An Open Letter to the Little Mermaid: You're Going to Lose the Divorce


Dear Ariel,

Many thanks for writing to me, adding to my growing knowledge of the inner lives of the "happily ever after" folk, and giving me a chance to comment on your situation. First let me say that while I appreciate your desire to "get in on this open letter thing," that you heard your friends Cinderella and Snow White discussing and I'm happy to provide advice on your imminent divorce, I fear you may not be happy about what I'm going to say. Still, yours is a situation that will potentially be informative for others, so here goes.

As you wrote in your letter, after two decades of marriage to Prince Eric, you've decided you want to divorce him. However, the facts of your life together may make it difficult for you to get what you feel you deserve, in terms of division of marital assets. You say you'd like to keep half of everything, based on the fact that you gave up your fins and your livelihood as a sea princess to be a wife to Prince Eric.

Personally, I think it's fairly obvious that you are not going to get what you're aiming for, for a number of reasons I'll explain now. It should be noted that, of the reasons below, alone none of them would necessarily bar you from getting something--but taken together, they present a fairly hopeless case. (Ie. These are some pretty big mistakes; readers, take note.)

Lesson 1. The prenup should be updated and/or include an elevation clause.

You have a habit of signing your life away, Ariel, and this is what it appears you did in your prenuptial agreement. After going over the copy of your prenuptial agreement that you faxed, I can see that it does not allow for you to receive half of the marital assets, as you've said you want, but rather allots to you a monthly stipend (roughly equal to what you currently spend on self-tanning and pedicures). In the case of infidelity, says the prenup, you get nothing.

It would have made sense for you and Prince Eric to update the prenuptial agreement at some point in the last two decades to reflect your spending and lifestyle as these increased over the course of your marriage. It also would have benefited you to have built a percentage increase in your allowance based on the number of years spent together (known as an elevation clause) into the contract. However, you did neither of these things, so in the event of divorce you'll theoretically be back to the monthly allowance that made sense when you were sixteen.

Lesson 2. Know what's going on with your house finances.

Ariel, you said in your letter that you don't deal with any of the financial matters. You know next to nothing about monthly bills and outgoings, accounts held jointly with Prince Eric, or the state of joint assets. (You did mention you keep a very detailed catalogue of your "treasure trove" of secondhand forks and spoons--unfortunately I feel this will be of little value in the divorce.) While I can help you to get hold of some of the relevant information, you'll be in a disadvantaged position.

I'm guessing it's rather difficult to feel empowered in a clamshell bra, but as a modern human, Ariel, you should make a point of understanding your finances. As it is now, you don't have a leg to stand on, so to speak, when it comes to arguing for more money.

For the same reason, you should be aware of what mutual assets are in your name, if any, and if not, you should start putting things in your name--cars, summer house, what have you. Then you would be able to argue for at least these things, irrespective of the prenup.

Lesson 3: Don't cheat.

Now we're down to the most difficult issue of all, and the one I was indeed most surprised to see you bring up in your letter, especially one you knew would get a public response: your infidelity.

The long and short of it is that, suffering from a feeling that the "seaweed is always greener" as you put it, you've found it difficult to save your upgraded lady parts for Prince Eric alone. In the early years of your marriage this wasn't such an issue--you had gadgets and gizmos aplenty, you say--eventually, you wanted more.

While you haven't yet been caught, Ariel, you're right to be worried that somehow it will come out--and the longer it goes on, the more you raise that risk. As for how that affects the prenup, there will be very little room to argue for a cent if there is any evidence of you cheating. Not only are you not going to get the optimistic half of everything that you want, you're not going to get anything at all.

My advice to you, Ariel is this: Stay married, or else be ready to leave with nothing.

This isn't advice I give often, but in your case, you have committed the golden trinity of mistakes: bad prenup, no financial involvement, and infidelity. In a phrase: You lose.

I feel for you, don't get more wrong. The Disney franchise compelled you to get married at the age of 16, as they do. This isn't just an epidemic of Disney princesses: getting married too young is a mistake you share with thousands. So is giving up your entire life and livelihood for another person--again, a mistake made by many people who come into my offices, usually female people.

The problem with making big commitments, like marriage, at a young age is that you believe the future will take care of itself, when in fact, it often doesn't. That's why, in my opinion, marriages between people over 28 are at least 3 times as likely not to end in divorce: you get to a certain point where you realize planning is important.

That's not to say you can't divorce Prince Eric; you can still divorce him, certainly. But you are likely to leave the marriage with, at best, a stipend, and that means a change of lifestyle.

Thank you again for the opportunity to use the hard-earned lessons of your fairytale marriage - and fairytale divorce - to educate the masses.

James J. Sexton