Many divorce lawyers talk about “leverage” during divorce negotiations. Generally speaking, this information can help one spouse gain an advantage over the other. When used effectively, leverage can force the other party to make concessions or settle. But what exactly is the difference between “leverage” and “extortion” in a divorce negotiation? Are these two concepts really so different?

Defining Leverage in a Divorce Negotiation

The definition of leverage in a divorce is quite simple. Once you understand what a spouse wants or needs, you can use this against them to pursue positive outcomes. For example, you might be aware that a spouse desperately needs a place to live after losing access to the family home. You might use this as leverage, offering deals that force them to compromise because they need a roof over their head. Unlike blackmail or extortion, there is no official legal definition of “leverage.” 

Defining Extortion in a Divorce Negotiation

Extortion is a criminal offense in the United States. Although the term is used interchangeably with “blackmail,” these are two different crimes. Generally speaking, extortion and blackmail involve threats. Instead of threatening to physically hurt you, the individual may threaten to reveal certain information. This might be photographs, videos, or witness testimony about things you have done. This information does not necessarily need to expose crimes you have committed. It might also involve embarrassing or shameful information. 

That being said, many criminal acts during marriage may become relevant during divorce negotiations. The abuse of illegal drugs is a clear example. Substance abuse issues can affect numerous aspects of divorce, including property division and child custody. Threatening to reveal evidence of substance abuse could constitute blackmail under US law. The same logic applies to child abuse, DUI incidents, and much more. 

In some states, adultery is also a criminal offense. Although these laws are rarely enforced, they still exist in the criminal statutes of certain states. For example, adultery is a misdemeanor in North Carolina. Threatening to reveal the existence of an adulterous affair during divorce negotiations could also constitute blackmail under US law. 

One of the most important elements of extortion is the goal of gaining money or property. The goal of almost every divorce negotiation is to pursue positive financial outcomes. In other words, most spouses negotiate in an attempt to get more money. Some might argue that this falls under the definition of “extortion.” 

So what happens when you threaten to reveal a spouse’s adulterous affair or drug use in a trial unless they accept a certain settlement during negotiations? Does this constitute blackmail or leverage? What happens when you use a “veiled threat” instead of a direct threat? The legality of these strategies may be questionable. 

How Do You Know the Difference Between Extortion and Leverage?

The line between extortion and leverage can be extremely thin in divorce cases. Although some examples of blackmail are clear, others veer into the territory of mere leverage. Particularly unclear cases may be decided on a case-by-case basis before criminal courts. 

In light of these gray areas, attorneys should strive to understand when they might face accusations of extortion or blackmail. Lawyers can face criminal penalties for these actions, even if they seem like aggressive negotiation strategies at face value