What divorce lawyers see ahead for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie: It's all about custody of the kids

In the world of celebrity splits, it doesn’t get much bigger than this: Angelina Jolie Pitt has filed for divorce from Brad Pitt, and she’s going for full custody of their six kids.

From here on out things could go one of two ways: quick and quiet, or long and loud. 

“If you remember the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes situation, you barely read any of the actual details of what happened in that case in New York,” said attorney Robert Preston, co-chair of Greenspoon Marder’s matrimonial and family law practice group in New York. “It happened very quickly. There was a mutual understanding that if this went to the press it would be impossible to resolve and it would end up in court.”

When two A-list celebrities are involved there’s a common goal of keeping things out of the media and out of the court of public opinion, said Preston, who has more than two decades handling high-profile divorces. By contrast, when a megastar is married to a someone who’s not so famous, “the spouse has a hell of a lot less to lose by going to the press and trying to make the other side look bad.”

Preston suspects that this case will have little to do with money or property and everything to do with custody. There’s no indication on the divorce petition of a pre- or post-nuptial agreement, he said, and any custody wishes laid out in such a document would be unenforceable because the court has to act in the best interest of the children, not the parents.

All of this conspires to incentivize Jolie and Pitt to settle their dissolution issues quickly and behind the scenes. Because California is a no-fault state, there doesn’t have to be a complaint alleging lots of bad acts, Preston said, if the parties can reach an agreement out of court.

“If you go to the next step of the actual complaint needing to be served about why one party is entitled to custody of the kids,” he said, “you’re going to see a lot of very press-worthy stuff.”

Already there has been speculation in the media about what might have pushed Jolie to file. Unconfirmed rumors spread by social media are kind of thing that can complicate a celebrity divorce even more than it would affect a run-of-the-mill split.

Stacy Phillips, a family law attorney with Blank Rome in Century City, found one thing about the filing to be “a bit odd”: The fact that Jolie is asking for sole physical custody of the kids but joint legal custody, which includes the ability to make decisions about the kids’ lives.

“If somebody’s not capable of having custodial time then one would surmise that they’re not capable of making decisions,” she said. But the fact that all six kids — three of them adopted and three of them born to the couple — are listed on the petition with Pitt and Jolie as mother and father is a good thing.

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“It means that these kids are going to be treated as a unit, that he formally adopted them, because they’ve known him as their dad,” she said. “That’s secure and it’s healthier for the kids.”

The kids will “sort of go as a pack” when it comes to custody, said divorce attorney Christopher Melcher of Walzer Melcher in Woodland Hills. He was the L.A.-based attorney in Katie Holmes’ divorce.

Travel for work by Pitt or Jolie is unlikely to affect a custody determination, Melcher added, because in this case both parents have more than enough resources to hire nannies, teachers and others to help out, even in the case of 50-50 custody.

At 15, eldest child Maddox Jolie-Pitt has the right to express his custody preference to the court, Phillips said, and if the request is reasonable and rational then it must be taken into consideration.

“Hopefully he won’t have to do that in court,” Phillips said, “because putting a child up in court is scary. Having to ‘choose between your parents,’ no child should have to be put in that position.

“Especially when you have kids who’ve been adopted, they have a fear of abandonment, and putting them through another go-round of that, that’s really hard on kids in general, especially adopted kids,” she said. “I hope that Angelina and Brad can work this through.”

Follow Christie D’Zurilla on Twitter @theCDZ.

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