The Harold Hamm divorce in Oklahoma is getting a lot of media attention right now. The divorce trial has started and the wife is making allegations that the husband’s company is rewriting history to downplay his role in the company’s success in order to increase the value of the marital estate subject to division. The trial has been closed to the media and interested onlookers and the lawyers have been placed under a gag order to prevent them from leaking interesting tidbits to the media, so we won’t know exactly what’s going on for a while.

Hamm divorce

Mr. Hamm founded Continental Resources in 1967, about 21 years before the marriage. He now owns 68% of the company’s shares and amassed a $19 billion fortune during the marriage. When Mr. Hamm divorced his previous wife, a year before marrying the current Mrs. Hamm, court filings estimated his net worth to be around $16 million.  Under Oklahoma law, the growth in the parties’ net worth deriving from their work efforts during the marriage is considered marital wealth, subject to equitable division under Oklahoma law. So, how much each spouse gets in the division of property depends on the value the judge places on Mr. Hamm’s work during the marriage.

The allegation is that the company has been secretly altering its website and other public information to make it appear that market factors had more to do with the company’s success during the Hamm marriage than Mr. Hamm’s direct efforts. Oklahoma law apparently will make a distinction between Mr. Hamm’s efforts that increased the value of the company, which would be attributable to marital property. On the other hand, if the increase in value of the company was based on market factors outside of Mr. Hamm’s efforts (“luck”), then the increased value would not be marital property. So, Mr. Hamm has incentive to downplay his role, while the wife benefits from extolling his virtues.

Reporters were able to obtain the company’s corporate website from internet cache and discover revisions to the website such as a change that backdated a very profitable decision to move the focus from natural gas to oil to before the date of the Hamm marriage. Another change added a date before the Hamm marriage of the company moving into a basin in North Dakota. The company apparently changed the company’s 2013 annual proxy which originally stated that Mr. Hamm grew the company through his leadership skills and business judgment. The document produced struck the language extolling Mr. Hamm’s contributions.

Texas Divorce Law

Texas divorce laws would approach the Hamm divorce very differently than Oklahoma divorce law. As a community property state, Texas would look at the moment when the asset was obtained by the spouse to determine if the asset is community property and divisible upon divorce, or separate property of the husband and not divisible. So, in the Hamm situation, if all of the shares of stock were purchased and owned prior to the marriage, Texas law would consider the stock husband’s separate property, not subject to division upon divorce. 

The next step in the analysis of the Hamm situation under Texas law would be to evaluate the characterization of the increased value of the stock.  Unlike Oklahoma law, Texas would treat the increase in value of the stock, regardless of the efforts of Mr. Hamm in causing the increase, as separate property, the same as the stock itself.

Under Texas law, Mrs. Hamm might have a claim for reimbursement to the community estate under the case of Jensen v. Jensen. This Jensen claim would seek reimbursement to the community estate for the time, toil, and talent expended by one spouse to benefit his separate estate without the community estate receiving a proper benefit. So in the Hamm situation, under Texas law, the question would be whether Mr. Hamm received an appropriate salary (which would be community property) for his efforts in working for the company that caused the increase in the stock value.  If he did receive an appropriate compensation, then the wife would not have a Jensen claim.  However, if he was under- compensated or received no compensation for his efforts on behalf of his separate property company, then the community could make a claim to the increase in value of the separate property stock.  The value of such claim would be limited by the reasonable compensation he should have received.

Needless to say, under Texas law, the Hamm divorce would look very differently than it does under Oklahoma law.


Hat tip:

Joshua Schneyer and Brian Grow, U.S. oil baron rewrites his company’s history; move could stave off record divorce payout

Joshua Schneyer, Billion-dollar debate in Oklahoma divorce: Was oilman just lucky?

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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW for multiple years. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

Author and Speaker

A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.