How Family Lawyers and Athletes Can Work Together: A Chat with Darren Heitner
Any individual with high net worth needs experienced counsel when it comes to divorce, custody, or support, but athletes face challenges that other people may not. On Episode 12 of the Schein On podcast, I spoke with leading sports, entertainment, and IP lawyer Darren Heitner of Heitner Legal about many topics that affect pro and college athletes, and how matrimonial lawyers can best help the players protect themselves.
These issues are especially important now, as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) waits to hear if the Supreme Court of the United States will rule in favor of compensating college football and basketball players. “A lot of athletes end up meeting their spouse in college or earlier,” Darren Heitner explained, so having the right team and the right plan in place is critical to protect players and their families later.
So, what do athletes need to ensure they are protected?
Athletes need prenuptial agreements
We have talked extensively about why players should have prenuptial or postnuptial agreements in place, and what those prenups should look like. Heitner agrees wholeheartedly. “It’s incredibly important” to have a prenup, he said, but not everyone is comfortable talking about them with their clients.
"I think agents do not feel comfortable having that type of conversation with their clients, even financial planners, really. There’s never a comfort level in having that conversation. I personally have no problem, having that discussion with a player. But more often than not the financial advisor and or the agent are the first to be part of that athlete’s business team."
"I come around much later. Perhaps that changes as college athletes and earlier are given these name, image, and likeness rights. But by and large, I’m not one of the first service providers that come in. Oftentimes the players already married without a prenup when I do come in, and it’s too late for me to even suggest that. Although you could get a postnup – but talk about a really difficult conversation to have."
Heitner went on to say that when he does work with young players, and they ask him what advice he can give, he will suggest prenuptial agreements.
Players need a child custody plan that works for them
Prenups are not the only important part of a divorce agreement. They also need a child custody plan that takes into account the possibility of being relocated at the start, middle, or end of a season. As Evan explained, potential relocation is a recurring issue, and it involves far more than spending quality time with the children. It means finding a new home which may or may not be permanent depending on the athlete’s existing playing contract, looking at schools, and potential tax implications.
These types of situations, Heitner said, would need to be dealt with on a case-to-case basis. “If there’s anything that a family lawyer needs to be doing from a proactive standpoint, when a player is traded – certainly if there’s any pending litigation with regard to child support, custody, divorce, and so on and so forth – the court may need to become aware and there may need to be a change of jurisdiction for the pending case,” he pointed out. “Let’s say the athlete was in close proximity to the mother of the child, and there was a custody plan in place, that custody plan may need to be revised based on the fact that the player is in a different location for a vast amount of the year.”
Players need a business team
The makeup of that team – an agent, a manager, a financial planner, an accountant, a lawyer (or two) – may vary from player to player, but it is important that athletes have people who are there to support them, and to make the right decisions for their future. “I find a lot of athletes find themselves in bad positions when they have one individual handling everything on their behalf,” Heitner said. "There’s no way to check that individual to ensure that he or she is really representing the best interests of the player and carrying out his or her fiduciary duties.”
This really is key to ensuring that players are protected. Players need an agent or a manager who has their best interests at heart, and they need financial planners who can look at what they are earning vs. what they could earn, what kinds of taxes they’ll be responsible for paying, and what their risks are if they don’t invest wisely.
But they may also need more than one attorney on their team. Heitner joked that he likes to “stay in his lane” when it comes to legal services; if a client has a question about taxes, for example, he would prefer to direct that client to an accountant to have the questions answered. So for some players, especially those with children, it may be beneficial to have a trusted business and contract lawyer and family lawyer who works with athletes as part of that team.