The tumultuous marriage and ugly divorce of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, aka Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, has taken a turn for the worse, if that’s possible. Angelina is requesting to have their children testify against their father which raises the issue in family law cases of when children can be used as witnesses.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Jolie, who has sought to disqualify Judge John Ouderkirk from the divorce case, said in the filing Monday that he declined to hear evidence she says is relevant to the children’s safety and well-being before issuing a tentative ruling. The documents don’t elaborate on what that evidence may be.
“Judge Ouderkirk denied Ms. Jolie a fair trial, improperly excluding her evidence relevant to the children’s health, safety, and welfare, evidence critical to making her case,” according to the filing in California’s Second District Court of Appeal.
The actress also said the judge “has failed to adequately consider” a section of the California courts code, which says it is detrimental to the best interest of the child if custody is awarded to a person with a history of domestic violence. Her filing did not give details about what it was referring to, but her lawyers submitted a document under seal in March that purportedly offers additional information.
Jolie sought a divorce in 2016, days after a disagreement broke out on private flight ferrying the actors and their children from France to Los Angeles. Pitt was accused of being abusive toward his then-15-year-old son during the flight, but investigations by child welfare officials and the FBI were closed with no charges being filed against the actor. Jolie’s attorney said at the time that she sought a divorce “for the health of the family.”
Her new filing says the judge has “refused to hear the minor teenagers’ input as to their experiences, needs, or wishes as to their custody fate,” citing a California code that says a child 14 or over should be allowed to testify if they want to.
Three of Jolie and Pitt’s six children are teenagers, a 17-year-old, 16-year-old, and 14-year-old. The oldest is 19 and not subject to the custody decision. They also have 12-year-old twins.
Florida Child Testimony
The issue of putting your child on the stand to testify in a divorce or family law proceeding comes up a lot. I’ve written and spoken publicly about family law issues such as expert testimony and evidence before.
Florida courts take child testimony extremely seriously. The goal, in the minds of judges, is to prevent children from being too involved with or exposed to the stress of a divorce or custody proceeding to the extent possible.
In Florida, unless otherwise provided by law or another rule of procedure, children who are witnesses, potential witnesses, or related to a family law case, are prohibited from being deposed or brought to a deposition, from being subpoenaed to appear at any family law proceeding, or from attending any family law proceedings without prior order of the court based on good cause shown.
Accordingly, before being required to testify in court, a Florida judge must determine that a child’s testimony is both relevant and necessary to resolve the issues before the court.
In response to Jolie’s request to have their children testify, Pitt’s attorneys said, “Ouderkirk has conducted an extensive proceeding over the past six months in a thorough, fair manner and reached a tentative ruling and order after hearing from experts and percipient witnesses.”
Pitt’s filing said the judge found Jolie’s testimony “lacked credibility in many important areas, and the existing custody order between the parties must be modified, per Mr. Pitt’s request, in the best interests of the children.”
It says Jolie’s objections and further delays in reaching an arrangement would “work grave harm upon the children, who will be further denied permanence and stability.”
It’s not clear what the current custody arrangement is because the court seals most files. When the divorce process began, Pitt sought joint custody and Jolie sought primary physical custody — meaning the children would live more than half the time with her. But changes have been made that have not been made public.
Peter Harvey, a lawyer for Jolie who is close to the case but not directly involved, said the actress “supports joint custody” but the situation is complicated and he can’t go into detail because the court proceedings are under seal.
Divorce lawyers for both sides declined to comment on the new filings. Harvey told The Associated Press that Jolie’s family struggles have prompted her to take a more active role in changing the law’s approach to custody issues.
“Ms. Jolie has been working privately for four and a half years to both heal her family and to fight for improvements to the system to ensure that other families do not experience what hers has endured,” said Harvey, a former attorney general of New Jersey who has been working with Jolie on policy issues.
Jolie has sought to disqualify Ouderkirk, a private judge she and Pitt chose to maintain their privacy, arguing that he has an improper business relationship with one of Pitt’s attorneys.
She said in Monday’s filing that if the tentative custody decision is made final by Ouderkirk, she will appeal it. Jolie, 45, and Pitt, 57, were among Hollywood’s most prominent couples for 12 years. They had been married for two years when Jolie filed for divorce.
The couple was declared divorced in April 2019, after their lawyers asked for a judgment that allowed a married couple to be declared single while other issues remained, including finances and child custody.
The AP article is here.