Bijou Phillips has officially filed for divorce from her husband Danny Masterson, former star of “That ‘70s Show.” Phillips’ petition was filed just days after Masterson was convicted on two counts of rape and sentenced to 30 years in prison. She seeks spousal support from Masterson and sole legal and physical custody of their nine-year-old daughter.
It is not uncommon for couples to split up during and after criminal cases, regardless of the outcome. However, Phillips’ petition is notable because it was unexpected. While Masterson was on trial for the assault of two women in 2003, Phillips was steadfastly supportive. Even after he was convicted, she wrote a resoundingly positive pre-sentencing support letter, stating, “Our daughter and I are heartbroken that he is not home with us.”
Despite her proclaimed heartbreak, Phillips nevertheless filed for divorce on September 15, 2023, eight days after he was sentenced to decades behind bars. She might have chosen to do so for many reasons, ranging from a change in her feelings to financial concerns.
Regardless of her reasoning, divorcing someone who is facing a prison sentence can look very different from the standard marital dissolution process. Here’s how the Masterson-Phillips split might proceed and what to expect if you file for divorce after your spouse’s criminal conviction.
Do Criminal Convictions Impact Divorce Proceedings?
California is a no-fault divorce state, which means it is not necessary to have a specific reason if you want to end your marriage. As such, a criminal conviction does not necessarily impact the proceedings. However, several types of convictions may alter each spouse’s rights during their split, such as:
- Domestic abuse
- Violent crimes and sexual assault
- Drug convictions
- Financial crimes
The type and severity of your spouse’s conviction could alter their rights to custody, asset division, and spousal support during your divorce.
Additionally, prison sentences may impact the flow of the proceedings. For example, if your spouse has already begun a prison sentence, you must work with a process server to serve them the divorce documents. You must provide the server with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, two copies of all documents, and a Proof of Service form. The server will deliver these to your spouse, who must respond within 30 days of being served.
Furthermore, your spouse may be unable to appear in person for any hearings while incarcerated. Incarcerated people only have the right to appear at hearings about their parental custody rights, though they may request to attend others. If their request to attend divorce hearings is not granted, they may have their lawyer appear on their behalf, or they may not appear at all. This could lead to the court ruling in your favor due to their absence.
Potential Effects of a Conviction on Your Divorce
The California Penal Code lists thousands of offenses that could lead to prison sentences. Being convicted of a crime is not enough to alter the outcome of your divorce. For example, graffiti can be charged as a felony if it causes enough property damage, but a person’s history of defacing buildings is rarely considered relevant to family law matters.
However, serious crimes such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and even embezzlement could impact your split. Some of the most common ways these convictions might affect your divorce include:
If your spouse has been convicted of committing domestic abuse against you within five years of your divorce petition, you may not be ordered to pay them spousal support. Additionally, you can request that your date of separation be recorded as the date you were assaulted, and you may not be required to share your retirement or pension benefits with them. It is important to note that this only applies if you or your children are the abuse victims.
Child Custody and Support
California follows the Best Interest standard when awarding child custody. Under this standard, judges must consider the child’s best interests when determining how custody should be divided. According to California Family Code Section 3020, “children have the right to be safe and free from abuse, and that the perpetration of child abuse or domestic violence in a household where a child resides is detrimental to the health, safety, and welfare of the child.”
As such, if your spouse has been convicted of a violent crime or sexual assault, including domestic violence, the court may find that it is not in your children’s best interest to award them custody or visitation, leaving you sole custody instead. This is likely to happen in the Masterson-Phillips divorce, for example. Additionally, drug-related convictions, particularly in combination with substance use disorders, are often grounds to restrict a parent’s custody during California divorces.
Finally, certain convictions may impact how California judges handle the division of assets. For example, if your spouse has been ordered to pay massive fines after being convicted of a financial crime, you may have grounds to request that their debt be considered their separate property during your divorce.
In contrast, if your spouse accrued significant assets that you assumed were marital property, these assets may be frozen or seized before your divorce is finalized. Even if you were unaware that the funds were illegally acquired, you do not have the right to keep stolen or embezzled assets. However, you may be able to argue that the unlawfully acquired assets should be considered your spouse’s share of the community property to reduce the impact on your finances.
Get Expert Legal Counsel for Complex California Divorces
A criminal conviction can turn your world upside down. If your spouse has been convicted of a crime like Danny Masterson was, it’s understandable if you want to cut ties and start fresh. However, criminal convictions, especially violent and financial convictions, can complicate divorce. At Kaspar & Lugay, LLP, we specialize in representing clients during complex divorces. Schedule your consultation today to learn how we can help you untangle your finances and streamline your divorce despite your spouse’s unlawful activities.