Beyond The Public Image: Divorce For Sports Professionals

by | Apr 20, 2023 | Divorce

The lifestyle of professional athletes is often commensurate with their contract and any endorsements, licensing, and NIL (name, image, likeness) earnings. Like other high-net-worth professionals, athletes often have a complex portfolio of tangible and intangible assets and liabilities. When facing divorce, their marital estate will be divided following the rules of the state that has jurisdiction over the case.

Statistics indicate a higher divorce rate among professional athletes (greater than 60%) than the national average (less than 50%). Many suggest that the primary contributor to this rate increase is the nexus of:

  • High incomes (especially if combined with low financial discipline);
  • The particular physical and mental stresses associated with athletics;
  • The decreased family time due to intense travel schedules; and
  • Temptations offered by adoring fans.

Regardless of the causes, divorces among professional athletes present some unique challenges. In this article, we will address three of these:

Marital Estate Division And Alimony

Professional athletes who play in the “big leagues” usually become high-net-worth individuals. In addition to their basic contract pay, which itself is often high, their income streams may include:

  • Signing bonuses;
  • Playoff / championship incentives; 
  • Endorsement deals; 
  • Media and event appearances.

The athlete’s work contracts, including for their primary work or for secondary product endorsements and media or event appearances, pose an interesting question: If those contracts are signed while married, but then the divorce occurs in the middle of their contract period, should the expected future income be considered community property or separate property?

There is no set answer to this question. Generally, if a contract involves “guaranteed income,” then that future income may be considered marital property. Oftentimes, professional sports contracts are written more as “guarantees” are not as “guaranteed.” Meaning that they are tied directly to the athlete’s continued ability to perform his or her job even after the divorce is finalized. If their performance falters for a variety of reasons, their contract may be terminated, and the future income not realized. On that basis, those future earnings may be considered to be separate property.

Spousal support may pose another complication. The athlete’s soon-to-be ex-spouse may expect enough support to sustain the lifestyle they enjoyed in the marriage. They may not consider that principal careers of professional athletes are usually much shorter than other professions, and thus their capacity to maintain substantial alimony payments may likely not last until the traditional retirement age. If not guided by strong legal and financial advisors, the alimony demands may lead to significant financial hardships for both spouses.

Child Support and Child Custody Agreements

Child support payments usually follow formulas located in state law. At times and under certain circumstances, a judge has the discretion to deviate from those formulas. In the case of professional athletes, such a deviation may be necessary.

The relatively high incomes of professional athletes project an image that they can afford to pay out enormous amounts of money in child support. As noted above, that projection is likely not to be true in the long term. When an athlete’s sports career ends, their income may diminish significantly, and with it, the ability to sustain those support payments.

A pro athlete’s often unusual and heavily seasonal work schedule may also create problems in developing a child custody agreement. The parents will need to establish a visitation plan that ensures the needs of the children are met, but can also accommodate the demands of the athlete’s job.

Managing Public Availability of a Pro Athlete’s High-Profile Divorce

The celebrity status of pro athletes means they may have little privacy. Anything they say and do may potentially end up as a news headline. The public seems to be especially interested if they experience a divorce.

Aside from all of the media attention an athlete’s divorce may receive, court proceedings and court pleadings are typically a matter of public record. In the State of California, copies of divorce certificates and decrees are generally available only to ex-spouses or their attorneys. The actual court records of the case (the case file), which could include a significant amount of personal information, are available to anyone who desires them.

A “collaborative divorce” may minimize the amount of information that is available in that case file to be determined on a case-by-case basis. In a collaborative divorce, the parties come to a settlement privately between themselves, their attorneys, and an independent mediator. Their meetings are behind closed doors, and the contents of those meetings are kept confidential. Once all parties agree, only the settlement document is given to the judge for certification and entry into the public divorce record.

If the divorce cannot be mediated privately, it is possible to have a part or all of the case redacted or removed completely from the record. An attorney for one of the parties must first submit a motion to strike or seal the part of the record they want hidden. If compelling evidence is provided to support it, the judge may grant the motion. The affected part of the case file will be unavailable for later public scrutiny.

We are on your team

Our divorce attorneys at Hoover Krepelka are fully versed in all family law matters relating to high-profile divorce cases. We encourage you to contact us today for a consultation.

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*The above is not meant to be legal advice, and every case is different. Feel free to reach out to us at Hoover Krepelka, LLP, if you have any questions. Information contained in this content and website should not be relied on as legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice on your specific situation. 

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