Kutcher breaks down in tears of regret for the way his split with Demi Moore played out while almost simultaneously Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner call it quits without even raising an eyebrow. A bad divorce can cost a lot more than the settlement, and your clients definitely don’t want to be on the wrong side.
It’s a cliche that money isn’t everything, but a lot of cliches persist because they’re true. We saw that this week when Ashton Kutcher had to take a break while accepting an award in his Iowa hometown.
By most standards, Kutcher “won” his divorce from six-year wife Demi Moore. She didn’t get alimony or a slice of his $250 million venture capital portfolio.
But it took the lawyers years to wrangle a settlement, and in the meantime his philandering became a matter of public debate for family, colleagues and especially his young female fan base.
Maybe the intangibles ultimately outweigh the dollar signs on this one. And his advisors probably should have been able to read the signs in order to create the best balanced outcome.
Not quite on top of the world
On paper, Kutcher has everything. He’s happily remarried, with two new little kids, a thriving high-tech profile and — depending on how you count “The Ranch” on Netflix — between two and three hit TV series to his credit.
But even with that list of achievements, it’s clear that the divorce three years ago still nibbles on his nerves.
He was back in Iowa last week getting a local award for “character” and choked on the irony of doing so with his marital indiscretions now a matter of tabloid record.
While he chalks it all up to a learning experience today, that implies a little regret. He would have done it differently.
That’s something his advisors needed to have established early on, in the equivalent of an investment policy statement laying out the give-and-take between his image, his integrity and the assets.
The calculus is complicated but everyone has pain points along all three of these angles.
For a public figure like Kutcher, it’s critical to keep image damage within the audience’s tolerance, or else the career and the cash flow it represents take a hit.
Kutcher’s highest-profile acting gig since the infidelity rumors tarnished his “nice guy bad boy” halo was stepping in as Charlie Sheen’s somewhat more family-friendly replacement.
It paid $750,000 an episode, but if we’re only thinking about the cash there’s no way to know how far he could have gone as a leading man. Either way, that was six years ago.
Maybe a less aggressive divorce fight would have aired less dirty laundry: rack up the right roles and he could have looked like a hero handing Demi a bigger settlement without sacrificing his ultimate net worth in the end.
There’s a venerable tradition in Hollywood where guys who cough up a lot of alimony tend to work a lot harder in the following decade, ending up more famous than ever. Those that fight tend to fade.
But that discussion brings the second non-monetary planning axis into play, and that’s the one where Kutcher seems to have regrets.
Negotiating a tough settlement left his assets intact without making him happy. There was a disconnect between his self-image and the places the split went.
To put it in the simplest possible terms, it made him sad when mud got thrown around. He isn’t proud of it.
And that sadness and shame have the equivalent of a price tag. Whatever share of his millions that money represents, he would have been happier to pay it.
The fact that he regrets the process now indicates that he didn’t pay it and he’s not happy. It’s too late to make up for it.
Maybe he thought he was getting a good deal at the time. That’s on him. But if his advisors pushed him without weighing all the factors, it’s on them.
The other side of the rainbow
It’s instructive to compare Kutcher’s divorce with the way Ben Affleck handled his split from Jennifer Garner now that it’s official.
Affleck and Garner waited for almost two years to file the papers, staying largely out of the headlines in the process.
There wasn’t a lot of venom in the interviews that came out of either camp. Nobody’s image is impaired and while breakups tend to be sad, nobody is making unforced errors they’ll regret later.
Technically Affleck is actually “losing” this divorce. There wasn’t a prenuptial agreement so they’re splitting the marital property down the middle.
He earned a whole lot more than she did over the decade they were together, so she comes out ahead on the pure financial scale.
That’s okay. He’ll go on working.
Being Batman is going to make him richer than ever — if anything, finally cutting the cord may help both their moods and get them focused on their careers again.
She could probably use the fresh air too. Remember, she was an action hero once in her own right.
They could have made it ugly, but the filing and response align perfectly to make the division as simple as legally possible.
No court dates mean no airing of dirty laundry on either side. No dispute means no motive to play rough in the tabloids.
Maybe in five years Ben Affleck will have no regrets beyond the usual post-breakup second-guessing. He won’t be quite so rich as he might have been otherwise, but he’ll be happier.
For an advisor who knows how to discover what the client truly wants from life, that’s a win. Happy clients are less of a struggle. They’re arguably more profitable in the long run.
And the reverse of that “teachable moment” is true as well. Even if the advisors can produce the biggest numbers possible, if it makes the client miserable, the “win” is a loss.
Know how your client evaluates a successful outcome. Provide it if you can.