Just over a month after Rupert Murdoch surprised his wife of 14 years with divorce papers, Wendi Murdoch has switched lawyers, a move signaling that the separation could take an acrimonious turn.
Wendi Murdoch has hired William D. Zabel, a well-known New York trusts and estates lawyer who has represented several women in their divorces from wealthy businessmen, including Jane Beasley Welch during her contentious split from Jack Welch, former chief executive of General Electric.
A spokesman for Wendi Murdoch, Christopher Giglio, confirmed the hiring of Zabel, but otherwise declined to comment.
Murdoch had been represented by Pamela M. Sloan, who advised Murdoch on her prenuptial agreement with Rupert Murdoch in 1999, when the couple married in front of 82 guests on board his 155-foot yacht, the Morning Glory.
But since then, Sloan had become friendly with the Murdochs, and Wendi Murdoch decided she wanted more independent counsel, said a person with direct knowledge of the case who like many people declined to be identified discussing personal matters.
Sloan did not return a request for comment.
Although the Murdochs signed a prenuptial agreement and two postnuptial agreements delineating the separation of assets in the event of a divorce, there are a number of areas that remain up for negotiation, said people with knowledge of the case who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
For one, there are the custody arrangements and child support for their daughters, Grace, 11, and Chloe, 9, these people said. Because they are not binding on the court, custody arrangements and child support are rarely part of prenuptial agreements, and are often used by the less-moneyed spouse as leverage in negotiations.
Other issues that could be contended include the division of certain assets, like their Fifth Avenue penthouse and the yacht, on which Wendi Murdoch, 44, and her daughters are vacationing in the Caribbean.
There is also the contentious issue surrounding the Murdoch family trust. Rupert Murdoch surprised his wife in 2006 when he announced during a television interview with Charlie Rose that Grace and Chloe would have the same economic interest in the family's trust but not the same voting rights as his four children from his previous two marriages.
The slip almost created a separation, and prompted Wendi Murdoch to negotiate more favorable terms for her daughters, according to people close to the couple.
Zabel, an expert in trust law, is expected to examine the soundness of the trust structure.
"Even with the most sophisticated couple, unless you have perfect 20/20 foresight often some issues can arise that weren't taken into consideration and are prime for negotiation," said Paul M. Talbert, a divorce lawyer at Donohoe Talbert in New York, who is not involved in the Murdoch case.
Representing Rupert Murdoch, 82, in the divorce proceeding is Ira E. Garr of the law firm Garr Silpe. But Murdoch is also relying heavily on the advice of Gerson A. Zweifach, the general counsel of both News Corp. and 21st Century Fox, as the newly separated companies are now known. Murdoch's 1998 divorce from his second wife, Anna, cost more than $110 million in cash.
A company spokeswoman has said the divorce will have no effect on either company.
Shortly after a visit to the couple's Northern California home in June, Wendi Murdoch returned to New York to learn that Rupert Murdoch had served her with divorce papers, a decision he did not take lightly, according to several people close to the couple who would not discuss their private matters for attribution.
Wendi Murdoch, after interviewing about eight different lawyers, including leading members of the matrimonial bar like Robert Stephan Cohen and Peter E. Bronstein, chose Zabel. Initially, Murdoch did not have time to screen potential divorce lawyers and turned to Sloane, a trusted confidante, by default.
The core of Zabel's practice at the law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel is advising wealthy clients like George Soros and the Lehman family, drafting their wills and trusts and advising on estate planning. But he also handles messier matters for his clients; in 2010, for instance, he represented the estate of his longtime client, Palm Beach philanthropist and investor Jeffry M. Picower, in a $7.2 billion settlement with the federal government over claims related to money that he received from Bernard L. Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
There is also the occasional divorce assignment. Much of the time, Zabel will play the role of mediator, and has peaceably settled the divorces of the late author Michael Crichton, the radio host Howard Stern and the New York Jets owner Robert Wood Johnson IV.
But at times, he has been involved in nasty marital spats, like that of Jane Welch, whose marriage collapsed after she discovered her husband's dalliance with journalist Suzy Wetlaufer. The divorce was fiercely litigated and settled on the courthouse steps in 2002 only after Jack Welch agreed to pay Jane Welch several hundred million dollars.
More recently, he represented Christina Lurie, the former wife of Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who divorced after 20 years of marriage. Christina Lurie remained a part owner of the team.
Because he keeps divorce representations to a minimum, Zabel often refers cases to his former wife, Eleanor B. Alter, herself a prominent matrimonial lawyer in New York.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service