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Tiger Woods and wife: If they split, how to divide?

Talk of divorce arises in Tiger Woods' crisis, in which riches and child custody issues could be at stake.

December 18, 2009|By Jim Peltz and Carol J. Williams
  • Tiger Woods and his wife, Elin Nordegren, were all smiles at the Presidents Cup golf competition this fall at Harding Park Golf Course in San Francisco.
Tiger Woods and his wife, Elin Nordegren, were all smiles at the Presidents… (Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images )

As the media frenzy enveloping Tiger Woods found new life Thursday with unidentified sources saying that his wife was poised to file for divorce, the Woods saga shifted to questions of how the couple would divide not only custody of their two young children but one of the biggest fortunes in professional sports.

And the outcome likely would depend on several factors, including where the case is filed and the language of any prenuptial agreement between the world's No. 1 golfer and his wife, Elin Nordegren, experts in family law said.

Besides the children, a fortune is at stake. Forbes magazine estimated that Woods this year became the first athlete to reach career earnings of $1 billion -- mainly from his sponsorship endorsements -- that had left the Cypress native with a net worth of $600 million.

Woods and his wife reportedly entered into a prenuptial agreement before their 2004 wedding in Barbados, the terms of which could influence a divorce court's decision about property division.

There already had been unconfirmed reports that Nordegren was attempting to renegotiate the agreement.

"Prenups can be challenged, but usually the vulnerability of a prenup will be procedural," such as whether the wife "didn't have reasonably good information when she signed it," said USC family law professor Scott Altman. "That seems unlikely."

But it's also unlikely that Woods' recent admission of infidelity would violate the agreement, he said.

"Not unless the prenup says infidelity would set aside some of its terms," Altman said. "In the absence of that, infidelity during the course of the marriage would not be relevant to the enforceability of a prenup."

As residents of Florida, Woods and Nordegren would be subject to that state's practices in the division of marital property should they file for divorce, conditions likely to result in an "equitable" distribution of assets rather than an equal one, said Stanford University family law professor Richard Banks.

"What happens in separate property states when a couple divorces is that the court applies what is known as an equitable distribution principle," he said.

"You have to divide the assets equitably, but that doesn't necessarily mean equally," he said. "In fact, the greater the pot of money, the less likely a court is to split it evenly."

In community property states like California, all revenue and income generated during the marriage is jointly shared and would likely be subject to a 50-50 split, Banks said.

But in a separate property state like Florida, "whoever makes the money generally gets to keep it," with provisions made by the court for support and maintenance of an accustomed lifestyle to the dependent spouse, Banks said.

Woods, who had always zealously guarded his privacy, and his wife have been living in an exclusive area near Orlando, Fla. It was there, in the early morning hours after Thanksgiving Day, that Woods crashed his Cadillac Escalade at their home and then was treated for minor cuts and bruises at a local hospital.

That set in motion the revelations that have turned Woods' world upside down, including the recent loss of at least one major sponsor. Woods has not been seen in public since the accident.

Woods and his wife earlier lived in California and could arguably file for divorce here if they still own property, giving the golfer an opportunity to "forum-shop" for a court likely to protect more of his assets.

"But the default rules in California are much less favorable for him, as the presumption is a split down the middle," Banks said.

A flurry of reports Thursday said Nordegren planned to seek a divorce after Woods, 33, admitted his infidelity and dropped out of the PGA Tour indefinitely after being linked to an alleged string of extramarital affairs.

ABCNews.com quoted an unidentified source close to Nordegren as saying "divorce is 100% on" but that she was "not rushing to divorce."

"She's going to take her sweet time," the report said. "She wants all the dirty laundry to be out on the table before she signs anything."

People magazine had a similar story in its new issue today, quoting another unidentified source as saying "she plans to leave Tiger."

Efforts to reach Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, were unsuccessful Thursday.

Meanwhile, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said the pro golf circuit would remain healthy despite evidence that its attendance and television rates dropped sharply when Woods wasn't playing.

Woods acknowledged "my infidelity" in a statement Dec. 11 that also said he was taking an "indefinite break from professional golf" to focus on his family.

"I don't know what that time frame is and frankly I'm not concerned about that," Finchem said in an interview on CNBC. "We lost Tiger in 2008 for most of the year when he was out with an injury. We move forward."

james.peltz@latimes.com

carol.williams@latimes.com

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