By MARTHA ROSS – The Mercury News
As one of the celebrity world’s best-known family law attorneys, Laura Wasser is a prominent fixture in America’s “divorce industrial complex” which is excoriated in the new film “Marriage Story.”
The Los Angeles-based Wasser represented Angelina Jolie during parts of her contentious divorce from Brad Pitt, and her other high-profile clients have included Johnny Depp, Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian and Maria Shriver.
Wasser also is said to be the inspiration for Laura Dern’s savvy, designer-clad attorney in “A Marriage Story,” who nudges Scarlett Johansson into an increasingly contentious and costly divorce from Adam Driver.
But as much as Wasser, 51, has made her fame and fortune through family law, she is now one of the first to tell people to avoid hiring attorneys to handle their divorce — unless it’s really necessary.
As Wasser said “Marriage Story” shows, attorneys can make divorce crushingly expensive, and some can create an unnecessarily combative, win-at-all-costs legal battle that’s not healthy for either parents or their children.
“I tell people all the time, the more you guys argue, the more I get paid,” said Wasser, a divorced mother who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, as a rhetoric major. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to figure out some of these things on your own?”
This belief in the value of a DIY divorce prompted Wasser to start her own online platform that’s designed for people — less affluent or not — who want to save money and “take control” over their own divorces. The site guides spouses, who have agreed to an uncontested dissolution, through the legal steps of filing paperwork and working out child custody, spousal support and other legal and financial issues.
While Wasser said divorces cost an average of $20,000, her website, “It’s Over Easy,” charges $750 to $2,500. The site, which started in 2017 and went nationwide earlier this year, offers downloadable forms, including a co-parenting calendar and child- and spousal-support calculators, as well as a facility for serving petitions.
“It’s for people who want to take things into their own hands,” said Wasser. “You know your children and finances better than any stranger in a black robe would. You can say, let’s figure it out in a way that’s going to work best.”
Some 46% of marriages in the United States — and 60% in California — end in divorce. The divorce rate has fallen in recent years in part due to the cost, studies show. In an interview, Wasser explains why people shouldn’t stay in bad marriage because they fear such costs. She also discusses whether celebrity divorces are different, argues for prenups and the idea of “compartmentalizing” during a divorce, and reveals what she would advise Johansson’s character in “Marriage Story.”
Mercury News: What made you think a DIY divorce site would be useful?
Wasser: I had been at the point of doing this for about 20 years when I really saw the need for a change in the way our culture approaches divorce so that it results in healthier families, healthier kids, healthier parents. You have the ability to be the master of your own destiny after you’ve learned about the law and how it applies to your situation. Attorneys are expensive, and some colleagues make things worse rather than better. Hopefully, there aren’t too many of those, but they exist.
To use your site, spouses have to generally be on the same page, correct?
People will say, my wife won’t agree to do this with me. So, sorry, it won’t work in that case. But it works when both people are willing. They generally come around because it makes much more financial sense.
What are typical retainers now?
At our firm, we charge a lot. The $25,000 retainer is standard for top Southern California family law firms. Around the country, it can range from $2,500 to $25,000. For attorneys, who charge $250 or $850 or $950 an hour, it’s going to take a few hours just to get up to speed and help you with your paperwork. To the extent there are things you can do on your own, that will definitely be a money saver.
In your experience, what are the main reasons for divorce?
I’m sure there are people who will tell you that it’s adultery and extramarital affairs. But I think it really starts before that. …There’s the failure to communicate, the failure to work on the marriage. When people come in here, I ask them, because I think it’s an interesting study in human nature, and I want to know. Very rarely do people pinpoint one thing. They say this has been a long time coming. Obviously, if there is abuse or drug- or alcohol-related issues, that can certainly be a lightning bolt. But for the majority of people, they grow apart, and then the intimacy or the financial issues or the child-rearing conflicts they are dealing with become that much more difficult to deal with.
Why do some divorces get ugly?
People get scared, and people are dealing with one of the most painful things they have to go through. And rather than thinking clearly and rationally and going through what is basically a business transaction, their emotions get involved. I really do think this is an instance when it’s important to compartmentalize and let your emotions be worked out with mental health professionals.
Is divorce so difficult because people are losing dreams they had of a certain future? Is the family they know ending?
The family as you know it is going to change. At Thanksgiving this year, we had both of my kids. Both of their dads were there, and my step-parents were there. And my ex’s new girlfriend was there. My boyfriend was there and his ex-girlfriend was there as well. Absolutely, it’s not the same configuration as it was before. But the way I look at it, that relationship wasn’t working anymore. You’ve made a change for the better. If there is now more people in the tribe to love your children and you and be supportive, that can turn into a real positive.
Are divorces involving celebrities different than regular people?
One of the most interesting things I can say is how not different they are. They have the same fears and the same pain, and the same anger. Really, they are so similar to the divorces of my other clients who aren’t famous.
But one of the difficult things when you’re representing high-profile people is the media attention. I’ve watched in the 20 years I’ve been practicing how that has been changed — because of the way information is disseminated these days online and on social media. On the news sites, it gets out so much more quickly. I’ve had clients whose spouses found out they are getting a divorce by virtue of TMZ or Vulture or Radar Online.
In some high-profile divorces, don’t people leak information to the press to gain an advantage?
They use the media as leverage in situations, allegations that are being made up or that may or may not be accurate. If it gets out there, it can be very damaging. I have definitely seen that (strategy) used as a tool to get a better settlement. It’s really unfortunate.
Are there examples of celebrities who seem to do it well, in that they don’t let their divorces get ugly with embarrassing personal information going public?
Any celebrity whose divorce you haven’t heard a lot about: They did it well. I think more and more celebrities are mediating their cases, rather than going to court, or even rather than having two different attorneys advocating for them.
Gwyneth Paltrow has gotten a lot of flak for her idea of “conscious uncoupling” from her ex-husband Chris Martin. But isn’t there something to be said for trying to keep things amicable?
Absolutely, and something that’s really great is that (this approach) has trickled down. Our culture seems to like to emulate famous people. When they see people like Gwyneth and Chris, or like Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck, mediating their cases and getting through it with as little conflict as possible, that’s going to be something that other people are going to say, “If they can do that, I can do that.”
Why do you like prenuptial agreements, which some people say kills the romance?
They may not be appropriate if the parties are young and don’t have a lot of money. But I still think it is important to have the kind of conversation one would have as if they were going to get a prenup. I can’t tell you how many people I see or speak with who have no idea what the contract of marriage is, what the law is, that they entered into when they got married.
You plan a wedding and you have the venue, and you have your caterer and your dressmaker and your florist, and you enter into contracts with all these people. But when you walk down the aisle, you are entering into one of the most serious contacts there are.
Most people don’t know that in California when you get married, everything you make or create during the marriage is only half yours — or that if you’re the breadwinner, you could be responsible for supporting your spouse for either half the length of the marriage or throughout his or her life.
How can people prepare for divorce?
One thing I say to people often, whether you are breadwinner or not, is that it’s important to know about your financial picture. So many people will come to me and say I’ve been married for 25 years, I could get a reservation at any restaurant and I have a personal shopper at the big department stores, but I have no idea what our financial situation is.
Look, divorce is hard; it’s not easy, and it’s not fun. More than anything else, I think preparing emotionally is important. Make sure you’re in as healthy a possible emotional state, so if that you have kids, you can be strong for them. Kids are generally going to be OK, as long as they see that their parents are OK.
In addition to legal fees, whether people use an attorney or not, what are other costs that they don’t think about when they divorce?
They don’t think about credit, or car loans or mortgages. You may end up getting get the house, but then you have to end up transferring the mortgage into your name. How does that work? People also don’t think about retirement accounts and pensions and medical insurance, or college costs for children. In California, child support ends at the age of 18. While the court won’t order either party to pay for college, it’s important to talk about it. So if you have kids who are going to age out of child support, you don’t want to be left holding the bag if your spouse is not willing to contribute.
Is custody the most difficult issue for divorcing spouses to work out?
Custody is one of he easiest issues for people to work on. Because again, you know your kids better than anyone else does. The good thing about child custody is that it’s always modifiable.
If Laura Dern’s character in “Marriage Story” is inspired by you, what would you tell Scarlett Johansson’s character if she asked you about representation? Would you tell her to skip the attorney and try to work things out with Adam Driver on their own?
(Laughs) I think I would tell her that. (But) honestly, the situation in the movie was not super realistic, because of the move-away issue (Johansson’s character moves herself and her son from New York to California to star in a TV pilot). Nobody would just come here to work on a pilot for a few weeks and then be able to file here. There are residency requirements.
I think the attorney characters (also played by Ray Liotta and Alan Alda) are cautionary tales. They were made to be the bad guys. I hope that the obnoxious parts of Laura Dern’s character were not influenced by me, but I think it’s an important movie for people to see how painful divorce can be.
There is that first scene in the mediator’s office where (Johannson and Driver) are supposed to read their lists of things they love about each other. Perhaps if they had gone through that exercise early in the process, instead of later on, they would have been able to get on a better page, without the animosity and the legal fees. I think all three of the family law attorneys that were represented in the film offered a great reason for people to think about mediating and doing their divorces on their own.