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Divorce and Suicide Bombers
October 1, 2002
Recently, the former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, was the “victim” of a suicide bomber. His soon-to-be-ex-wife, Janet, filed divorce papers claiming that the $35,000 a month in support she was receiving does not allow her to enjoy the lifestyle she enjoyed during the marriage. To evidence their lavish lifestyle, she alleged that GE paid for their luxurious Manhattan apartment, including food, wine, cook and waitstaff, lavish furnishings, travel expenses, entertainment, private car and driver and computer equipment. While Welch denied the allegations, they were taken seriously by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which opened an investigation.
The media had a field day with the allegations. In addition to questioning the alleged “perks” which Jack received from GE, they had fun with Janet’s allegations of an inability to get by on a mere $35,000 in support. Neither Jack nor Janet looked good in the press.
While the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage is one of many factors entering into a maintenance case, certainly there have to be better ways to establish it than the very public method chosen by Janet Welch. In fact, the judge found that her financial statement contained inappropriate “editorial comment” and said “It’s a brief, not just a financial statement, because there are opinions in it.”
While it is entertaining to read about the lifestyle of the rich and famous, does it really benefit Janet Welch to publicly humiliate and, perhaps, destroy Jack Welch? Does anyone really think this case is about money?
In my firm, we are fortunate to represent a number of people in the public eye, either in politics, sports or entertainment. Regardless of which side we represent, our standard advice is to avoid publicity. While there may be short-term satisfaction in seeing one’s spouse humiliated, the long-term consequences are adverse to both parties.
A typical example is where the husband’s income, as reported on his IRS 1040 forms, have little to do with his real income. The wife must consider two potential consequences before going public: First, did she sign the joint return? If so, having the IRS extend innocent spouse protection is far from guaranteed. Second, if the IRS only pursues its remedies against the husband and if they are successful, what is the effect on her potential support if the same income stream is interrupted?
It is doubtful that Mrs. Welch ever considered these consequences. Sometimes, the satisfaction in destroying the other spouse’s image and making his or her life miserable is the only mission at hand. In this way, these spouses are similar to suicide bombers. Whether they have legitimate grievances or not is lost in the ensuing explosion.
How can this be prevented? Counseling and psychotherapy are certainly required. Collaborative divorce was developed to provide a means for handling divorce cases in a non-adversarial manner. And early interventions by the lawyers might help to convince both parties to proceed on a “win-win” versus a “lose-lose” basis by examining the long-term consequences. (To learn more about collaborative divorce, visit The Collaborative Family Law Council of Wisconsin.)
Sometimes, none of these approaches works. Like a suicide bomber, some spouses are so intent on destroying the “enemy”, they don’t care if they destroy themselves in the process. In those cases, all that is left is to clean up the damage afterwards.
This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Law Journal.