Watch CBS News

Amber Heard verdict: What happens if she can't pay the $15 million judgment?

Verdict read in Johnny Depp-Amber Heard case
Jury awards $15 million to Johnny Depp, $2 million to Amber Heard in defamation case 11:47

A jury that found Amber Heard guilty of defaming ex-husband Johnny Depp has ordered her to pay $15 million in damages, posing financial risks for the 36-year-old actress, according to experts. 

Although Heard's wealth is unclear, she has earned millions for her work in TV and films such as "Aquaman" and "Aquaman 2." She previously received a $7 million settlement from Depp after their 2016 divorce, which she pledged to donate to charities including the American Civil Liberties Union. During the trial she said she hadn't yet fulfilled the pledge because of Depp's lawsuit. 

But testimony during the trial suggested that Heard's career had stalled due to the legal battle with Depp, according to Newsweek. That may raise questions about whether Heard's pockets are deep enough to cover the damages, which included $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages — although the latter was reduced to Virginia's cap of $350,000 on such awards. The jury also awarded Heard $2 million in the lawsuit. 

Asked if her client can afford to pay the $10.35 million judgement, Heard's attorney, Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, told the "Today" show: "Oh, no. Absolutely not." Bredehoft, who didn't address Heard's financial options in relation to the judgment, also said that Heard plans to appeal the ruling.

While Heard can appeal the verdict, she could be required to post a bond for the full $10.35 million judgment, plus interest, as the appeal proceeds, said attorney Sandra Spurgeon of Spurgeon Law Group in Lexington, Kentucky. 

"For an individual who doesn't have the ability to pay the judgment and no ability to post the bond, then there is a real issue if the winning party intends to execute the judgment," Spurgeon told CBS MoneyWatch. 

By comparison, Depp, 58, earned as much as $650 million over one 13-year period, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Even so, a former manager and agent testified during the trial that his spending — such as $300,000 a month on full-time staff — has eroded his wealth over time. 

Heard didn't address the financial terms of the verdict in a statement she published on Twitter on Wednesday in which she expressed "disappointment" at the jury's decision. Here are Heard's options following the highly publicized trial:

Appeal the judgment

As noted above, Heard could appeal the verdict in hopes of getting a more favorable judgment and reducing the payment. 

If she wishes to stay the execution of the $10.35 million judgment, she will likely be required to post a bond, said Brian Pastor, an attorney in Atlanta who specializes in litigation and securities and who has experience in dealing with judgments. Heard could also opt not to post a bond, but that would allow Depp to execute on the judgment, he noted.

Not enough money? Wages could be garnished

If Heard decides against an appeal but doesn't have enough money to pay the judgment, she could end up with her current and future wages garnished, according to legal experts. 

"The question is if she says, 'Look, I don't have it. It's not there — you can look in my bank accounts,' then we can talk about things like garnishing her wages," said CBS News legal contributor Jessica Levinson.

She added, "That's not an unusual situation where somebody says, 'I don't have — I can't fulfill this,' and so I certainly think because she has earning potential," part of her wages could be garnished as a result.

Depp could go after more than her wages, Pastor noted. He could also collect by going after her real estate, jewelry and other valuable items — although some assets, such as retirement accounts, would be protected. 

If he were advising Heard, Pastor noted, "I would say maximize everything in a retirement account immediately."

File for bankruptcy

Heard also has the option of filing for bankruptcy, but she might not be able to discharge the $10.35 million debt through insolvency, Pastor noted. That's because of a part of bankruptcy law that carves out debts stemming from "willful and malicious injury by the debtor" to another party.

"The jury form said 'defamation with malice' — you can't do anything with malice unless you have the intent," Pastor noted. "It's my opinion that it's highly likely that would apply."

However, Depp would need to raise an objection to her attempt to expunge the debt through bankruptcy, citing this portion of law, Pastor noted. It's possible he could decide against objecting in such a situation. 

"The overriding issue is, with someone like Depp, is that as a practical matter you want to go back to making movies that make you a giant payday, and therefore, the most important thing for you isn't this $10.35 million, it's your ability to get a paycheck for $10, $20, $30 million," Pastor noted. "Ticket buyers might be turned off by him going after her for that $10.3 million."

Depp could decide to waive the judgment 

Depp could also decide not to execute the judgment, in effect waiving the monetary damages, Spurgeon said. 

"He's in the driver's seat right now," she said, noting that Depp also could negotiate with Heard for a lower dollar figure.

If Heard appeals, as she reportedly intends to do, that could be a negotiating point for negotiating a lower payment or to drop it all together, Pastor added. 

"He's already won in the court of public opinion," he noted. "Maybe he's willing to say, 'If you drop the appeal, I'm willing to drop the judgment'."

In his Instagram comment after the verdict, Depp didn't indicate whether he intends to pursue the monetary judgment against Heard. He wrote that the "goal of bringing this case was to reveal the truth, regardless of the outcome." 

He added, "I feel at peace knowing I have finally accomplished that."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.