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DODGERS

Jamie McCourt faces tough road, experts say

Her burden of proof is onerous as documents show estranged husband Frank owning 'all assets' of Dodgers. She will have to show she was unaware and did not sign voluntarily.

October 30, 2009|Bill Shaikin

They are nine words buried in the fine print of a legal document that divides family assets between Frank McCourt and Jamie McCourt. They sit toward the end of a paragraph that lists properties belonging solely to Frank McCourt: "all assets of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team."

Jamie McCourt insisted in her divorce filing this week that she is entitled to a share of ownership in the Dodgers. However, she faces an uphill battle in persuading a court to throw out the legal agreement that says otherwise, according to three family law experts surveyed Thursday by The Times.

Jamie McCourt's attorneys have said the Dodgers should be considered community property under California law, which generally divides assets on a 50-50 basis in divorce cases. Her attorneys have asked the court to declare as "null, void and unenforceable" the document signed by each of the McCourts and worded specifically to supersede the community property law.

The agreement provided that Frank McCourt would be sole owner of the Dodgers and other business interests and Jamie McCourt would be sole owner of eight residences, jewelry, artwork, cars and boats.

In court papers, Frank McCourt said he signed the agreement "to honor the request of my wife" and to ensure the residences would remain out of reach of any creditors.

Jamie McCourt said it was "never my understanding" that the Dodgers would not be shared and said she was "simply told that I needed to sign the document" to ensure the homes would remain separate from business assets and not subject to community property law.

"I signed the document because I trusted my husband of 25 years," she said.

For Jamie McCourt to persuade the court to override that agreement, she would have to show she was unaware of what she was signing, was unaware of what the effect would be and did not sign voluntarily, said Charlotte Goldman, professor of family law at Loyola Law School.

Goldman said it could be a difficult standard for Jamie McCourt to meet. Jamie McCourt's biography cites her law degree from the University of Maryland, her master's in business administration from MIT and her experience practicing family law.

"It's not like she's a 20-year-old girl married to a 60-year-old guy that says, 'I'll take care of you. Just sign this,' " said Lynn Soodik, who has handled celebrity divorces in her Santa Monica law firm.

Jamie McCourt's law background is "relevant but not persuasive," according to Connolly Oyler, who also has celebrity divorce experience and practices family law in Santa Monica.

More relevant, he said, would be Jamie McCourt's assertion that she was not represented by her own lawyer in negotiating the agreement. In signing the document, she acknowledged that she had "been advised to seek separate and independent counsel."

Still, Oyler said, Frank McCourt's defense would be strengthened if he could show he had discussed multiple drafts of the agreement with Jamie McCourt, or if he had video documentation of her waiving the right to her own lawyer.

Jamie McCourt's lawyers say their trump card is an estate planning attorney with whom the McCourts discussed modifying the agreement last year. In her filing, Jamie McCourt said Frank McCourt told that estate planning attorney that he never had intended "that the Dodgers . . . be his separate property."

That could be helpful to Jamie McCourt -- if attorney-client privilege does not bar the estate planning attorney from testifying about Frank McCourt's comments, Soodik said.

Yet, even if Jamie McCourt can establish that neither she nor Frank McCourt intended the Dodgers to belong solely to him, California courts generally do not consider what the parties might have meant if the words of the agreement are clear, Goldberg said.

"They look at the document itself," Goldberg said. "The document shows his intent."

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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