Special Vanderpump Rules’ “Scandoval” Edition of “Ask Stacy”


On the hit Bravo TV show “Vanderpump Rules,” long-standing series stars Tom Sandoval and Ariana Maddix separated after spending ten seasons on the show together and nine years as a committed couple. An illicit affair by Tom with Ariana’s close friend and cast member Raquel Leviss has caused a pop-culture and social media phenomenon dubbed “Scandoval.” The scandal has fans and others publicly speaking out and taking sides, mostly in favor of Ariana.

When we look at Tom and Ariana’s relationship throughout the series, they have lived as partners, even to the extent of talking about children one day. Tom and Ariana shared a $1 million+ Valley Village home regularly used in filming the show. They have supported one another’s business ventures and schemes throughout their years together and lived reported as a happy couple.

During this recent season (and in real life around March), Tom and Ariana broke up publicly as Tom’s sordid and protracted (and ongoing) relationship with Raquel slowly got revealed by the production. As reality television goes, much of the origins of the affair – which apparently had been ongoing behind the scenes of this season – were unwittingly documented and later aired by the production, making the scandal seem even more salacious. In what can only be described as reality TV “meta,” as real-time news broke and the season episodes continued to unfold, the public and fans became more aware, caught-up, and subsequently more outspoken, mostly in favor of “Team Ariana.”

Scandoval – in addition to breaking up the long-standing relationship – allegedly has had devastating emotional effects on Tom and Raquel. Although Ariana seems to be winning in the court of public opinion, the effects have likely been challenging on her, as well, having been blind-sided and cuckolded through much of the season. The TV show has been slowly dripping details of the impending relationship doom over the final episodes.

The remaining details and disclosures (and the reactions they elicit) will be coming to a head this week and throughout the two reunion episodes throughout the month of May. (The finale is tonight, and the cast reunion episodes follow in the subsequent two weeks; this topic will be the main course of that reunion.) Coverage of the production has been voyeuristic at best and lurid at worst, as fans witness cringeworthy actions and on-camera confessionals that – in hindsight – did not age well.

Q: Stacy, how would you counsel Tom or Ariana if they were your family law client?

Stacy: Unlike many other states, California does not have common-law marriage. Therefore, despite Tom and Ariana being together for nine years, they are not considered married in California. In California, we have the concept of palimony.

Remember the case with Lee Marvin and Michelle Triola? Interestingly, despite the fact that the law was made allowing that one party could sue for breach of contract in a personal relationship, in the trial Michelle Triola did not prevail. The Court ultimately found that Lee Marvin and Michele Triola did not have a contract to share income and assets as if they were married. To succeed in a palimony case, the one alleging palimony must prove that there was a written or oral contract to treat each other as if the couple was married. Unless Tom and Ariana have such a contract, there will be no palimony determination, and because California is not a common-law marriage state, they have no common-law marriage.

Q: So, Stacy, does a documented TV relationship change anything concerning potential consideration in a separation or divorce? In other words, does the fact that their relationship and assets are well-established on TV have any bearing on the case?

Stacy: You know, there is the rule of law, and then there is the rule of public opinion. This couple may own things together just like you or I would, which would be valid. But to say that they have a marriage without going through a marriage ceremony properly – with all the requirements – and just because they're on TV and act like a married couple, they're not. There's a reason we have laws and procedures for people to get married and get a divorce. That doesn't mean that this is not a very difficult breakup. They may have assets or liabilities together, which must be sorted out.

Q: These reality celebrities appear to have assets tied to the show, bought a house together, and used their home in filming. How would one separate these assets from the production and their dissolution?

Stacy: Well, we make an assumption that if they have a house together, they both own it. It may be in one person’s name, and maybe it’s in both of their names. They have a business together, but are they both shareholders? If they were married legally in California, it wouldn't matter if they were both shareholders. Still, it would matter if the businesses were created during the marriage or if “community” time was expended during the marriage or on a property asset. If the couple is not married, different rules apply. So you must look behind the façade and assess what they have together. If they truly have a business together and genuinely own a house together, then it needs to be sorted out – not as a marriage, but as, in essence, the break up of a partnership. There is no better phrase.

Q: So there wouldn't be a judge involved in that case?

Stacy: Oh, no. Absolutely there would be a judge if the couple could not reach a resolution themselves. This conflict is between two real people who are partners. It would be like my law partnership. Say I had a law firm as I did, with 20 people, and we disagreed on how to split up the firm’s assets and liabilities. If we could not resolve it on our own, we could have a lawsuit about our partnership. We were not married to each other, but we had assets together. Those conflicts happen constantly; that’s what breach of contract cases are all about.

Q: So you said there is no common-law status in California. Are there states where the common-law marriage status would be in effect?

Stacy: Yes, many states in our union have common law marriages, so one of the first things I ask a potential client is: “Did you live together in any other state before coming here, and if so, for how long?” And for that state, I would need to research to see if that's a common-law state. For example, if a couple lived together in a common-law state for ten years and, in that state, qualified as a common-law marriage, and later moved to California and were officially married in year 11, California would recognize the common-law years. So, in that case, you will have an 11-year or 12-year marriage, depending on when they split up, rather than a marriage of only a few months.

Q:  Assuming they were married, how does one spouse’s infidelity affect consideration in the separation or divorce in California?

Stacy: In California, we are a no-fault state. So people in California can have affairs and do some not-so-great things. And none of that matters, except if somebody uses money in breach of their fiduciary duty to the other spouse. I'm not talking about if they take somebody out to dinner; I am talking about if they buy a condo for somebody, pay for somebody's rent, or buy them a car – spending significant amounts of money that would be equally their spouse’s. Similarly, if one of the spouses did inappropriate things in front of the children with a new person, that would interest a judicial officer. But in and of itself, having an affair in California is irrelevant. There are some states where fault must be alleged. However, there are also some states where fault does not need to be grounds for a divorce, yet fault can affect the division of property.

Q: What advice would you give Tom if he came into your office today?

Stacy: I would tell him to be gracious. Of course, I would ask: Do you want this new relationship? If yes, I would encourage him to be generous and giving. And I always ask that my clients wear the white hat. Be the better person. In this case, look at this as an opportunity to try to fix your image. Make sure your affair is worth it!

Q:  So similarly, what if Ariana comes in and asks you how she can get more of her share of their assets?

Stacy: If Ariana came in, I would still say the same thing. I would need to see the documentation as to what you both own, how you thought you were dividing it, and if you have any written contracts. I assume you both are on the deed to your house, and you are both the shareholders in your businesses. And then, we would have to sort it out with Tom and his lawyer as to how to divide those assets. And just like I would counsel Tom, I would advise Ariana to be gracious, wear the white hat, and do the right thing by her former partner. The alternative will result in spending excess money on lawyers. It's a difficult enough problem to deal with the business division instead of having the lawyers fight with each other.

Q: Have you ever seen a case where someone who wasn't married provided some form of settlement to a long-term partner, even where there were no jointly owned assets and no children??

Stacy: I have been involved in many cases where non-married people have taken care of each other in a financial settlement, whether they have kids or don't have kids. So yes, I believe in doing the right thing, but the law you hang your hat on is vastly different if there is no marriage.

Q: Yeah, I know your first objective is to try to keep families together. In this case, Tom is still with Raquel, the other woman, and what would you say about that?

Stacy: As I’ve mentioned before, I would ask Tom if this is what he wants and if he thinks it has the potential to be long-term, as opposed to a blip. If he says he can work on his first relationship, he and Ariana should go to therapy. But you cannot go to marital or couples therapy – even if you're not married – while you are still part of an outside relationship. There are one too many people in that mix.

Q: This Vanderpump situation is further complicated by the involvement of the rest of the cast. The viewing public also is highly involved in this online debate. Do you think this narrative will help or hurt their brands?

Stacy: I hope for their sake that they deal with each other personally, directly, and in private. Do not play to the public or get influenced by your peers or the fans; if you handle this the right way, you can keep your brand image strong. Ariana may be doing much better than Tom is right now, but it depends on how they handle it from here on out.

And I encourage the highly engaged public to support each of their new restaurants; they will need it. Personally, I have been to Schwartz and Sandy’s, the Tom Sandoval and Tom Schwartz restaurant in Hollywood, and I think it’s great!

This article was published by Stacy D. Phillips on LinkedIn on May 17, 2023.