When most people consider divorce, the jurisdiction where they’re filing is the last thing on their mind. Within the United States, there are several distinct legal regimes in place when it comes to divorce, such as New York’s equitable distribution concept for marital property, versus California’s community property concept.
These legal concepts can produce a big difference in how a settlement is structured, which can end up playing to one or the other spouse’s advantage.
But what if you had the whole world to choose from when it came to deciding where to file? That’s a choice that Swiss businessman Maurice Amon has pondered twice in his life, with two separate divorces from two separate wives.
For seven years prior to 2015, Amon was married to Manhattan socialite Tracey Hejailan. They wed in Hong Kong, and commenced a jet setting lifestyle together that included homes in New York, London, and Paris, plus a five-storey chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland. In May of 2015, the couple finished construction on a $40M home in Monte Carlo, Monaco.
While Hejailan claims the couple never lived in the Monaco home, it is the venue where Amon filed for divorce in October, using photographs of his wife’s extensive shoe and clothing collection in the walk-in closets there as evidence of residency. The reason Monaco is such a desirable location for this divorce relates to its concepts of marital property, or rather, its lack of that legal concept.
Rather than treating property acquired during a marriage as collective property to be divided, Monaco instead uses what it calls a “separation regime,” where property is kept by the spouse who holds the title to it. In this case, that legal concept stands to net Amon millions of dollars.
According to Hejailan, she was traveling in Europe in October and returned to the couple’s Fifth Avenue apartment to find that a valuable collection of modern art had been removed from the apartment’s walls. The couple’s global art collection, valued at $25 million, includes works by Basquiat, Alexander Calder, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, Andy Warhol, and Richard Prince.
Some 20 pieces had been removed by Amon’s art consultants and were being housed in a Queens storage unit. She learned soon after about the Monaco divorce filing, and when Amon made moves to put a Basquiat painting up for auction at Christie’s for some $4-$6 million, Hejailan headed to court in Manhattan for a restraining order.
Judge Robert Reed issued an emergency order that covered the entire collection, though at a later hearing in December where Amon’s lawyers were present, Reed decided to narrow the order to include only the 20 pieces held in New York. Further, Reed ruled that the divorce could not be heard in New York, since the couple has multiple residences abroad and the action was filed in Monaco.
This is a huge boon to Amon and explains his insistence on having the case heard in Monte Carlo. Because one of Amon’s companies is the titleholder to the valuable art collection the couple has assembled, divorcing in Monaco stands to leave him with full control of $25 million in assets.
By comparison, under New York law, Hejailan would likely be entitled to a significant portion of the collection’s value, if not a number of the paintings themselves.
Media reports note that the couple didn’t sign a prenuptial agreement when they married, but with so many venue options, it’s hard to see how Amon, anyway, needed one, though Hejailan likely wishes they’d made a different choice seven years earlier.
Amon has some experience with bi-national divorces, after all. In 2005, he divorced his previous wife, New Yorker Roberta Amon, who sought to have the matter heard in Manhattan, while her husband fought to have a Swiss court hear the matter.
Just as in real estate, there’s something to be said for location when it comes to filing for divorce. In New York and most other states, the governing law orders judges to facilitate an equitable distribution of assets and debts between the parties. Unlike community property states, this does not mean an equal share, but it does mean, as much as possible, a fair division.
Consider a case where one spouse works and one stays home to raise the children. Under a community property scenario, the stay-at-home spouse is entitled to half of the income and properly accumulated during the marriage. This can work out well for the stay-at-home spouse, but may be excessively costly to the spouse who earned the money.
In an equitable distribution state, the parties would be expected to develop a plan (or have a judge issue orders) that takes into account the different roles the parties played, the sacrifices the stay-at-home spouse made, the earning potential of both, and so on.
The distribution for each spouse is likely to fall along the range of anywhere from one-third of the marital estate to two-thirds of the marital estate. Sometimes it will be close to 50-50, but the goal is to achieve a fair outcome, not an equal one.
New York matrimonial law is increasingly geared toward encouraging couples to work things out between themselves. A 2010 reform package made New York the last state to adopt no-fault divorce, called Irretrievable Breakdown, and most divorce attorneys will go to great pains to head off a divorce trial in all but the most extreme situations.
Couples tend to get a fairer resolution when they negotiate a settlement on their own, and they get to keep more of their property, and retain more its value, than they would if a judge simply ordered an estate sale and made them split the proceeds.
At Zelenitz, Shapiro & D’Agostino, we fight hard for our clients so they can come through a divorce with the best settlement possible, and in the best financial position they can. When you’re considering divorce in Brooklyn, talk to our team of experienced divorce lawyers for free by calling 718-725-9601.