No Prenup Could Cost Oil Tycoon Billions in Divorce
Had oil tycoon Harold Hamm known back in 1988 he would grow up to be America’s 32nd richest man, he might have asked his fiancee Sue Ann for a prenup.
Instead, 25 years after their conditionless Las Vegas nuptials, the Hamms are negotiating a divorce settlement that could blow away the $1.7 billion record set by media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his second wife Anna in 1999. Sue Ann Hamm could walk away with more than $3 billion, placing her ahead of even Oprah Winfrey on the list of the 20 wealthiest women in America.
In addition to the unprecedented stakes, the divorce proceedings have packed plenty of drama, including accusations of infidelity, secret surveillance and a mystery surrounding the couple’s official “date of separation.”
‘Marriage in Name Only’
Harold Hamm is the founder and CEO of Continental Resources, which controls the largest share of the booming shale oil territories in North Dakota and Montana. Though his current net worth stands in excess of $11 billion, Hamm was just a lowly millionaire when he married Sue Ann, an attorney who managed land acquisitions for the company.
The honeymoon phase faded. In court filings, Harold’s lawyers called his marriage to Sue Ann “loveless” and claimed they had been married “in name only” since the 1990s.
Sue Ann left the Enid, Okla. mansion she shared with Harold and moved about 100 miles away to the Oklahoma City suburbs in 2003, taking the couple’s two daughters with her. Years later, Sue Ann established electronic surveillance in the Enid home and allegedly collected video and audio evidence implicating Harold in an extramarital affair.
She eventually filed for divorce in May of 2012, just days after the Hamms hosted a $2 million fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Hamm was Romney’s pick as senior energy adviser. They tried to keep the divorce secret, filing initially as Jane Doe v. John Doe, but a judge forced them to attach their real names to the documents before the end of 2012.
Alleged Tapes Play Role
Once Harold’s lawyers got wind of the secret tapes, they filed a request to have the recordings handed over. They claimed the tapes demonstrated that Harold and Sue Ann were effectively separated and had stopped behaving as husband and wife.
Sue Ann’s lawyers balked, noting in their response that “surreptitious adultery, even repeated adultery with the same partner, does not terminate a marriage or constitute legal separation.”
Texas family law attorney Ike Vanden Eykel said the request for the tapes was an “ill-advised approach” to establishing the couple’s separation.
“That’s a unique way to try to argue one’s way out of a tight and hot spot,” Eykel said. “But it’s one that’s likely to come back like a boomerang.”
Ultimately, the Hamms reached a curious pair of agreements. First, they agreed upon an official date of separation of May 18, 2012, despite Harold’s prior claims that they’ve been separated since 2003. They also both agreed to a “no-fault” divorce, suggesting that Sue Ann won’t bring forward her alleged evidence of an affair.
It’s not clear why the Hamms ultimately agreed on these terms, but doing so may have spared them a scandalous public ordeal. It may also mean billions for Sue Ann.
Continental Resources’ value increased nearly fivefold when it went public in 2007, four years after the Hamms began living apart. By establishing that they weren’t separated until 2012, the Hamms included the company’s most profitable period within the pool of marital assets that is subject to “equitable distribution” under Oklahoma law.
Eykel said that while the concessions made by the Hamms may not necessarily reflect their true emotions, they made sense strategically.
“From a strategic standpoint, when you’re handling a case with that kind of acrimony, you’ve got to put everything through a risk-reward analysis every day,” Eykel said. “Legal teams have to sit down and analyze what they’re gaining or losing with each particular decision. Deals of this sort, as the case is developing, are not uncommon at all.”
Should Harold have fought for an earlier separation date? Should Sue Ann have pressed on with the infidelity allegations? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.