The Brangelina split: Who gets the kids?

Divorce, Celebrity, Family/Kids, News, Relationships

When a power couple like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt split, speculation immediately begins. Did somebody cheat? Does he have an addiction problem? While the tabloids will have a field day dissecting the many possible reasons why the couple is dissolving and reporting on the accompanying drama, there is also a potential huge custody battle brewing, with six children involved.

A complicated—but irrelevant—timeline

From a legal standpoint, how should that custody battle play out? The couple have three biological children together. The other three members of the Jolie-Pitt brood were adopted by Angelina first and then later by Brad. Does that make them more hers than his?

Angelina adopted Maddox and Zahara prior to her relationship with Brad. He then adopted them after the couple became a solid domestic pair. Subsequently, Angelina adopted Pax as a single mother because of local adoption laws, and Brad adopted the boy one year later.

That sounds pretty convoluted, but the legal ramifications are more straightforward. “The fact that Brad subsequently adopted the children doesn’t affect the custody issues in this case, regardless of the timing of the adoptions,” says Scott Trout, managing partner and CEO of Cordell and Cordell. “In the eyes of the court and once the adoptions became legal, both [adoptive parents] have equal rights – the relationship and matters in determining custody upon divorce are no different than if the children were biologically theirs.”

Trout explains that adoption and divorce only become complicated if one of the parents is the biological parent and the other is a step-adoptive parent, which is not the case with Brangelina. “In this case,” he explains, “the children of Brad and Angelina will be treated in an identical manner as if all were born naturally to both.”

“Parents are parents regardless of when they got married and regardless of when the adoption went through,” says Christine Leatherberry, an attorney with Connatser Family Law in Dallas. “All that matters is whether or not they’re legal parents today.” In Brangelina’s case, “both are equal parents whether via adoption or biology,” says Leatherberry. “Angelina should have thought more carefully before letting Brad adopt her children.”

“It is in the best interest of the children.”

This is the quote that Angelina gave to the press when she announced the divorce filing. “She is reciting the legal standard,” explains Leatherberry.

Because both parents are wealthy and a prenuptial agreement is in place (a wise move on both their parts), it is likely that neither Angelina nor Brad will pursue spousal and/or child support, which will expedite the divorce process, because there is “less to fight about,” says Leatherberry.

But with either parent more than able to provide materially for the children, the question of “best interest” will rest largely on emotional nurturing and stability. “What matters is which parents can provide a happier and healthier living situation,” says Carole Lieberman, a forensic psychiatric expert witness in Beverly Hills. “This is why Angelina has alleged that Brad is abusive to the children and a substance abuser—a frequent ploy instigated by one or both parents in a custody battle.”

Angelina, in particular, should be careful. “If she becomes overly emotional and starts alienating the children from Brad, a judge could rule against her,” says Lieberman.

When allegations are fact

On the other hand, if the allegations of drug and alcohol abuse and anger issues do turn out to be true, then it’s Brad who should be concerned. “If the court believes Brad is abusing drugs or alcohol, he may be denied the right to share in the care of his children, or physical custody,” says Trout.

“Likewise, the court may take away Brad’s legal custody—his right to make decisions for the children—if substance abuse is proven and he does not seek counseling or make other efforts to achieve sobriety,” Trout explains. “Many states will automatically appoint a Guardian ad Litem to represent the children’s best interest when such allegations are present and to investigate Angelina’s claims and make recommendations to the court as to custody.”

The sheer celebrity of this couple, however, may change things. “I doubt we will ever see any substantive evidence of alcohol/drug use,” says Trout. “Rather, allegations such as these are made public initially to force the opposing party into settlement mode, where Brad . . . will have to make a choice of career or maximum time with his children.”

When the not-so-rich and famous get divorced

For anyone heading down the path of divorce, regardless of their level of celebrity, attorney Nicole Sodoma, managing principal of Sodoma Law P.C. in Charlotte, North Carolina, recommends considering these top three issues:

Legal vs. Physical Custody. As mentioned earlier, there’s a difference between legal and physical custody. Legal custody means that the parent has a right to be involved in important decisions that impact the children, such as where they will go to school, what religion they’re raised in, and whether they need medical treatment. Physical custody refers to where the children will physically reside most of the time. Initial reports on the Jolie-Pitt divorce state that Jolie has requested physical custody, with Pitt relegated to having visitation of their six children. Though every state has its own set of rules, there are useful guidelines to follow when making this decision – and everyone should start by having a thorough understanding of their children’s routines and relationship with each parent.

Need more information on child custody? Get more information and investigate your legal options here.

Don’t let legalese become a distraction. Sodoma encourages parents to concentrate on the goals for the divorce—especially when dealing with custody. Parties should take the time to think about what their children need (even if that means changing routines and habits to fit the needs of the children).

Financial disclosure helps everyone. Divorce will be more fraught without resources and assets being disclosed from both sides, according to Sodoma. Understanding the marital estate and excluding what should not be considered for purposes of division will help smooth the path to divorce. Fear that a spouse is hiding assets or that the spouse has been planning the separation for a while often brings contention to the dissolution.

Bottom line: The way the Jolie-Pitt kids came into their big family has little bearing on who they’ll end up with following the divorce. What matters more is whether or not Angelina’s accusations about Brad are true.

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