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Like his best novels, Baltimore author Tom Clancy's divorce has taken an amazing twist: His wife is battling for a share of future earnings from his name -- and that of his fictional hero, Jack Ryan.

THE CLANCY COLD WAR:

June 13, 1998|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

Then there is Maryland family law, entitling spouses to "equitable distribution" of assets. But Mrs. Clancy appears to be trying to lay claim to money that will be earned after the divorce, which is highly unusual.

"I'm trying to analogize it," says Jane C. Murphy, associate professor and director of the family law clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

She offers an example: "The husband starts a business that's innovative, not earning much money, not worth much at divorce. It takes off after he gets divorced, and the wife, even if she's worked 20 years to start the business, she's not entitled to whatever happens afterward. What I would advise her is, 'We're not going to be able to reach the assets of this business after divorce; get some award of alimony now and then go in and get future increases in alimony.' "

"It's fascinating," says Max Stul Oppenheimer, an intellectual-property professor at the University of Maryland Law School. "I can't think of a single case where all these issues have been raised like this before. It's hard to say this without sounding different than I want to: It's a little like a zoo. It's not so strange to find one animal, but to find them all in one place!"

How much does one spouse contribute to another's literary creation? Mrs. Clancy has never claimed the role of Clancy's muse. But it is noted in the divorce papers that she supported him by working as a nurse in the early years of the marriage and rearing the couple's four children.

Clancy has counter-claimed that she was never supportive of his writing.

His court papers state "that Mrs. Clancy contributed nothing to the development of his books, that she opposed his literary efforts, and that the value of the marital property is due solely to his efforts unaided and often opposed by Mrs. Clancy."

Getting started

In the many profiles of Clancy written over the years, the author often tells the story about how he got started as a writer. He had purchased an insurance agency from Mrs. Clancy's grandmother, but was trying to write novels in his spare time. (In keeping with the Horatio Alger theme, there also is at least one reference to the "mailman's son from Baltimore.")

"I told him he should go back to selling insurance," Mrs. Clancy told the New York Times in 1988. "I've eaten those words a few times. But once I read the book I changed my mind. Tom said he'd be happy if it would sell 5,000 copies, but I told him not to worry, it'd sell a lot more than that."

As a best-selling author earning $19 million per book, Clancy belongs to a very small group of multimillionaire fiction writers. Few novelists could contemplate the purchase of the Minnesota Vikings, as he did recently.

And in that small group, Clancy is in a subset of authors who use a cast of continuing characters for his novels. John Grisham, for example, starts each mega-best-seller with new characters.

If there is a precedent here of valuing an author's name, it can be found not among divorcing authors, but with a dead one.

In 1993, a federal tax court in Virginia ruled that the trademarked name of author V.C. Andrews had a value of $703,500. The ruling arose from a dispute between the Internal Revenue Service and Andrews' heirs.

It is -- fittingly, given Andrews' fiction -- an unusual story. A Virginia woman, Andrews had written seven best-selling novels when she died in 1986. Her publisher, Simon and Schuster's Pocket Books, apparently didn't see why death should halt such a successful career.

So a ghostwriter, Andrew Neiderman, was hired to continue producing the modern Gothic tales for which Andrews had become famous. He said he used a computer to analyze her style, but eventually moved beyond using the characters she had created.

The IRS decided that if Andrews' name was selling the books, it was one of the estate's taxable assets. It said the name alone was worth $1.2 million and asked for back taxes of almost $650,000; the heirs countered by saying the name had no value at the time of her death. The court's assessment essentially split the difference.

Then there is the decidedly non-literary case of Lorna Wendt, who became famous worldwide last year for her decision to seek half of the so-called soft assets in her divorce from Gary Wendt, chairman of GE Capital. A traditional split would have given her $20 million, but Mrs. Wendt said her role as corporate wife also entitled her to a share in once-untouchable assets such as stock options. She won, but the case is under appeal.

In the meantime, she has set up a national foundation, the Connecticut-headquartered Institute for Equality in Marriage. Cynthia Williams, the foundation's executive director, said that only very wealthy women can fight these sorts of precedent-setting cases.

"This is an all-American issue of fairness," says Williams.

Mrs. Clancy's lawyers argue in her divorce papers that although she has about $16 million in assets, an "unconscionable disparity" will ensue after the marriage, with Clancy enjoying an ever-increasing income, while the partnerships they formed together provide less and less. An Aug. 31 hearing has been set on Clancy's motion to separate the divorce and the economic settlement. Additional motions are expected.

Meanwhile, Jack Ryan's future hangs in the balance.

Clancy's attempt to buy the Minnesota Vikings fell apart this spring, possibly because of the contentious issues here. What will happen next?

"It's got the makings of a book," says Max Stul Oppenheimer.

But perhaps one more suited to John Grisham's ouevre.

Pub Date: 6/13/98

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