The Billion Dollar Divorce

Hamm Divorce CheckHarold Hamm and his ex-wife Sue Ann Arnall have just joined the unenviable ranks of the most expensive divorce settlements in U.S. history, after an Oklahoma court ordered Hamm to pay Arnall nearly a billion dollars as part of a divorce settlement following their 26-year marriage.

Hamm, a self-made Oklahoma oil magnate, is the majority shareholder and CEO of Continental Resources. Forbes credited Hamm with “fueling America’s recovery” and estimated his net worth at more than $18 billion dollars, making him the 24th richest man in the country. Hamm was also named as energy advisor for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

The Marriage

In 1988, Harold Hamm married his second wife Sue Ann Arnall, a woman a decade his junior. Hamm’s first marriage to wife Judith Ann ended over allegations that he was having an affair with Sue Ann.

At the time, Arnall was a lawyer at Continental and Hamm was just beginning to snap up roughly one million acres of land leases in North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada in what is known as the Bakken formation. The Bakken turned out to be one of the richest underground oil reserves in the United States.

The Divorce

The secretive nine-week divorce trial focused largely on what exactly led Harold Hamm to discover the Bakken, thereby creating his enormous fortune. Was it shrewd skill and speculative expertise or just dumb luck as Hamm claimed?

Under Oklahoma law, investment growth during marriage can be part of a divorce settlement if made through “active forces” such as skill, work ethic or expertise. If, on the other hand, the growth is attributable to “passive forces”, such as changing economic conditions or circumstances beyond the parties’ control, then it is considered separate property.

Harold and Sue Ann Hamm JEMAL COUNTESS/GETTY

Harold and Sue Ann Hamm

In November 2014, the Oklahoma court found that Hamm’s skills, efforts and leadership, touted for years in Continental’s SEC filings, were responsible for the couples’ growth in marital fortune. However, the court estimated the couples’ marital estate at only $2 billion, not the $18 billion touted in Forbes. Certain assets, such as Orbit Gas Storage, were valued at zero in the ruling. See a full copy of the memorandum order here.

The court awarded Arnall half of the marital estate, including a $17.4 million ranch in Carmel Valley, CA and an equalization payment of nearly $1 billion in cash.  However, Arnell plans to appeal the ruling, claiming the court considered only a fraction of the couples’ multi-billion dollar estate.

Hamm pledged nearly 20% of his Continental stock in order to quickly write a check that would stop interest from accruing during Arnall’s appeal. Arnall deposited the check in January 2015, but still plans to proceed with an appeal.

The Appeal

Hamm’s attorney claims that Arnall’s acceptance of the check ends her case, since she has “accepted the benefits of the ruling”. Arnall, however, argues that accepting the money on the table is the only intelligent thing to do while she awaits appeal.

Interviewed by People, Arnell said “The court’s rulings on Tuesday left me in a position where I would receive no distributions of the marital estate during the appeal, which could last numerous years, and would be required to ‘show need’ in order to obtain temporary support.”

She added, “I believe it is unfair that any woman’s property be controlled by a former husband. During our 26-year marriage, and during the nearly three years this case has been pending, Hamm has had complete control and full use of the assets we built together, while I have patiently waited for access. I was simply not willing to wait several more years while the appeal is pending.”

Lisa L. Fiance, Esq.

Lisa L. Fiance, Esq. is a California family law attorney, divorce mediator, and the owner of Epiphany ADR. The information contained in this article is intended as general information and does not constitute legal or tax advice.


California Guideline Child Support

California courts determine child support according to a complicated but standardized “guideline” formula found in Family Code § 4055.

Principles of Guideline Child Support

California guideline seeks to encourage fair and efficient settlements of conflicts between parents and seeks to minimize the need for litigation. In implementing the statewide uniform guideline, the Court must adhere to the following principles:

  • Guideline seeks to place the interests of children as the top priority.
  • Guideline child support is presumptively correct. Only under special circumstances should child support fall below the guideline However, the presumption is rebuttable in some rare cases.
  • Child support orders must ensure that children actually receive fair, timely, and sufficient support reflecting the high standard of living and child raising costs in California.

California Guideline Factors

California guideline child support considers several factors, including:

  • Custodial Timeshare: Custodial timeshare is the amount of time the child spends with each parent. Whether parents share joint custody or one parent has “sole” physical custody, there is typically some custodial timeshare percentage that applies based on visitation.
  • Annual gross income: Gross income includes income from ALL sources, including but not limited to: wages, salaries, bonuses, commissions, royalties, rents, dividends, pensions, interest, trust income, annuities, workers’ compensation, unemployment, disability, social security and spousal support from another marriage.
  • Earning capacity: If one parent is unemployed, the court MAY consider that parent’s earning capacity in lieu of actual income. The court does this in the best interest of the children, so that neither parent can voluntarily avoid employment. If earning capacity is imputed to the custodial parent, however, the supporting parent generally must contribute to childcare costs.
  • Tax Factors: Gross income is reduced by actual tax liability, as determined by the guideline calculation software. Tax liability is based on each parent’s tax filing status, number of exemptions and qualifying deductions, and may differ from the amount withheld from paycheck withholding.
  • Allowable child support deductions: Each parent is allowed deductions for state and federal income tax liability, FICA, mandatory union dues, mandatory retirement contributions, pre-tax health insurance premiums for the parent and child, any child support or spousal support already being paid, necessary job-related expenses, and certain California adjustments to income. Further deductions, known as “hardships”, may be available for extraordinary medical expenses or catastrophic losses.

Child Support Add-Ons

Certain other expenses are considered child support “add-ons”. Some expenses are mandatory child support add-ons, meaning that the court must include them in guideline child support if the expenses exist. These expenses include childcare costs related to employment or reasonably necessary job training and reasonable uninsured health care costs for the children. Other child support add-ons are at the court’s discretion. These include costs related to “special” needs or education of the children and travel expenses for visitation.


Lisa L. Fiance, Esq.Lisa L. Fiance, Esq. is a family law attorney, divorce mediator, and the owner of Epiphany ADR in beautiful Oceanside, CA. The information contained in this article is intended as general information and does not constitute legal advice. If you have legal questions about child support, you should consult with legal counsel in the state in which you reside.


The Affordable Care Act and Joint Custody

The Affordable Care Act brings important changes to parents with respect to obtaining health care coverage for themselves and their children.  These changes are especially important to parents who share joint custody.

Individual Mandate

Beginning in 2014, all individuals are required to carry minimum essential health coverage for themselves and their “dependents”.  The parent who claims the exemption for the child on the tax return has the “dependent”, not necessarily the custodial parent.  Failure to provide such coverage may subject the parent claiming the exemption to a penalty when filing their taxes.

Tax Penalty

The penalty for not maintaining sufficient coverage is:

  • 2014:   $95 per adult or 1% of yearly household income, whichever is greater
  • 2015:  $325 per adult or 2% of yearly household income, whichever is greater
  • 2016:  $695 per adult or 2.5% of yearly household income, whichever is greater

The additional penalty for an uninsured child under age 18 is half of the penalty for an uninsured adult.


Exemption from the penalty may be available to individuals:

  • With religious exemptions;
  • Who are incarcerated;
  • Who are not situated in the United States;
  • For whom coverage exceeds 8% (in 2014) of their household income;
  • With income below the tax filing threshold:
  • Who are members of Indian tribes;
  • With short coverage gaps (less than 3 months); or
  • Experiencing qualifying hardships with respect to the capability to obtain coverage under a qualified health plan.


What do these Affordable Care Act changes mean for parents who share joint custody?   It means communication and cooperation are even more important to co-parenting than they were before.

Many parents who share joint custody also share the tax exemption.  Parents sometimes alternate who will claim the exemption each year.  Sometimes they split exemptions for multiple children.  However, it’s very uncommon for parents to alternate who will provide health care coverage for the children from year to year.

Therefore, it now becomes critical that parents share proof of insurance information with each other.  Failure to provide coverage or proof of insurance may subject the parent claiming the exemption to a penalty when filing their taxes.

If you have legal questions about how the Affordable Care Act affects your joint custody or child support, you should consult with legal counsel in the state in which you reside.

Lisa Fiance, Esq. is a licensed California attorney, formally trained mediator, and the owner of Epiphany ADR. The information contained in this article is intended as general information and does not constitute legal or tax advice.

The Basis of the Child Support Obligation

Mutual Duty of Child Support

A parent’s first and principal obligation is to support his or her minor children according to the parent’s circumstances and station in life.  Under California law, this means:

  1. Both parents are mutually responsible for the support of their children.  The custodial parent is presumed to contribute some level of child support by providing a home and care for the child.
  2. Each parent should pay child support according to his or her ability.
  3. Children should share in the standard of living of both parents. Child support may therefore improve the standard of living of the custodial parent in order to improve the lives of the children.
  4. The financial needs of the children should be met through private financial resources (versus public assistance) as much as possible.

No Waivers

Child support is vastly different from spousal support.  In divorce mediation, parties can agree to waive spousal support or limit the court’s ability to decide issues involving spousal support. There are no such waivers where child support is involved.

No Waiver of Child Support

The right to child support lies exclusively with the child, independent of the parental relationship or any agreement between the parents. Therefore, unlike property and spousal support provisions, parents cannot contract away child support provisions without taking the proper legal actions.  Also, a custodial parent cannot deny the other parent’s visitation solely for the reason of unpaid child support.

No Waiver of Court Jurisdiction

In contrast to spousal support, parties may not limit the court’s jurisdiction over child support.  In California, the court must retain jurisdiction to set child support. Even if the custodial parent does not request child support from the other parent, the local child support agency (DCSS in California) may pursue a case for child support on the child’s behalf anytime public assistance is requested.

Lisa L. Fiance, Esq.Lisa L. Fiance, Esq. is a family law attorney, divorce mediator, and the owner of Epiphany ADR in beautiful Oceanside, CA.  The information contained in this article is intended as general information and does not constitute legal advice.  If you have legal questions about child support, you should consult with legal counsel in the state in which you reside.


9 Ways to Reduce the Cost of Your Divorce

Divorce is never an easy or pleasant process.  However, these tips can help you minimize the time, conflict and cost associated with the divorce process.

1.    Decide Which of You Will Be the Petitioner

The divorce process officially begins when one of you files a Petition for Dissolution with the Court.  This does not have to be an adversarial process.  California is a no-fault state, which means that there are no legal penalties based on which spouse “caused” the divorce.  Therefore, almost all California divorces are filed based simply on “irreconcilable differences”.

If you have not already served your spouse, or been served with papers yourself, the two of you have an opportunity to decide which of you will initiate the process.  Often, the spouse who feels more strongly that divorce is appropriate prefers to be the petitioner.  Some lawyers feel there is an advantage to being either the petitioner or the respondent, so it wise to seek legal advice before taking any actions.

2.    Be Open to Divorce Mediation

Prior to filing, you should decide if you will try divorce mediation.  If you have been able to discuss issues openly and reasonably in the past then, even if neither of you agree on any of the issues at hand, divorce mediation may be a good option for you.  If there are significant imbalances of power, or if domestic violence or child abuse are involved, then you probably need the representation of a family law attorney.

3.    Agree On Your Date of Separation

Your date of separation is determined by the day that you physically separated and one of you decided that the marriage was “irretrievably broken”.  You did not have to both agree at the time one of you made this final decision.  While couples may separate and then work things out several times, there can only be one legal date of separation.  Your date of separation affects many features of your divorce, including the characterization of your property and earnings and spousal support.

4.    Seek Independent Legal Advice

Even if you agree on most issues and want to avoid legal proceedings as much as possible, it is important that you discuss your options with a family lawyer or divorce attorney.  Some lawyers offer free consultations, while others charge an hourly rate.  Even if it costs each of you a few hundred dollars, it is worth the money to understand the presumptions of California community property law, your options regarding custody and visitation, and your rights and obligations concerning child and spousal support.

Certain lawyers use a process called collaborative divorce, in which they will advise you of your rights while also trying to work cooperatively with the other side to reach agreement outside of court.  Collaborative divorce can also involve other professionals, such as child specialists and divorce coaches, and additional written agreements to encourage fair and civil negotiation of the issues.

5.    The More You Can Participate and Agree, the More You Will Save

Ironically, at the same time you are divorcing based on irreconcilable differences, the more you can agree on issues and participate cooperatively in your own divorce, the more money each spouse can save.  It is possible to complete an uncontested divorce by representing yourselves “in pro per” (without a lawyer).  However, the process and forms required (see below) can be complicated.  You must be willing to research self-help resources, complete required forms, and file the forms by certain deadlines.

6.    Discuss Ideas for Property Division

Divorce attorneys typically approach issues of custody, support and attorney fees in that order.  Divorce mediation uses a different approach. Typically, property division is addressed first so that spouses will know what they each have to work with.

In divorce mediation and collaborative divorce, spouses can make their own decisions as to what constitutes “fair division” of the marital property.  Spouses who work cooperatively may be able to avoid the sale of their home and the division of other valuable assets such as 401(k) and pension plans.

7.    Work Together to Create a Parenting Plan

Next, try to change your mind frame from being “spouses” to being “parents”.  Children benefit when parents can communicate and work cooperatively in their best interests.  A successful parenting plan will have a regular schedule, an exception schedule, a holiday schedule, a communication plan, and other agreements that will reduce the chance of future conflict.

8.    Mediate Reasonable Support

Court awards of child support or spousal support are often the biggest point of contention in a litigated divorce. These issues can result in thousands of dollars in legal fees, and sometimes both spouses are still unhappy with the court’s decision.

In California, child support is based on a statewide “guideline”.  A family lawyer or divorce mediator can run the complicated equation that determines an estimate of what the court will award.  In divorce mediation and collaborative divorce, you can use the guideline as a starting point, but you can also agree to add other exceptional factors into your child support agreement.

Determining “reasonable” spousal support can get a bit trickier.  Temporary spousal support is based primarily on each party’s last twelve months of income.  However, when determining permanent spousal support, the court considers additional factors, including:

  • The earning capacity of each spouse;
  • Contributions to education, training or licensing of the high earner spouse;
  • The length of marriage;
  • The marital standard of living;
  • The age, health and work history of each spouse;
  • The need and ability to pay support;
  • The need to finish raising minor children;
  • The goal that the supported spouse be self-supporting within a reasonable time;
  • The obligations and assets, including separate property, of each spouse;
  • The immediate and specific tax consequences to either spouse;
  • Any history of domestic violence; and
  • “Other factors” the court deems appropriate.

Spouses using divorce mediation or collaborative divorce can agree to waive spousal support in consideration for other terms, determine regular payments for a set duration, or agree to a single lump sum payment consisting of cash or property.

9.    Assist in Forms Preparation

Much of the California divorce process uses Judicial Council forms.  However, knowing which forms are required and filing them at the right times can be confusing.  You can reduce the cost of your divorce if both spouses are forthcoming with information and timely with forms preparation.  You should also both be familiar with the dissolution process.  A self-help overview of the divorce process is typically provided at each county superior court’s website.

Lisa L. Fiance, Esq.

Lisa L. Fiance, Esq. is a California family lawyer and divorce mediator and the owner of Epiphany ADR. The information contained in this article is intended as general information and does not constitute legal advice.  If you are considering divorce, you and your prospective spouse should consult with independent legal counsel in the state whose laws you want to govern your agreement.


California Prenup Basics

Although it may not seem romantic, investing in an enforceable premarital agreement can be one of your smartest wedding preparations.  Statistics show that the national divorce rate is about 50%.  In California, it’s about 60%.

Public Policy on Premarital Agreements

Premarital agreements, commonly known as “prenups”, are governed by the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act (UPAA), codified in California by Family Code §1600 et seq.  In fact, forty-eight states have codified the UPAA into their statutes, showing that general legislative policy supports premarital agreements.  While some critics still contend that premarital agreements encourage divorce, California courts tend to view them as mutual, voluntary agreements between spouses (in advance of actual marriage) “intended to foster or perpetuate conditions that will help preserve a forthcoming marriage.”

Enforceable Terms of a Premarital Agreement

Under California law, prospective spouses may contract as to the following issues:

  • Property rights upon separation, divorce, death or the occurrence/non-occurrence of any event;
  • The right to buy, sell, use, transfer, exchange, abandon, lease, consume, expend, assign, create a security interest in, mortgage, encumber, dispose of, or otherwise manage and control property;
  • The execution of other arrangements to carry out the provisions of the premarital agreement;
  • The ownership rights and benefits from a life insurance policy;
  • The choice of law governing the construction of the agreement; and
  • Any other matter that does not violate public policy or constitute a crime.

Prospective California spouses may NOT contract terms that:

  • Waive the obligation of mutual respect, fidelity and support between spouses during marriage;
  • Waive full disclosure obligations;
  • Agree to pay for domestic services or companionship;
  • Dictate the religious upbringing of children;
  • Waive or limit the statutory right of child to receive support from each parent;
  • Provide large conditional payments or other terms that might tend to promote divorce; or
  • Provide penalties for “fault” during marriage.

Requirements for a Valid Premarital Agreement

In order for a premarital agreement to be enforceable, both prospective spouses must enter the agreement voluntarily.  “Voluntarily” means several things.  First, it means that each party is an adult (or emancipated minor) and has mental capacity to contract. Second, prospective spouses may not subject the other to fraud, menace, duress or undue influence.

Each prospective spouse must provide fair and full disclosure of the existence and valuation of their assets, debts, income and expenses to the other prospective spouse.  Each spouse must have at least seven calendar days to review the premarital agreement before signing it.

Premarital agreements must be in writing, signed by both parties, and cannot be unconscionable.  “Unconscionability” refers to elements of oppression, unfair surprise or unreasonable one-sidedness. Unconscionability is assessed at the time of execution, except for issues of spousal support, which are also assessed at the time of challenge to enforcement.

Under California law, each spouse must either obtain independent counsel to advise them of their legal rights, or waive the right of independent counsel in a separate written waiver after being fully advised in writing of the rights and obligations that they may be giving up by entering into a premarital agreement.

Effectiveness of a Premarital Agreement

A premarital agreement becomes effective and is conditional upon the eventual marriage of the parties.  Therefore, if parties decide NOT to marry, the premarital agreement is enforceable only to the extent necessary to avoid an inequitable result.  After marriage, a premarital agreement may be amended or revoked only by a written agreement signed by both spouses.

The information contained in this article is intended as general information and does not constitute legal advice.  If you are considering entering into a premarital agreement, you and your prospective spouse should consult with independent legal counsel in the state whose laws you want to govern your agreement.

Lisa Fiance, Esq. is a licensed California attorney, formally trained mediator, and the owner of Epiphany ADR.  Submit the form below to learn more about CA premarital agreements.Epiphany Head Shot (700 kb)