Two weeks ago, Melanie Brown, aka “Mel B” – the former Spice Girl and current judge of “America’s Got Talent” – filed for divorce from her husband, Stephen Belafonte, a film producer. Mel B also sought a restraining order, alleging that Belafonte physically and emotionally abused her. One story reported that Heidi Klum saw the bruises on Mel B after one of these attacks. Mel B also asked for sole legal and physical custody of their six-year-old daughter. This week, Belafonte filed his own petition, seeking joint custody and spousal support.
Why would a film producer seek or need spousal support?
It turns out that his career as a producer has relied mostly on projects related to his wife. He appears to be dependent upon her for the Hollywood lifestyle.
So, could a court require Mel B to share custody with, and pay spousal support to, an allegedly abusive and lazy ex? Yes.
First, and importantly, we as yet do not know if the allegations of abuse are accurate. But let’s assume they are correct. Acts of domestic violence do not immediately disqualify a parent from serving as a joint legal or physical custodian unless a court finds that the acts do pose a threat of harm to the minor child. So it remains possible that a court could agree with Mel B that her ex did commit domestic violence but still serve as a physical custodian for their daughter. Does this seem to defy logic? Some would say so, arguing that a past pattern of abuse is a strong predictor of future acts of abuse. However, our statutes do not automatically presume this connection, leaving it to the court to review the evidence and make that determination.
Second, while domestic violence could impact the division of property as part of marital misconduct, it alone would not eliminate the award of spousal support, as that award depends on the ability of a spouse to provide for his or her reasonable needs. It is possible that Belafonte could show his income depended solely on Mel B, and that without her he could not maintain the lifestyle he has shared with her for the past ten years. If a court made these findings, that could serve as the basis for an award of spousal support.
It seems unlikely that this divorce will play out in public filings about abuse allegations but will follow the path of the Jolie-Pitt proceedings that went quiet and private. Celebrities do not want to air dirty laundry, principally (and perhaps cynically) because it damages their collective brand and their future earnings. Slinging mud will not help Mel B, even if what she alleges is true. It may make more economic sense to pay off the ex, and keep from making a public record of allegations for their daughter to read when she is older. This may not seem the optimal or just outcome, but family law works within certain parameters that sometimes makes the best outcome too costly to pursue for everyone involved.
With this said, readers should not think that a domestic abuser can get away with abuse and still get support and full parenting rights. Our courts do police domestic violence and limit custody based on these findings every day, and those acts can form the basis of misconduct that costs abusers financially as well. Mel B’s case just shows how sometimes it is better to lose the battle to win the war.
If you have questions about domestic abuse and divorce, contact us – we can help.