A-listers Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt opted to seal their court documents and hire a private judge in hopes of speeding up the dissolution of their marriage and preserving a sense of amicability. Even for those who aren't movie stars, there can be some value in following Brangelina's lead.
In the world of Hollywood, sealing divorce documents protects all the nitty-gritty details of a split from prying eyes. For Jolie and Pitt, it's a no-brainer given the intense curiosity about their high-profile personal life.
In the real world, most people don't care about how a couple divvied up the wedding china or even hammered out a custody agreement.
"Most people's divorce proceedings wouldn't be interesting to the general public," said Fern Frolin, an attorney at Boston-based Mirick O'Connell's Family Law Group, and, although the practice varies by jurisdiction, "sealing them for privacy is a burden on the court." One option is for couples to use initials instead of full names in their court documentation, Frolin advised.
Still, in some areas it's more common to request that the divorce documents be sealed as a matter of principle.
"I do it for the confidentiality," said John Slowiaczek, managing principal of a private practice in Omaha and president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "I don't think your worth is anybody's business — regardless of wealth."
Often in the case of a split, couples are dealing with a host of issues including alimony, child support, retirement accounts, real estate, student loans, investments, taxes and credit cards, he said.
Even worse, there may be allegations of cheating, sexual harassment or child abuse. (There were allegations that Pitt was abusive toward his 15-year-old son on a private flight.) "You might have people that aren't wealthy but want to keep their transgressions out of the public sphere," said Justin Reckers, a certified financial planner, divorce financial analyst and CEO of WellSpring Divorce Advisors.
To that end, Jolie and Pitt also opted for a private judge to avoid court altogether. In a joint statement, Jolie and Pitt said the move would "facilitate the expeditious resolution of any remaining issues."
Noncelebrities take note: Hiring a private judge not only keeps the most personal, intimate details of a person's life from being on the court record, but because you simply schedule an appointment, it can also expedite a divorce. Especially in California, where there is a backlog, couples can wait up to 90 days just to get a hearing, according to Reckers.
"Time is the enemy," Frolin said. "Time keeps people from moving forward and gives them time to find things to fight about."
While private judges can cost $400 to $900 an hour in a state like Massachusetts, according to Frolin, in California, Jolie and Pitt are probably paying upwards of $1,000 to $1,500 an hour, she said.
Other potentially less expensive options include mediation or a collaborative divorce where the parties have attorneys but commit to stay out of court anyway. (There are even apps for that.)
Still, because the process is faster, the total cost can be much less expensive than what a couple can spend on a divorce trial.
"The best route is to stay out of court," Reckers said. "It makes sense for Brangelina and it makes sense for anybody."