Last week, the highly anticipated verdict came down from the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp trial. The jury found that both parties, Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, were guilty of defaming each other. But by following the money trail, it is clear that the jury felt Heard’s actions were more damaging to Depp, than the other way around.
Depp’s case had sought $50 million in damages— and $10.35 million is not $50 million, but it’s still a lot of money. Not many people have $10.35 million lying around, but the big question is: does Amber Heard? And this got me thinking: what happens, legally, if Amber Heard can’t pay?
This is not an unlikely scenario. I’ve reported on some clues that Heard has have hit some financial speed bumps. I mentioned this in my last article on this case, but in case you missed it, here’s a refresher. When Amber Heard and Johnny Depp settled their divorce, Depp was ordered to pay Heard $7 million. Heard stated that she would donate the money from the settlement to the division of the ACLU that combats violence against women and the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. However, the ACLU made an official statement saying that did not happen.
The ACLU was expecting $3.5 million from Amber, but to-date, they’ve received about half of that. An official from the ACLU said that they reached out to Amber in 2019 to ask about the next installment of her giving, and she reported that she was having financial difficulties.
The question of Amber Heard’s financial means is no longer speculative: Amber’s attorney Elaine Bredehoft told People Magazine that Heard can not pay the judgment payment— and, by the way, “judgment payment” is the proper name for the sum of money a defendant has to pay. Doesn’t that term just sound as scary as it is? Anyway, Amber’s attorney also mentioned that Amber had paid more than $6 million in legal costs. That’s almost the entire amount that she was awarded in the divorce.
So, we know in no uncertain terms that Amber Heard can’t pay the judgment payment, so what does that mean for her? Typically, if someone has a debt they cannot pay, they will consider bankruptcy. We know this from Episode 28 of my podcast Money Rehab, Confessions of a Bankruptcy Lawyer. In that episode, we learned that when someone has a debt they cannot pay, bankruptcy can be a good option because it gives that person a clean, debt-free slate.
However, one type of debt that cannot be washed away with bankruptcy is debt incurred during, and I’m quoting here “willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity.”
According to legal analyst Emily D. Baker: “the willful element of defamation that had to be found because they're celebrities — takes it out of the possibility of bankruptcy because it was a willful act."
In other words, even if Amber Heard files for bankruptcy, she’d still be required to pay Johnny Depp the $10.35 million, because she was found guilty of willful injury.
So with bankruptcy ruled out, what are her options? There are two major ones:
She could negotiate the payment. There is an opportunity for Amber and Johnny to come to a settlement that is feasible for Amber.
She could try to appeal the judgment. This is what Amber’s lawyer says they are working on now.
If the appeal fails, Johnny would have the right to get the money from Amber by seizing her property or getting a court to legally withhold her future wages, and essentially reroute them to Johnny’s bank account.
But, I don’t see Johnny Depp getting that aggressive. First and foremost, he said that this case was about his reputation, not the money. If he meant that, he’s already gotten what he wanted, and he may not feel the need to enforce the sentence.
But, more than that, I think the actual reason he will not actively pursue settling the debt, is that it would look bad for him.
While, yes, Depp can say that he got what he wanted in a court of law, it’s not totally clear if he got what he wanted in the court of public opinion. Many news organizations have made the distinction that even though Johnny got the verdict he wanted, he didn’t necessarily clear his name. After all, he was found guilty of defaming Amber Heard.
Plus, while the internet was certainly “Team Johnny,” not everyone was. There are still some people that contend he is an abuser. If he’s trying to win back his reputation, driving his ex-wife into homelessness probably won't achieve his desired result. Not to mention, that there are still Amber’s outstanding payments to the ACLU, and the more she spends on her debt to Johnny, the longer it will take for her to make good on her promised donation. I am confident that Johnny Depp doesn’t want it to be publicized that he is getting the money that was promised to an organization that deals with domestic abuse.
My prediction is that Depp won’t pursue the full payment, simply because it would look bad for him. And this whole lawsuit was about not looking bad anymore, right?
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