Rupert Murdoch’s divorce from his third wife is likely to test the strength of his prenuptial agreement but not the control of his sprawling media empire.
On Thursday, Murdoch filed for divorce from Wendi Deng Murdoch — just two weeks before the media baron is scheduled to divide his global media empire into two companies. News Corp. said the divorce would not affect operations or control of his company.
The 82-year-old media titan filed the petition in state court in New York, where the Murdochs maintain their primary residence and where their two preteen daughters attend school.
The brief court filing said the “relationship between husband and wife has broken down irretrievably,” according to a Murdoch spokesman. No other details were provided.
The couple married on a private yacht in New York Harbor in June 1999, weeks after Murdoch’s divorce from his wife of more than 30 years was finalized. Murdoch had met Deng, the daughter of a Chinese factory supervisor, more than a year earlier when the mogul was visiting News Corp.'s Star TV operations in Hong Kong, where Deng worked as a junior executive.
Deng and Murdoch were seen together in Los Angeles for Academy Awards festivities in February, but their relationship had become strained in the last few months, according to people close to the family. Murdoch recently retained a New York divorce attorney, Ira E. Garr, to handle the divorce, a knowledgeable person said. Garr did not return a call seeking comment.
But a prominent divorce attorney familiar with the Murdoch family said neither the mogul nor his soon-to-be-ex will suffer financial hardship.
“One thing is certain: There is enough money to go around,” said Daniel Jaffe, the Beverly Hills divorce attorney who negotiated Murdoch’s divorce from his second wife, Anna Torv Murdoch Mann. “Neither Rupert Murdoch nor his wife or their children will have to push a pushcart down 5th Avenue looking for handouts.”
Murdoch controls News Corp. with 39% of its voting stock. The valuable voting shares are part of the Murdoch Family Trust.
Forbes earlier this year estimated Murdoch’s wealth at $11.2 billion. His net worth soared during the last year as News Corp.'s stock reached an all-time high. News Corp.'s widely traded shares rose 74 cents, or 2.4%, to $31.68 on Thursday. The stock has increased about 50% in the last year, ever since New Corp. announced that it would spin off its publishing assets into a separate company that will claim the name News Corp.
After the corporate breakup, scheduled for June 28, the more lucrative television and movie assets will be renamed 21st Century Fox, which Murdoch will run as chairman, CEO and controlling shareholder. Murdoch will also control the publishing company, the new News Corp.
The couple had a prenuptial agreement, but it was unclear Thursday whether Deng would challenge the provisions — a possibility, since Murdoch’s wealth has increased so dramatically in recent years. Divorce attorneys say increased wealth often becomes a sticking point in divorce settlements.
There has been contention in the past. Years ago, Deng had lobbied unsuccessfully for her daughters to be placed on an equal footing with Murdoch’s four children from his two previous marriages.
In 2006, Deng was caught off guard when, during a TV interview with Charlie Rose, Murdoch announced that his four older children — but not his children with Deng — would be participants in the Murdoch Family Trust. Murdoch said the two younger girls would have an economic interest equivalent to the adult children but they would not be entitled to the company’s voting shares.
Murdoch’s second wife and the mother of three of his adult children, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James Murdoch, had made sure of that. “That was a major piece of the negotiations of the divorce,” Jaffe said.
That divorce was complicated because Anna Murdoch Mann had served on the board of News Corp. and maintained an office in the corporate suites. Longtime company executives were torn over that breakup, feeling loyal to both sides.
In contrast, Wendi Deng Murdoch, 44, has never held a senior corporate role in News Corp. Her influence was felt, however, including relocating the senior executives to the eighth floor of the 6th Avenue building in New York to improve the building’s feng shui.
Deng famously lunged from her seat two years ago during a Parliament committee hearing in London to protect Murdoch from a heckler who attempted to shove a plate full of shaving cream into the chief executive’s face. She had been increasing her profile in recent years and two years ago produced the movie “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” which was distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Anna Murdoch Mann came away with one of the largest divorce settlements in history: $1.7 billion. The divorce agreement also stipulated that their three children — as well as Murdoch’s oldest daughter, Prudence — would be entitled to equal shares in the trust.
Prudence (or Prudence MacLeod) was born in 1958 to Murdoch and his first wife, Patricia Booker, who had been a flight attendant from Melbourne. They were married in 1956 and divorced in the mid-1960s.
People close to the family suggested Thursday that Deng would not receive a settlement anywhere near as large as the one that went to Anna Murdoch Mann.
“It will really depend on the terms of the prenuptial agreement,” Jaffe said. “I hope that everything can be resolved as amicably as it was during the last divorce settlement. Mr. Murdoch is an intelligent businessman and last time he made a good business decision.”