Kobe Bryant Fails to See Benefit of Premarital Agreements in Athletics

Article originally appeared in the September 31, 2012 issue of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin written by Thomas F. Villanti and Evan D. Whitfield


Kobe Bryant was born and raised to be a NBA superstar.  As the son of Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe grew up within the professional environment as his father bounced around the NBA, finally settling in the professional ranks in Italy.

Despite his pedigree, Kobe had to dedicate himself tirelessly to the game, make numerous personal sacrifices most of us would not and consistently make the correct game-time decisions in order to reach the level of success that he has enjoyed throughout his career.

One would think that someone so adept at making the correct decisions regarding his sport would be as equally adept at making life decisions.  Looking at Kobe’s past personal transgressions makes it quite apparent that the one-time NBA wunderkind’s decision-making acumen falls short when he is not battling an opposing defense or the final seconds of a game clock.

Even though Kobe was raised by a former NBA player and reportedly received advice on the subject from living legends Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, he refused to negotiate a premarital agreement with his then penniless, music-video-dancing, teenage bride, Vanessa Laine.  When Bryant and Vanessa met, he had already amassed substantial wealth with his initial $3.5 million contract with the L.A. Lakers and endorsements with Adidas and Sprite.  At the time of their marriage, Kobe’s game and popularity had increased and he re-signed with the Lakers for approximately $11.2 million.

Ten years later, Vanessa filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences.”  To date, the details of the pending divorce have remained largely out of the public domain.  There has been wide speculation as to the reasons for the divorce, the amount of wealth the parties have accumulated and whether or not the parties entered into a premarital agreement.  As family practitioners, the first question that comes to mind is how could Kobe not have a premarital agreement?

Many people agree (several without any basis) that professional athletes enjoy being catered to and expect to be treated differently, which makes them wonder why an athlete, especially one of Kobe’s stature, would subject himself to the default rules of divorce.  With upward of 80 percent of professional athletes eventually being divorced, Kobe took an unexplainable gamble when he married without a premarital agreement.  For a player that quite obviously put in significant premarital time in preparing himself for the NBA and setting himself up to accumulate substantial wealth, he spent very little time in preparing for his, at least statistically speaking, inevitable divorce.

Several sources have reported Kobe’s marital estate to be an estimated $150 million.  Personally, this sounds quite low when Forbes magazine is reporting that he grossed $53 million last year alone.  Although the exact wealth of the Bryants is not certain, it is certain that Kobe stands to lose about one-half of this wealth.

What might be even more worrisome to Kobe, depending on what information he told his wife during their marriage, is that right now there is no restriction on what Vanessa shares with the public.  We all remember reading allegations of a young lady who accused Kobe of sexually assaulting her in Colorado.  More recently, there have also been reports of extramarital infidelities.  In fact, several sources report that Kobe may have stepped outside of the marriage on more than 100 occasions.

As you can imagine, Vanessa may hold the keys to some valuable information that members of the media would pay a fortune to obtain.  Tiger Woods’ recent escapades are examples of the public fascination with this topic.  The take-home point here is that many of the eventualities that may soon come to pass for Kobe could have been taken into account in a premarital agreement drafted by an expert family law practitioner.

Generally speaking, a premarital agreement is a contract that can contain virtually any type of provision.  The primary restrictions on topics of a premarital agreement are that it cannot be in violation of public policy and it cannot negotiate custody, visitation or child support.

A premarital agreement is designed to give parties predictability as to what will happen in the event of a divorce.  Without a premarital agreement, any assets and income received subsequent to the marriage are presumed to be marital property and are subject to distribution  upon divorce according to a state’s laws.  In many states, this equates to dividing the estate equally.

Further, without a premarital agreement, parties subject themselves to the provisions of their state’s statute dealing with spousal support.  Spousal support is calculated based upon a number of factors, typically including the payer’s ability to pay and the payee’s needs, which are often measured by the parties’ lifestyle during the marriage.

Under the law in California (where the Bryants live), a marriage is considered to be lengthy if it lasts for 10 years.  Since the Bryants have been married for just more than 10 years, Vanessa will have a strong argument that the court should retain jurisdiction regarding spousal support and that she should receive spousal support significant enough to maintain the standard of living, post divorce, that was established during the marriage.

The amount of effort and expertise that Kobe and his professional team have exerted over the years set the stage for Kobe to gross $53 million last year.  Creating a successful marketing image for a high school player turned pro, then rebuilding that marketing image after the alleged sexual assault, took an extraordinary amount of work.  If Kobe and his team had spent a fraction of that time and effort to locate and retain equal expertise to advise Kobe on his family law issues, he may have been persuaded to do things differently and would not be forfeiting half of his wealth, which he is undoubtedly about to do.

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