outset, the breakup has captured international attention with allegations Depp has been abusing his actress wife. Those claims, which began with a court filing, a photo of a bruised Heard appearing on TMZ and a series of further leaks to the press, landed Heard on the cover of People magazine and put her name and Depp’s name in headlines around the world. The press for him has been horrible and might have contributed to his latest movie, Alice Through the Looking Glass, flopping in theaters.
Divorce attorney Jonathan Wolfe, who represented Katie Holmes in her divorce from Tom Cruise, says leaking information about a high-profile spouse can be strategic but doing so comes with an expectation that privacy will be lost. “Leaking information only adds fuel to the fire, causes more stories and provokes more negative responses from the other side,” Wolfe says. “Judges also hate it and they are the ones that ultimately decide the case.”
The source of the leaks is not known, but text messages allegedly from Depp’s former assistant to Heard that were provided to Entertainment Tonight paint a portrait of Depp apologizing for allegedly abusive behavior, suggesting someone sympathetic to Heard is behind their revelation. (The former assistant has denied their authenticity.)
Beverly Hills divorce attorney Daniel Jaffe believes the leaks could be an effort to sway public opinion against him. “Apparently they think they’re going to get some public traction by trying to paint this very popular movie star in a bad light,” he says, adding that it’s unlikely the court will attempt to stop it. “Judges sometimes issue restraining orders against talking to the press when they think the information could affect the jury pool. But we don’t have jury cases in family law, even in domestic violence cases.”
On the other side, Depp’s daughter and ex have come forward to defend him and say that he is not violent, and their comments have been reported by outlets as well. Depp himself has remained silent.
Heard, 30, who is seeking spousal support from Depp for the 15 months they were married, was granted a temporary restraining order against the 52-year-old actor. She is repped by attorneys Samantha Spector and Joseph Koenig. Depp, represented by well known Los Angeles divorce lawyer Laura Wasser, responded in court filings that Heard is “attempting to secure a premature financial resolution by alleging abuse.”
Celebrity divorce lawyer Neal Hersh says that while judges don’t like it when cases are argued in the media, the court likely won’t take it as seriously as it would if there were children involved.
Hersh is no stranger to tense divorces. He represented Kim Basinger in her divorce from Alec Baldwin and Denise Richards in her split from Charlie Sheen. He says celebrities have the same marital issues as non-celebrities, but theirs are subject to extreme public scrutiny.
Because Heard is famous, people are examining her motivations for requesting a temporary restraining order with a microscope. “It could be as simple as she just wanted protection,” he says. “If you did that no one would question you. I think it’s unfair to rush to judgment on either side of this until the process plays itself out.”
Whether the abuse allegations will impact the divorce settlement remains to be seen.
Jaffe says his firm is seeing more domestic violence claims because the law now includes emotional battery. “If there’s a finding of domestic violence, the court has discretion to award not only more support but also a longer period of support,” he says.
California law generally provides for spousal support for half the length of the marriage, if the spouse doesn’t have sufficient assets of his or her own.
“Without minimizing domestic violence in any way, I don’t think this is going to have any effect,” Hersh says. Even if Heard were to pursue the domestic violence claims further and the judge was sympathetic, he says the financial result would be “a drop in the bucket” compared to Depp’s net worth.
Wolfe agrees the domestic violence allegations won’t impact the financial outcome of their divorce case, but says “the publicity has been brutal and should make everyone involved focused on reaching a settlement now.” Of course, that settlement could end up being bigger than what a court might award simply because Depp might want to end the bad publicity. Hersh says their attorneys are likely already working behind closed doors to make that happen.
“I would not be surprised if the hearing on the domestic violence matter gets postponed,” he says. “Right now, I think they’re both best served by trying to put this to bed. That’s what I think is going to happen.”
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