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How Rich People Get Divorced in Secret

The Cut

In the summer of 2018, a stay-at-home mom in Los Angeles, whom we’ll call Julia, and her husband, a talent agent, decided to hire a mediator for their divorce. Their split was acrimonious — she’d caught her husband bringing women back to their home, and in retaliation, she broke a few items in the garage — and both partners wanted to avoid having their marital issues aired out in family court. The stakes only compounded when her husband got a DUI. “If we had been in court, it would have been really embarrassing,” she told me.


Increasingly, though, it is not just celebrities who have hired private judges but a hodgepodge of wealthy and upper-middle-class Americans: small-business owners, dermatologists, hedge-fund managers, a C-suite executive at a plant-based-meat start-up, and so on. The method may be particularly attractive in the wake of the pandemic as many states suffer from court backlogs. In California, for instance, the clearance rate of marital disputes fell to 79 percent in 2021, down from 100 percent in 2015. For anyone with the money to pay the steep hourly fee — usually upwards of $800 per hour, or a day rate of $8,000 — private judging offers a way to skip the line. In the public-court system, “you can sometimes not get a trial date for two, three years because it’s so delayed,” Kristina Royce, a prominent matrimonial lawyer whose client list includes Schwarzenegger, told me. But if you ask a private judge to hold a trial four months down the line, most likely “it won’t be a problem.”

Private judging is generally a last-ditch option even for the rich. Royce estimated that 95 percent of her divorce cases are settled through mediation alone. “And then if we can’t settle, we’ll switch to using them as a private judicial officer,” she said. People with money often hire private judges to rule on a specific, urgent issue they are facing — for instance, if one ex-spouse is moving away and the former couple needs to renegotiate a child-custody agreement.

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"How Rich People Get Divorced in Secret," by Michael Waters was published in The Cut on March 31, 2023.