10:00am PT by Eriq Gardner
Law & Order: Divorce Court — Inside the 12-Year Battle Over Dick Wolf's Fortune
This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Most episodes of Law & Order reach a verdict rather quickly. By contrast, the legal fallout from the 2003 divorce between series creator Dick Wolf and second wife Christine Wolf is at 12 years and counting, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line and something significant to say about the duties, pitfalls and absolutions for those who provide financial guidance to celebrities (and their spouses).
Twelve years ago, Christine, now 62, was shocked to read a story in the Los Angeles Times about Law & Order. She learned the man she was divorcing after 20 years of marriage was in negotiations with NBC for an arrangement potentially worth $1.6 billion, described later as the most lucrative deal in TV history. Christine immediately contacted her attorney to see if anything could be done about the divorce papers she had just signed.
According to court documents that later would come from Christine, Dick, now 68, was an absentee father to their three children, and the marriage was messy, particularly during its second decade. The two had assets valued at more than $30 million, including a primary residence in Montecito, Calif., worth $14.5 million, an apartment in New York and a residence in Maine. Christine stayed home to tend to the couple's daughter Olivia, who suffered from immune-system diseases. Meanwhile, Dick increasingly spent time away from home to work on his shows. Christine began to "resent him," her court filings say, and she hired a private detective before ultimately deciding to end the marriage.
The couple shared a business manager, Bob Philpott, known as one of Hollywood's top moneymen until he died in March at 66 of complications from a stroke. At the time of the Wolf divorce, Philpott's L.A.-based company was affiliated with Canadian financial-services firm Assante Corp. (later known as Loring Ward), run by Martin Weinberg, who offered to mediate a financial settlement. Because Christine and Dick had to divide their assets under California law, one of the tasks was to determine the value of Law & Order, the police procedural that debuted in 1990 and ran on NBC for 20 years, spawning the U.S. spinoffs Law & Order: SVU, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Trial by Jury and Law & Order: Los Angeles. (L&O: SVU still produces new episodes, and the original and first two spinoffs have enjoyed great success in syndication.)
The valuation was not an easy chore. The financial advisers told Christine's lawyers that in 2001, Dick had used his leverage as a top producer to get a $40 million advance on $50 million in projected Law & Order profit participation. Dick has made far more during the show's lifetime (and also was given Vivendi Universal stock options), but at the time of the divorce, before any new renegotiation, Dick technically owed money to Universal for advance payments until profits were realized. The financial advisers prepared a report and noted the uncertain status of future income in the mediation.
Later, Christine would claim Dick and the financial advisers had withheld information about the new NBC talks valuing the franchise at $1.6 billion. During the settlement talks with Dick, she allegedly was under consistent pressure from mediators to sign off on a deal. According to her court papers, Dick threatened to stand in the way of her relocation to New York with their son, Elliot, and refused to attend Elliot's 20th birthday party unless she signed. So she did. Through a settlement with Dick, she got $17.5 million in cash ($4 million for the value of Law & Order), annual spousal support of as much as $2 million for eight years, the couple's Maine home and more. Dick kept the Montecito property and was able to beat back Christine's demand for contingent profits from Wolf Films Inc.
Still, after Christine read the Times story, she contacted her attorney, William Beslow (who had just handled Nicole Kidman's split from Tom Cruise). Beslow left a voice message for Dick's attorney, Joseph Kibre, stating Christine was "concerned with Assante representing her. … She's concerned that Assante made representations."
Dick signed his part of the divorce settlement the day after Christine's attorney made the call, according to court papers. He then asked a judge to have the agreement enforced. Christine responded by arguing that her consent was procured by fraud and that Dick and the financial advisers had failed to disclose the value of the Wolfs' community assets — namely, the Law & Order franchise.
A Santa Barbara judge disagreed, ruling in 2004 that Christine had no "defense to this matter other than buyer's remorse or a change of heart. She was fully represented by competent and thoughtful counsel." Further, wrote the judge, "she cannot claim fraud or concealment under these facts."
But that merely was the first season of "Law & Order: Divorce Court." During the next decade, Christine would appear in a state appeals court, a federal district court, a federal appeals court and back at a state court to push for what she felt was withheld from her. Mostly unsuccessful, she shifted her sights from Dick to the financial advisers, and her theory of blame changed likewise. Christine moved away from her original argument that Philpott and Weinberg had misled her to a theory that they had committed professional negligence. This past January, she tasted her first significant victory when an L.A. Superior Court judge ruled that her claims were not barred by statute of limitations and allowed her lawsuit to proceed.
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Still, Christine needed more evidence to prove her case. She demanded all communications between Dick and NBCUniversal, an effort her ex-husband called harassing and an invasion of privacy that would cause him irreparable harm. She also pushed for documents showing what went on between Dick and the financial advisers during the divorce mediation. That effort resulted in a big ruling that now is being petitioned for review at the California Supreme Court. It has the potential to shape the future of high-profile divorces.
To understand why, one first must consider location. There are reasons the rich and famous choose to get divorced in New York or California. If they want privacy, they go to New York, where court documents can be sealed more easily. If they want harmony, they file in California, where the law generally favors splitting community property evenly rather than fighting tooth and nail about the most equitable distribution of marital assets. California also has something New York doesn't: a strong and broad "mediation privilege" law. It means anything said or made for the purpose of mediation — like what happened during the 2003 settlement negotiations between Dick and Christine — is confidential and cannot be used in future lawsuits like the one Christine is pursuing.
In response to the argument that mediation privilege barred her hunt for evidence of being wronged, Christine contended that Philpott and Weinberg were not "neutral" and therefore not subject to that privilege. In addition to bringing up the $50,000 wristwatches Dick gave Philpott and Weinberg in appreciation of their work during the divorce, she raised the provocative theory that Philpott's existing relationship with and Weinberg's alleged interest in obtaining future business from the Law & Order creator biased them. She says Weinberg did not charge a fee and that, unbeknownst to her, he wanted to manage Dick's investments. In a deposition, Dick denied that. (None of the parties would go on the record for this story; it possibly would be against the law for them to do so.)
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Some business managers working in entertainment say managing finances for a warring couple can be tricky and that they would withdraw services if the conflict became too much. "It's never a good idea to try to maintain both sides," says business manager Harley Neuman. In the Wolfs' case, the Philpott firm did represent both parties, but in June, L.A. Superior Court Judge Holly Kendig ruled that Christine had approved the financial advisers, that evidence of their bias was based largely on speculation and that the court might not even have authority to take a backward look at impartiality in a consensual mediation.
Christine now is attempting to have a new set of judges weigh in on her long war with Dick (who since has remarried), asking the California Supreme Court to address the circumstances that must exist for a person to be "neutral" and thus capable of conducting a fair mediation. If she loses, her long fight over the hundreds of millions of dollars could be nearing an end.
In the meantime, observers are drawing lessons from the Law & Order creator's real-life case file. "The problem with privileges in general is that they can be used to insulate negligence," says attorney Pierce O'Donnell, who represented Shelly Sterling against Donald Sterling over the 2014 sale of the Los Angeles Clippers. Adds attorney Laura Zwicker, who advises financial institutions on their fiduciary duties: "What's best for one party going into a divorce mediation will impact the other party adversely. You can't assume neutrality."