Betting on divorce in America may not be as sure of a thing as it seems.
When the ex-wife of billionaire Steve Cohen needed money to renegotiate her divorce settlement in court, she turned to Balance Point Divorce Funding. Balance Point reportedly gave Patricia Cohen $1.2 million. In return Ms. Cohen will pay the Beverly Hills, Calif., firm a portion of her eventual settlement, if there is one.
If the bet pans out, it could be a big haul for the nearly five-year-old firm. Cohen says she is owed half of the proceeds of a real estate sale her ex-husband—a hedge fund manager who’s other, better known legal problem includes allegations of insider trading at his former firm—made before they were divorced back in 1990. She said she only recently became aware of the deal, long after they had inked a prior divorce settlement.
Including interest, Cohen could be owed as much as $9.3 million. Balance Point typically collects 25% of any legal recovery its clients receive. If it were to get that in the Cohen case, the firm could be looking at $2.3 million, or a near 94% return on its investment.
“It’s a good business if you know what you are doing, and a needed one,” says Stacey Napp, who founded the firm after going through her own seven-year divorce. “Without it, people wouldn’t have access to legal help.” Napp also advocates that clients move their cases to private judges, which can be more costly but often leads to quicker settlements.
Despite the apparent rewards, after five years in business, Napp and Balance Point appear to have attracted no competition. There are firms that lend money to people going through divorce proceedings. But the loans tend to carry high interest rates, nearing 20%, to reflect how risky they are. Other firms invest in commercial or civil litigation, but they tend to stay away from divorce cases.
“I wouldn’t invest in divorce cases,” says Suzanne Kimberly Bracker, a prominent divorce attorney in New York. “There are too many variables. It’s a tough investment.”
It’s hard to know how well Balance Point has done. It is not a public company or public investment fund, so it doesn’t have to disclose its returns or profits. Knapp declined to comment on the firm’s returns or how many divorce cases it has invested in.
But Balance Point gets some funding from Asta Funding, which is a public company based in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Asta functions primarily as a debt collector. It buys up unpaid consumer debt—mostly credit card bills—from lenders, and tries to force borrowers to pay. Two-and-a-half years ago, though, it struck a deal to provide funding to Balance Point.
The deal guarantees Asta a 15% return on its investment. After that, proceeds from divorce investments are split 60-40 between Asta and Balance Point. But even with that split, the investments don’t seem to be panning out for Asta.
According to Asta’s latest financial filings, the company has invested $2.3 million in divorce cases through Balance Point. Asta says it hasn’t brought in any income from those investments for the past nine months. That was down from just $34,000 in fiscal 2013, which ended in September. Asta CFO Robert Michel describes his company’s experience in the business as “choppy.” “The cases don’t close in a timely manner,” says Michel, who laughs when asked if he has seen The War of the Roses, the classic movie about an over-the-top divorce battle. “It’s a challenging business.”
In addition, Balance Point has borrowed $1 million from Asta on a line of credit that was set up as part of the two companies’ initial deal. The line of credit maxed out at $1 million, and was initially set to be paid back this past May. Earlier this year, the loan was extended until the end of October. Balance Point said it was granted an additional extension. Asta’s Michel declined to comment on the status of the loan.
Napp says that Asta only represents about half of the funding her company has received and that the firm’s returns are much better than they appear. “We haven’t had a loser yet,” says Napp.
She says the venture with Asta is still new, and that divorce cases take two years or longer to be resolved, which is why the Asta investments haven’t shown much of a return. She also says the two cases that Asta funded that have been resolved have produced returns of 74% and 100%, respectively, though they have been relatively small cases.
Napp says that Balance Point is on the verge of striking a new financing deal with a “hedge-fund-like investor” that will allow her to expand the business. “If we weren’t doing well, we wouldn’t be rolling out two new services in the next six months through a new fund,” says Napp.