At its core, Mrs. Doubtfire is a film that shaped the childhood of every kid in America and inspired legions of people to cross-dress with confidence. However, it's also a movie that may have caused a cornucopia of legal troubles for anyone careless enough to replicate the actions of Daniel Hillard a.k.a. Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire in real life.
So, because we like getting to the bottom of sh*t, we found a lawyer who went through the movie and talked to us about every law bent and broken. Also, our lawyer told us to say this definitely isn't legal advice. So, uh, this definitely is not legal advice.
At the very beginning, Daniel Hillard throws a huge party that prompts his divorce. Daniel is forced to move out of the house and into a sh*tty apartment. How is this legal?
Daniel Hillard and his wife live in California, which decides how to divide property in a divorce by what is referred to as “community property.” Community property is everything that a married couple own together—which includes everything bought or received while the couple was married that wasn't a gift or inheritance.
So, we must assume that the house was “community property” and that the court had to make a decision of how to divide it during the divorce. A court has a few options—it may order that the couple sell and divide the profits, or that the spouse staying in the home “buy out” the departing spouse.
However, when the spouses have minor children in common, the court may delay the sale of the home to minimize the impact of the divorce on the minor children.
This would mean both spouses continue to own the home jointly for a set period, giving the custodial parent exclusive use of the home during this time. This delay could be what forced Daniel out and into an apartment.
What would a custody battle look like for this kind of divorce?
It's ultimately within the discretion of the court. Courts will encourage divorcing couples to reach a mutually agreeable arrangement, and may send the couple to court-ordered mediation to foster a compromise. If no agreement is reached, a court will evaluate a series of factors, putting paramount importance on the “best interests of the children.”
A social worker is sent to Daniel’s apartment twice a week to “check” on Daniel to make sure he has a job, etc. Is this normal for a divorce?
It may be, it may not. While it seems a bit overblown in Daniel’s context, it is conceivable that a court, faced with such an elaborate and disastrous birthday party and a spouse that walks off his job, would question whether there is any temporary mental, physical, or emotional condition that could render child visitation unsafe.
In this context, they may seek to have a social worker “check” on Daniel, to make sure that he is not suffering from any condition that would render supervised visitation necessary.
Is it legal for “Mrs. Doubtfire” to exist? A man masquerading as a woman?
From a criminal perspective, there are a number of “crimes” that Daniel could conceivably be charged with. Charging someone with a crime is serious business, and if you watch enough Law and Order episodes, you’re probably familiar with what is known as “prosecutorial discretion,” which is a prosecutor’s decision whether or not charging someone with a crime is prudent or practical. Usually this will involve considerations of the harm of the conduct, and the prosecutor’s appraisal of the likelihood of a conviction.
Fraud is a possible charge – California’s criminal fraud laws are violated, generally speaking, when one commits an act that (i) results in an unfair or undeserved benefit for himself or herself, or (ii) causes harm or loss to another person. An interesting argument could be made that the financial gain of the job itself was not an unfair or undeserved benefit for Daniel, or a harm or loss to Miranda—after all, Daniel did supervise the kids. Is getting to see his kids more often an undeserved benefit? Maybe.
Forgery of tax documents could have also occurred, which could be considered a crime. Interference with child custody, and foregoing a court order regarding custody, could also be the basis for a crime.
Could Daniel’s brother get in trouble for creating Mrs. Doubtfire?
Yes, his brother (conceivably) could get in trouble. Aiding and abetting a violation of law can always be alleged against someone who encourages, facilitates, or aids in the commission of a crime, no matter how seemingly insignificant that person’s role. Mere knowledge of a crime, or presence at the scene will not suffice. Conspiracy to commit the offense is also possible for Daniel’s brother, as there was a prior agreement to commit the relevant offenses.
Mrs. Doubtfire throws a lime at Stuart’s head. Could Stuart get him in trouble for assault?
Yes, this could conceivably lead to criminal charges. A common confusion is the difference between “assault” and “battery,” in states such as California which distinguish between the two. Assault consists of a threat of force that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the defendants’ act would result in force, combined with the defendant’s ability to actually apply force to that person. Battery, on the other hand, is when you actually make contact.
If Daniel swung the lemon wildly and threatened to throw it at Stuart—assault. Once it hits him, battery. “Stuart” likely deserves it for his later work in the Thomas Crown Affair.
Okay, let’s get into specifics: at one point in the movie, Mrs. Doubtfire pulls the hood ornament off Stuart's Mercedes. Could he get in trouble for that?
Yes, this could conceivably lead to criminal charges. In California, Daniel could be charged with vandalism, which—despite the connotation with graffiti artists or troublesome kids—really means any sort of malicious destruction or damage to property.
Mrs. Doubtfire puts cayenne pepper into Stuart's food, knowing he’s allergic. Isn't this attempted murder?
Yes, this could conceivably lead to criminal charges. Attempted murder would require a showing of intent. Did Daniel intend to kill Stuart with the cayenne pepper? Depending on the nature of the allergy and what was known to Daniel, a prosecutor could bring charges for reckless endangerment, which only requires that a defendant disregard known or obvious risks to the safety and well-being of another.
At the end of the movie, the court says Miranda has almost full custody of the children and that Daniel will have “supervised visits.” Is this normal?
As Daniel progresses deeper and deeper into his “unorthodox” lifestyle, it is conceivable that the social worker overseeing and providing recommendations to the court on visitation could recommend supervised visits.
As stated above, this is normally done where there is a mental, physical, or emotional condition that could render unsupervised visits unsafe for the children.
At the VERY end of the movie, Miranda and Daniel decided (out of court) that they’ll share custody of the kids. Could this work, pending the court’s prior decision still stands?
Daniel and Miranda’s out-of-court agreement would have to be presented to the court, which would then presumably modify the custody order if it agreed to its terms. Custody and visitation orders change frequently, and are never really final, due to the changing nature of family dynamics—particularly as children age.
Daniel and Miranda would present to the court a sufficient basis for the modification, and the court would evaluate whether a modification of custody due to these changed circumstances is sufficiently in the best interest of the children.