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Divorce Agreements, Einstein and the Nobel Prize

When negotiating a final divorce settlement, every divorcing person must decide for himself or herself what to give up in exchange for getting a divorce. Rolled into that decision is the priority of guilt, moral values, and the willingness or unwillingness to continue to participate in the conflict of the divorce process.

These decisions and feelings are not solely the province of “regular people” – famous people go through it too.

Take Albert Einstein, for example. A few months ago a group of universities released Einstein’s papers to the public. (See Digital Einstein.) These included correspondence between Einstein and his first wife Mileva Maric. Many beautiful love letters are includes as their love begins. But the unravelling of their love showed two strong-willed, ambitious people who grew apart. Not unlike many people going through divorce.

In 1914 the couple separated after eleven years of marriage and twenty-eight years as a couple. Two years later, he suggested a divorce, but his wife developed health problems, so he retracted the idea. When her condition improved four years after their separation, Einstein against proposed divorce. The letter he wrote to his wife shows his desperation, almost to the point of a bribe.

Dear Mileva,

The endeavor finally to put my private affairs in some state of order prompts me to suggest the divorce to you for the second time. I am firmly resolved to do everything to make this step possible. In the case of a divorce, I would grant you significant pecuniary advantages through particularly generous concessions.

  1. 9,000 M [$1,560 then, $26,000 now] instead of 6,000 M, with the provision that 2,000 of it be deposited annually for the benefit of the children.
  2. The Nobel Prize — in the event of the divorce and in the event that it is bestowed upon me — would be ceded to you in full a priori. Disposal of the interest would be left entirely to your discretion. The capital would be despited in Switzerland and placed in safe-keeping for the children. My payments named under (1) would then fall away and be replaced by an annual payment which together with that interest totals 8,000 M. In this case you would have 8,000 M at your free disposition.
  3. The widow’s pension would be promised to you in the case of a divorce.

"Naturally, I would make such huge sacrifices only in the case of a voluntary divorce. If you do not consent to the divorce, from now on, not a cent about 6,000 M per year will be sent to Switzerland. Now I request being informed whether you agree and are prepared to file a divorce claim against me. I would take care of everything here, so you would have neither trouble nor any inconveniences whatsoever.

The divorce agreement was finalized in June 1918, with the Nobel Prize money the centerpiece of the agreement.

Prof. Einstein shall instruct, in the event of a divorce and in case he receives the Nobel Prize, the [award money] to become the property of Mrs. Mileva Einstein and shall deposit this capital in trust at a Swiss bank.

The divorce was granted in 1919. In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his services to Theoretical Physics” and the prize money was awarded a year later. True to his word, the money was transferred to his prior wife.

Throughout the process, Einstein had to grapple with his moral obligation to his wife, versus his desire to be divorced and be with his new love. He had to wrestle with the wife’s illness, and his inability to divorce her until she was healthy. Then, he had to make an offer to her that she would accept in order to obtain her agreement for divorce. He had to determine how important getting the divorce completed was versus giving up the bounty of what was the most important achievement of Einstein’s life.

Divorcing spouses go through a similar thoughts when evaluating their options for agreement. How much are they willing to give up – whether property or time with their children – to accomplish the divorce by agreement? Is the difference worth having a trial to a judge to reach an outcome? Or, where jury trials are allowed in certain situations in divorce cases, is it worth going all the way to a jury?

While divorce lawyers may advise their client as to the propriety of settlement options, only the client may make the ultimate decision to settle their case. Even if the lawyer disagrees with the settlement option, the client may still choose to settle against the lawyer’s advice. Sometimes that may be more preferable than the alternative of trial.

Hat tip to Brain Pickings June 12, 1918: Einstein’s Divorce Agreement and the Messiness of the Human Heart