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How much financial pain is Amber Heard in for now that a jury ruled against her? That’s almost entirely up to Johnny Depp.
After a Virginia jury awarded Depp $10.4 million in compensatory and punitive damages for defamation, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” actor has a wide spectrum of options to collect that money from his ex-wife over the coming months and years, according to legal experts who spoke with TheWrap on condition of anonymity because of their proximity to the situation.
But first things first: Heard has said she will appeal the verdict — and that she can’t afford to pay the penalty. If an appeals court agrees the defamation case was mismanaged in any way, the result could be altered or thrown out. And if Heard truly doesn’t have the assets to cover the bill, the former couple could tangle for several years, or even decades, to reach a settlement.
Collection laws are a bit different in each state, but the outline of the process is essentially the same across jurisdictions: After a brief waiting period (usually 30 days after the judgment is mailed), Depp has the right to start the collection process, providing any appeal has expired or been rejected.
And he has a wide spectrum of options, according to the legal experts.
Related video: Amber Heard 'heartbroken' as jury mostly sides with Johnny Depp
Option 1: A mercy settlement
The most likely, lawyers say, is a private settlement for something significantly less than $10.4 million. “This happens in 90% of debt-collection matters,” one Los Angeles-based defamation lawyer told TheWrap.
Depp could forgive Heard entirely, making her pay a symbolic $1. He could simply charge her for his legal fees or design any amount that satisfies his side — $3 million, $5 million, whatever he fancies.
And since Heard won a $2 million judgment of her own in her counterclaim against Depp, the starting point of negotiation is really something more like $8.4 million. Team Depp and Team Heard could also mutually agree on an amount she could pay right away, or a payment plan — but that would ultimately be Depp’s call.
Depp has repeatedly said the purpose of his lawsuit was to clear his name and legacy for his children and career, and he seems well on his way to doing that. But the open vitriol between Depp and Heard leaves open the possibility of something much more aggressive.
Option 2: Depp sells his judgment to a collector
It’s a common practice to sell judgments to collection companies for pennies on the dollar and would be an attractive option for Depp if he wants to be paid right away while still punishing Heard.
Depp could liquidate his judgment to a financial firm — traditionally in the neighborhood of 10 cents on the dollar, give or take — giving that company the right to settle with Heard or work to collect the full amount.
Though not the most potentially lucrative option for Depp, it could be his cleanest off-ramp: Depp gets a fast check and puts the matter behind him, while Heard struggles with a collection agency for some indeterminate amount of money and time.
Option 3: Heard pays the full amount voluntarily
Option 4: Scorched earth
If Depp wants to turn the financial screws on his ex-wife, who accused him of numerous heinous abusive acts the jury of five men and two women ultimately didn’t believe, he has several paths forward (again, barring a successful appeal or settlement). All of them require him to do the work, however.
The first step is to locate Heard’s assets — bank accounts, properties, vehicles, personal property, earnings statements — and “attach” the judgment via state courts. The case was tried in Virginia — and it’s a little more complicated to involve assets from another state, requiring legal cooperation between jurisdictions. But it’s doable.
Thus would begin the process of liquidation and foreclosure, enforced by the courts. Furthermore, if Depp decides to go after Heard’s future earnings, he could also compel the state where she’s working to garnish some or all of her wages. That means taking a cut of her salary on “Aquaman” sequels or any other projects she might line up.
“There are a lot of hoops [Depp] would have to jump through,” one legal expert told TheWrap, “but he really could make her life miserable.”
Option 5: Debtors’ prison?
Not at all likely.
To be clear: No one has been jailed for failing to pay debts in the U.S. in decades.
“It would be almost unheard of,” one lawyer told TheWrap. “We don’t have debtors’ prisons anymore, it almost never happens in modern times.”
There are provisions in state laws for arrest and jail time if the “judgment debtor” (Heard, in this case) repeatedly fails to cooperate with the “judgment creditor” (Depp). But even then, an arrest would be for failing to comply with a court order, not necessarily to punish the debtor for not paying.
“Johnny would really have no power to do that,” the defamation attorney said. That would be up to a judge and considered an extreme measure for only an extreme circumstance.
That said, nothing about this case has been anything less than “extreme.”
What about the judgment against Depp?
Heard countersued for $100 million, also for defamation, accusing Depp’s former lawyer Adam Waldman of defaming her with statements made in British tabloids. The jury awarded her $2 million in compensatory damages on one of her three counterclaims, but threw out her punitive claim.
That judgment was squarely against Depp, not Waldman, whom it’s assumed made the statements with Depp’s blessing. And it’s extremely unlikely Depp would risk sacrificing his win to appeal that decision; instead, it’s a counter-balancing factor in whatever amount the two sides ultimately decide to pursue.
The jury’s verdict was reached Wednesday after the panel spent three days deliberating over more than six weeks of grueling, emotional and highly contradictory testimony in a case focused on a Washington Post op-ed written by Heard.
Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.