You are here

How Divorced Celebs Handle Custody

Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment

This summer was the season of celebrity breakups—Ben and Jen, Blake and Miranda, Gwen and Gavin, Miss Piggy and Kermit!—and some of these famous couples have something more important than wads of cash or tabloid headlines to worry about: the well-being of their kids.

Celebrity custody battles range from the incredibly contentious to the unusually amicable and everything in between. In the we're-still-family camp, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner have pledged to keep things friendly for their kids, Violet, 9, Seraphina, 6, and Samuel, 3. The star couple is continuing to live in the same house, recently vacationed as a family, and even teamed up to take their offspring to the first day of school. Likewise, Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel, whose divorce was finalized in February, agreed to share custody of their 5-year-old son, Walker, and are even splitting all parenting costs right down the middle. And, of course, there's the infamously friendly "conscious upcoupling" of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, with Paltrow revealing that even though sometimes they hate each other, they'll still go to brunch as a family because it's Sunday and that's what they do.

Meanwhile, Gossip Girl star Kelly Rutherford is in a bitter war with her ex Daniel Giersch over whether she can keep her two kids, Hermes, 8, and Helena, 6, in the United States or if he has the right to keep them in Monaco. Fashion designer Rachel Roy finally won custody of Ava, 15, and Tallulah, 6, from ex-husband Damen Dash in April, after a heated custody battle in which each accused the other of being an unfit parent. And who can forget the epic five-year fight for custody of daughter Ireland duked out by Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin?

Other celebs, however, barely make headlines with their custody agreements because they are just as boring as those reached by "regular" people. Unless you closely follow TMZ or RadarOnline, you probably have no idea how exes Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon or Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony share their kids.

To find out more about the ins and outs of celebrity custody battles, we reached out to high-profile divorce attorney Laura Wasser, author of "It Doesn't Have to Be That Way: How to Divorce Without Destroying Your Family or Bankrupting Yourself". She's represented Hollywood stars and other notable people in their divorces and custody battles, including Heidi Klum, Melanie Griffith, and Ashlee Simpson, among many, many others. Here's what she had to say: It seems like Bruce Willis and Demi Moore pioneered the super-amicable divorce and custody trend, and couples like Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner now are trying to follow in their footsteps. How do celebrity couples pull off these types of friendly custody agreements?

Laura Wasser: I think they pull it off the same way that 'normal' people do. The trend really is coming around to people trying to split up in a way that makes more sense for their children, for themselves, for their finances. It is way less animosity-producing and there's no question all of the studies have shown that children are happier when their parents are getting along.

Also, we've kind of moved into a presumption that children have a right to spend as much time as possible with both of their parents. I think part of that trend may have begun in the entertainment industry because you have more dads that work from home or don't have a regular 9 to 5 job. You have a lot more dads that are either stay-at-home dads or much more hands-on dads, so that if the couple splits up it's not automatically, 'Well, I guess you'll see them every other weekend.' Dads are saying, 'Absolutely not. I'm going to see them as much as I saw them before and let's figure that out.'

P: I would imagine that it's easier for a celebrity couple to continue living in the same place together with the kids after they split because one of them could be going off for months at a time to make a movie, for example.

LW: Absolutely. I think that's true. I think that the nesting idea is a really, really good one for kids during an interim period, but it's hard to do long-term, regardless [of celebrity status]. During the initial period of mom and dad not being together, it's nice for the kids to be able to stay in the house and have the parents rotate in and out, and yes, if somebody is going on location for a couple of months, it makes it easier.

One thing I always say about our clients, whether they're in the entertainment industry or just very wealthy, everybody kind of goes through the same experience—the same fear, anger, sense of desperation—when you're splitting up as a couple. But when the celebrity people we're talking about do it, they do it generally with a few more zeroes tacked on to whatever their balance sheets are, and often with a lot more fanfare. People are watching them, and I think that can make people act better. You also really have to temper what you're doing during this process because if all of a sudden you're all over the tabloids, it's going to be difficult for your kids.

P: What's the most amicable celebrity custody agreement you can think of and how did they make it work so well?

LW: I wouldn't comment on anybody else's custody agreement, but I do know that when people are able to communicate and get along it works best. I have had some people say, "Well, we're not together anymore, but our kids are little, so I'll go with them to the set, to the location where you are, so that you can see them and they can continue to have contact with you, and when they're older, I'm happy to send them with a caretaker.'

P: Other celebrities, even though they're under the microscope, swing the other direction, ending up in incredibly contentious custody battles. What causes celebrity custody battles to devolve and how can it avoided?

LW: I can't comment on [a specific] case, but I will say that if things get to that point, I think there's a couple of factors to blame: One, the attorney. I know that over the past 20 years, I have concentrated on how to keep my client's private situations out of the public and we will go to great ends to do that, like figuring out ways to settle. Anything that's settled between the parties is always more private and tailored to their specific needs than something that gets decided by a judge who has a very heavy case load with very little time—and that's very public.

If you can't figure out a way to settle a case, sometimes you have difficult clients, we will take the case out of the system by hiring retired judges that can do it in a conference room so that you're not downtown in the courthouse.

I will say that in some of our celebrity cases, right off the bat I said [to the other attorney], 'Hey, let's take this out of the system. Let's see if we can settle it. Let's do something more confidential,' but the attorney on the other side is very interested in having a great deal of publicity and being able to speak about his or her client and as a result get a little bit of notoriety to help his career. So that's a problem.

I also have dealt on several occasions with actors, actresses, entertainers who were maybe kind of on a downfall and any publicity is good publicity. Some people really don't mind being all over the news, even if it's that. I think it's really sad but there's nothing I can really do about it except refuse to be their attorney.

P: Can you think of any contentious celebrity custody battles in particular that you thought went really off the rails?

LW: Celebrities are really no different than any of us. I see things constantly that I'm like, 'That can't possibly be right' so it often isn't as contentious as maybe we're being led to believe. Yes, I've seen some really ugly ones, but sometimes it's not as bad as you think it is.

Celebrities are very used to being told yes, but as a family law attorney, you can't always do that. I'm not going to blow sunshine. I'm not going to tell you that [you can get full custody] because we work within a certain set of laws, and just because you're a celebrity doesn't mean that things are different for you or your children.

P: Are there any unusual custody agreements that celebrities have?

LW: Remember, custody isn't just about like hands-on physical. I've had people get into argument about whether their kids are allowed to be in front of the camera. With all these reality shows these days, one person might say, 'I don't want my kids on camera in any kind of reality show or as an actor,' and the other parent will say, 'Well, that's our life. That's what we do. Why wouldn't we allow that?'

One thing I see quite a bit here in Southern California is elective surgery. Kids will say, 'I'm 15, everyone is getting a nose job, everyone is getting their boobs done.' You need both parents to agree on that and people have bitter battles over whether or not that's appropriate.

P: What makes celebrity custody cases different from "regular" people's custody battles?

LW: Don't assume that all of these people have a ton of money, but in most cases you can add several zeroes to the end of whatever their estate is that's being divided up or that's being paid on a monthly basis.

The other difference is the media attention, which we have so much more now with the advent of the web and all of the different sites that go up immediately. Within moments of filing a dissolution petition for any client that has any kind of a recognizable name, it pops on TMZ and then from there all of the other sites, television networks and news outlets report on it. It happens really instantaneously. I often will not be able to have an opportunity to tell my client it's been filed before he or she sees it pop up on their phone or computer.

I definitely advise them to tell their spouse before filing—you don't want to find out from TMZ you're getting divorced. Then I also ask them to pick a time when they're going to be away with their kids for a little bit because then you don't have to be so barraged by paparazzi. I also advise them to have some kind of a press release ready before they file the papers so the people who know how to do this the right way, which is their publicist, can do it the right way.

P: What can 'normal' people learn from the way celebrities handle custody of their kids?

LW: Live each moment as though you're under a microscope. You wouldn't want somebody reporting your bad behavior on TMZ or on the 8 o'clock news. You want them saying things like, 'Isn't this amazing? This couple is so revolutionary, they're taking a vacation together even though they've separated,' or "In the best interest of their children, they've decided that they're going to live in the same home and rotate out so each then has alone time with their kids. Boy, aren't they adult and wonderful?'