Henry Silverman Billionaire divorce: Why his "genius" claim isn't totally ridiculous

If Your Husband is a Billionaire "Genius," You Aren't Always Entitled to Half

If Your Husband is a Billionaire "Genius," You Aren't Always Entitled to Half

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Aug. 3 2011 1:59 PM

If Your Husband is a Billionaire "Genius," You Might Not Get Your Fair Share

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Photograph by Thinkstock

According to the New York Post, billionaire businessman Henry Silverman tried to introduce scientific evidence into his divorce case that were meant to prove that he is an "innate genius," and thus his wife's contributions to their 30-year marriage were not responsible for his outsize financial success. This evidence was rejected, and Silverman was condemned by online rubberneckers for "sacrificing his dignity." Though the "genius" argument might sound ridiculous on its surface, the State Supreme Court judge Laura Drager did reportedly give Silverman's lawyers credit for a unique argument, says The Daily Mail, and added that there was no precedent either for or against the move.

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

What's more, though there might not be precedent for this kind of scientific evidence being introduced, there is a precedent in high profile, big money divorce cases for assets being distributed unequally. First of all, divorce law varies from state to state. Some states are community property states, where the assumption is that assets will be divided equally, while others—like New York, where the Silvermans are divorcing—are equitable distribution states, where the court decides what is fair. 

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Joanna L. Grossman, a professor of law at Hofstra University says that the way equitable distribution law is structured in many states, "contribution to acquisition of assets" is taken into consideration. Which is to say that keeping the house, the social calendar and caring for the children isn't always considered equal to founding a fortune 500 company. "Courts are supposed to consider non-economic contributions on par with economic ones," Grossman wrote to me in an email, "But sometimes in these high income cases, they’re just not willing to go that far."

The most famous example of this kind of unequal distribution is in the case of Lorna and Gary Wendt. Lorna had asked for 50 percent of the couples' 100 million dollar fortune (husband Gary was the CEO of GE Capital at the time of their divorce). In the end, she got 20 million. "The court believed she had done a lot to make his career possible, but that his over-the-top success was really to his own credit," Grossman explains.

But there have also been cases where a wife's non-financial contributions were ultimately seen as equal. A family court in West Virgina—also an equitable distribution state—had initially awarded Margaret Arneault just 35 percent of the marital property when she was getting a divorce from CEO Edson Arneault because his "intelligence and ability are unique to him and the development of these attributes can not [sic] be attributed equally." This decision was overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals because "Mr. Arneault's intelligence and financial prowess is not sufficient justification for straying from the presumption of a 50/50 split."

Was Silverman's "innate genius" account ungallant? Definitely. (So was the fact that he left his wife for a 28-year-old yoga instructor who fell for the pickup line "google me.") But considering what's worked in other divorce cases, it wasn't that absurd.