Dennis Hopper is not world famous because of his stability and family values. He made Easy Rider; it would be a letdown if he were Mr. Domesticated. But even by Hollywood standards, the unraveling of his fifth marriage is a barn burner. The actor, 73, filed for divorce from the former Victoria Duffy, 42, his wife of 13 years, in December in the midst of his life-or-death battle against metastasized cancer. She countersued in January. Among the milder of her claims was that he was not in his right mind.
Then there's Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the former presidential hopeful and Senator from North Carolina. Her Stage 4 cancer is incurable, but she and John Edwards have decided to separate, reportedly at her behest.
Is divorcing while dying or at least facing down death just one of those inexplicable things famous people do, like releasing a signature scent or giving their children embarrassing names? Why would anyone go through it, considering the irreconcilable differences they already have with their mortality?
The Edwards split may be a special case, but the Hopper schism appears to center on an all-too-familiar family bugbear, money. Neither of the Hoppers' lawyers would comment, but their divorce filings indicate this may be his way of choosing sides in a looming fight over his estate.
Bad health news is often a catalyst in a marriage. Those on their way to splitsville take a shortcut; those in (relative) harmony draw even closer. Those whose children do not like the new spouse hear more about it and about the will. For these reasons, marital and estate-planning lawyers say, deathbed divorce is not as uncommon as you might think.
"A spouse is pretty much the only person you can't cut out of a will," says Wynne Whitman, an estate-planning lawyer in New Jersey. Although the law differs from state to state, attorneys say statutes and courts tend to favor surviving spouses in determining inheritances, especially if there are minor children. (The Hoppers have a 6-year-old.) The court might even posthumously change a prenuptial agreement, which the Hoppers also have and which Victoria Hopper is challenging.
But even the not particularly rich sometimes want to disinherit a spouse. "There are a surprising number of people who have been separated for decades but have never been divorced," says Whitman. She advises clients who have been given grim prognoses to be thorough: divorce, rewrite the will and check all beneficiary designations. "You don't want the spouse from three spouses ago getting the life insurance."
For the multiple marrier, like Hopper, making a will seem fair to all family members is particularly tricky. Adult offspring there are three grown Hopper children may try to pre-empt an estate battle by taking care of business before the funeral. "It's very common when we have couples marry later in life and one party develops an illness, the adult children will precipitate the initiation of divorce proceedings," says Joseph Cordell, a domestic-litigation attorney in Michigan. "They distrust the new spouse." Lest we forget, Anna Nicole Smith's fight for a share of her nonagenarian husband's estate went all the way to the Supreme Court. And she won.
The case of Hopper v. Hopper is particularly striking because it's the sick partner who wants out. Usually it's the other way around. Cordell, most of whose clients are men, had a wealthy client who had gotten an ALS diagnosis. "He began to try some pretty exotic therapies that were not covered by insurance, and his wife became increasingly concerned about the cost," he says. She filed for divorce and for a court order that restricted his access to their assets. "He didn't spend his last days well," says Cordell.
Men appear to do more of this kind of abandonment than women. Although most studies have shown that couples facing cancer have about the same overall chance of divorcing as healthy couples, women with brain tumors or multiple sclerosis are six times more likely to be left by their spouses than men with the same condition are, according to a 2009 report in the journal Cancer. In a larger Norwegian study from 2007, 1.6% of male cancer patients got divorced, while nearly 3% of females did.
Occasionally there's a noble reason for a deathbed divorce: to settle who will look after the kids if the surviving spouse is addicted to drugs or otherwise incapable of raising children. Other than that, according to Chicago family-law attorney Jennifer Smetters, divorcing while dying is a horrible idea. "It creates more grief and stress for the minor child," she says. Plus, the length, intensity and unpredictability of divorce proceedings make them ill-suited to those who are ill.
But there are instances when it works out. In 1983, Florida teen Kenny diRobertis, who was suffering from a rare head cancer and had been given days to live, was granted a fast-track divorce so what little money he had would go to his mother and not his 27-year-old estranged wife. He lived another five years. Perhaps Dennis Hopper's not so crazy after all.