In Divorce, as in Sports, The Preference is For A Level Playing Field

Article originally appeared in the June 12, 2012 issue of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin written by Thomas F. Villanti and Evan D. Whitfield


This past Sunday saw the final day of the 2012 Barclay’s Premier League (BPL) season, which, for soccer fans, was a truly amazing spectacle. European soccer is often decried for its lack of competitive balance, which to many American sports fans (NFL & NBA in particular) seems terribly lopsided and unfair. This past weekend’s match-ups offer the perfect example: Manchester City (City) and Manchester United (United), first and second in the standings respectively and two of the BPL’s financial heavyweights, faced financially inferior sides and perpetual league bottom-of-the-barrel feeders Queens Park Rangers (17th) and Sunderland (13th) to determine the 2012 League Champion. As to be expected, both United and City won, with City taking the overall title based on goal differential. The lack of a mechanism to level the financial playing field in European football has resulted in the richest teams (United, City, Arsenal and Chelsea) winning every BPL title since 1995. To any casual observer, the competition just isn’t fair. By contrast, in the United States, the National Football League (NFL), with its salary caps, weighted draft system, and revenue sharing is the most “fair” of all U.S. sports and, accordingly, has produced a much more competitively balanced product that has led to 12 different teams winning the Super Bowl over the same period of time.

Domestic relations litigation in Illinois, as in most jurisdictions, and like the NFL, prefers that a certain level of parity be reached between the competing parties. Unlike traditional litigation where each party is solely responsible for his or her own attorneys’ fees, in the Domestic Relations division, while both parties are initially responsible for the fees they individually incur (In re Marriage of Mantei, 222 Ill. App. 3d 933), the less moneyed party may be awarded interim fees and a contribution award if he or she can successfully demonstrate an inability to pay their own fees and also show that the other party has the ability to pay (750 ILCS 5/501(c-1), 503(j)). Illinois is not unique in its attempts to create a level playing field. In fact, Texas shares similar concepts regarding shifting of attorneys’ fees.

The most recent athlete to experience the off-field competitive balance is ex-Cowboys great Deion “Primetime” Sanders. Sanders’ wife, Pilar, filed for divorce in December 2011. Since then, her counsel has racked up $275,000 in legal fees, which a Texas court recently ordered “Primetime” to pay in addition to the $10,550 of monthly child support.

Despite players’ extensive knowledge of the intricate rules laid down by the NFL and Collective Bargaining Agreements regarding the draft, salary caps and marketing revenue, many professional athletes involved in family law litigation are not prepared for the financial parity that a Domestic Relations Court may force upon them when granting a Petition for Interim and Prospective Attorneys’ Fees and Costs. But, as in sports, a level playing field in the courtroom is, ultimately, better for all parties involved. Financial parity allows cases to be decided on their merits and ensures that each side has, at least theoretically, access to equal representation.

Agents and advisors to athletes need to forewarn their clients that their divorce proceeding or paternity action is not going to be similar to a matchup between Manchester City versus QPR or the Yankees versus the Royals. It is more likely going to be a relatively even affair, with a slim point spread, more akin to an NFL Super Bowl, all the more reason to find value in retaining a top-rated firm to handle their client’s next family law matter, rather than rely on outspending their opponents.

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