Spouses in the Shadow of Scandal—What to do if your partner is accused of sexual harassment

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This month marks five years since a flood of sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, igniting a movement begun a decade earlier—Me Too. The scandal shined a much-needed spotlight on the age-old and ongoing problem of sexual harassment, impropriety, and abuse, particularly in the workplace.

Since the #MeToo movement empowered more victims to speak out, many prominent, powerful people (mostly men) have been accused and/or admitted to inappropriate sexual behavior, and some have gone to prison.

The spouses of these disgraced individuals—many of whom are very accomplished, with high-profile careers of their own—have found various ways of navigating devastating revelations and uncontrollable circumstances. Some have stood by their partner, showing support (at least outwardly) while trying to salvage the marriage and keep their family intact; others have divorced quickly after the news broke.

While enduring public humiliation and the private torment of a marriage shaken by scandal, the partners of the accused have often remained on the sidelines. Their pain and predicament have stayed hidden as they attempted to protect themselves and their children—even in some high-profile cases.

But most sexual harassment cases involve parties who are not celebrities, business titans, or well-known political figures. Typical spouses in this situation may feel like they lack “real-life” models and have little information on how to proceed.

What should you do if your spouse is accused of sexual harassment?

Figure out what you want. What does your gut tell you about what’s suitable for you and your family? Do you want to try to work through this, or is it time to get out? In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Karen Lawson, a Baylor College professor and psychologist, advised those who want to remain in the marriage, “Not being afraid to know the truth is certainly the starting point… Transparency is key.” Both partners should seek therapy, ask real questions, seek the root of destructive behavioral patterns, and expect difficult conversations.

Remain as calm as possible. Explosive revelations can make you feel like exploding. But remember that when it comes to a custody battle, the court must always consider the child’s best interests. The judge will look at each spouse’s fitness as a parent. It may seem unfair, but even if your spouse is embroiled in scandal, it can damage your case if you lash out and become physically violent.

Protect yourself. California is both a no-fault divorce and community property state, which has significant implications.

No-fault divorce means the court cannot factor in misconduct or immoral actions when making a judgment. Further, all assets and income acquired during your marriage and before separation (except a gift or inheritance) are presumptively community property, part of the shared marital estate.

Although your separate property (in general, assets brought to the marriage from before it) cannot be held liable for debt incurred by your spouse, community property can. So if your spouse is sued for sexual harassment, it will likely be considered marital debt and could have a significant financial impact in a divorce.

What can you do? Most people are familiar with the concept of a prenuptial agreement. Still, many are unaware that you can also create a postnuptial agreement, which is the same essential idea but executed after you’re already married. It’s one way to gain more control over how your assets and debts will be divided in the event of a divorce.

However, while prenuptial agreements are generally regarded as legally valid and enforceable from the date of signing, postnuptial agreements must be approved by the court. Having a lawyer work with you to draft a postnuptial agreement is crucial.

In California, postnuptial agreements have five main requirements. They must be:

  • In writing and notarized
  • Entered into voluntarily, without coercion or force
  • Transparent, with full financial disclosure
  • Reasonable and fair, not one-sided or unconscionable
  • Agreed upon by both parties

Couples may consider a postnuptial agreement when one partner is encountering—or showing behavior patterns that could lead to—legal trouble or significant debt.

You may feel overwhelmed and confused if your spouse has been accused of sexual harassment. The knowledgeable, experienced, and compassionate family law attorneys at SFLG can help you sort through this very thorny issue and decide the right course of action in your case.

By Debra Schoenberg


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