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New wrinkles in multi-billion-dollar divorce battle

Several months ago, this blog reported on the divorce of billionaire oilman Harold Hamm and Sue Ann Hamm, his wife of nearly 25 years. Hamm's company Continental Resources made him one of the richest people in the nation, and the dissolution of his marriage could result in one of the largest settlements in the history of American divorces. In the past few months, more details have come to light in the couple's dispute, further illustrating some of the complexities of divorce for high net worth couples.

When a married couple divorces, they must list all their assets, divide their pre-marital property from the property they obtained during the marriage and find a way to split the marital property in a way that meets Minnesota's standards of fairness. This is never an easy task, but it can be especially difficult for couples with complex assets, such as ownership in a large business.

In the Hamm divorce, one of the big items of contention is the extent to which Sue Ann contributed to the business that Harold owned before they married. Sue Ann has contended that she worked for Continental for some years during the marriage and that Harold's ownership stake in the business greatly increased during that time. Because Sue Ann's efforts increased the value of the business, she argued, at least some of this increase in value should be considered marital property, not just Harold's alone. Harold's net worth is estimated to be more than $11 billion.

Recently, the Hamms agreed to mark the official date of their separation as May 18, 2012, the date that Sue Ann filed for divorce. All the assets that will be divided as part of the couple's divorce will now be calculated on the basis of their value in 2012 instead of their 2003 value, which was Harold's preference. Because the couple's assets are so high, this agreement on the date could raise Sue Ann's share of the marital property by millions or even billions of dollars.

At the same time, some employees at Continental have undermined Sue Ann's claims that she was instrumental in the growth of the company. Some have reported that, even though she once held the title of Vice President, they didn't know what she actually did for the company and didn't think she had an important role.

Most Minnesota residents who are going through divorce are arguing about hundreds or thousands of dollars, not millions or billions. Nonetheless, the same principles apply. There are many factors to consider in the property division phase of the divorce process. It's important to have professional help navigating through the legal difficulties and negotiating with the other party.

Source: Forbes, "Three Steps To Take Before Hiring Your Husband," Jeff Landers, July 10, 2013

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