Inside Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's Surprisingly Long Custody Battle and the Unraveling of Brangelina

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have been tangling over custody issues for almost five years, which has understandably dimmed the rosy glow that used to surround the onetime golden couple.

By Natalie Finn Jun 04, 2021 11:00 AMTags
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Whether it's the cast of Friends being there for each other again after 17 years or the emergence of Bennifer 2.0, we're awash in blasts from the past. Sequels, reboots, reunions: Whether scripted or happening in real life, everything old is new again and we're hard-pressed not to let the nostalgia just wash over us like a warm, soothing bath. 

Not everything, however, is ripe for a fond trip down memory lane, let alone a full-fledged comeback. Most things that were once good but then ended for whatever reason should be left to rest in peace.

Alas, peace can be fleeting and, lately, when it comes to what once seemed true and right and inevitable, few things feel more in the past than Brangelina.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, they of the other most famous combined celebrity moniker, separated a long time ago, Jolie filing for divorce on Sept. 19, 2016. Admittedly it's not too strange that, especially in this business, their once-enviable romance feels like ancient history. Celebrities have been known to remake their lives in five weeks, let alone five years.

But if not for their ongoing custody issues, they could pass for having never happened at all.

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Though of course it was more complicated than one bad moment prompting Jolie to leave Pitt, at the time it felt as if they'd gone from being the most glamorous couple in Hollywood to letting their lawyers do the talking practically overnight. There were no further sightings of them together, no "wow, they look normal!" family trips to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving or glowing appraisals of each other's parenting skills in interviews. 

After an inauspicious beginning to their uncoupling, they did mend fences behind the scenes for their children's sake, making sure to abide by whatever agreement was in place. But a quiet tension has often simmered beneath Jolie's reflections on what went wrong and now, once again, it's their court filings speaking volumes.

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More than two years after they signed off on a custody agreement, narrowly avoiding a trial, E! News has confirmed that disagreements pertaining to five of their children (Maddox Jolie-Pitt is now 19 and no longer party to these proceedings) remain. According to court documents, Jolie, who eventually relented on her original 2016 request for full custody, is pushing back on a judge's tentative ruling last month granting Pitt joint custody.

"Brad is extremely happy, he's over the moon," a source close to Pitt told E! News after it was confirmed that their custody arrangement was to be modified to give him more time with Pax, 17; Zahara, 16; Shiloh, 14; and twins Knox and Vivienne, 12. "All he wanted to do was see his kids. For him, it's the most positive result."

According to a second insider close to the situation who spoke with NBC News, it isn't joint custody per se that Jolie objects to; rather, "there were other issues of concern." (All of which remain under seal as most documents pertaining to these proceedings have been since 2017.)

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In a May 24 filing reviewed by the Associated Press, Jolie's lawyers are arguing that, by refusing to let the children testify, Judge John W. Ouderkirk (the same jurist who officiated at the Jolie-Pitt nuptials in 2014) "denied Ms. Jolie a fair trial, improperly excluding her evidence relevant to the children's health, safety, and welfare, evidence critical to making her case."

Therefore, her side contended, Ouderkirk—who did hear from witnesses said to be familiar with the family dynamic before making his decision—should be disqualified from further rulings on the matter.

According to the AP, Jolie also submitted a document under seal in March that further explains the reasons for her purported concerns.

In a motion also filed May 24 to, as it stated, correct "factual and legal inaccuracies" put forth by Jolie's team, Pitt's attorney maintained that Ouderkirk "has conducted an extensive proceeding over the past six months in a thorough, fair manner and reached a tentative ruling and order after hearing from experts and percipient witnesses." The filing, obtained by E! News, also alleged that Jolie's witnesses "lacked credibility in many important areas," and it would be "in the best interests of the children" to modify the custody agreement.

Pitt's attorney also stated in the reply—in a page 3 footnote—that "the appropriate time and manner" for Jolie to object to the judge's decision would be on appeal, once it had become final.

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From the beginning, Jolie has maintained that she filed for divorce in the first place because it was in her kids' best interest, and publicly she's never wavered from that undescriptive-yet-pointed explanation.

"I separated for the well-being of my family," she reiterated to Vogue a year ago. "It was the right decision. I continue to focus on their healing. Some have taken advantage of my silence, and the children see lies about themselves in the media, but I remind them that they know their own truth and their own minds. In fact, they are six very brave, very strong young people."

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Jolie said as much four years ago, as well, telling Vanity Fair for its September 2017 cover story—not a silence-breaker but her first in-depth personal interview since filing for divorce—that her kids were "six very strong-minded, thoughtful, worldly individuals. I'm very proud of them." And, she added, "they've been very brave. They were very brave."

But aside from noting to VF that "things got bad" in the summer of 2016, she has never openly discussed what, exactly, took place before she started divorce proceedings. (Authorities confirmed that child services and the FBI investigated Pitt over an altercation he had with then-15-year-old Maddox aboard a private jet en route from France to Los Angeles days before Jolie filed. Both investigations were closed that November without further action being taken against Pitt. He has never commented publicly on the matter, but he did file for joint custody before either investigation was resolved. His first response to the divorce filing was to say he was "very saddened, but what matters most now is the well-being of our kids.")

Meanwhile, in the spring of 2017 Pitt had candidly opened up to GQ Style about therapy (new to it, loved it) and sobriety (six months in, tough but necessary) and his habit of not processing his emotions that had contributed to the demise of his 12-year relationship with Jolie, barely two years after they got married at their chateau in France.

Like $800 pants, accountability was a good look for the actor, and his stock proceeded to skyrocket, culminating in his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win for Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood last year. And what a view through rose-colored glasses it was for old-school fans when he and first wife Jennifer Aniston warmly interacted at the 2020 SAG Awards, nostalgia being a heck of a drug.

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"A breakup of a family is certainly an eye-opener that as one—and I'm speaking in general again—but as one needs to understand, I had to understand my own culpability in that, and what can I do better. Because I don't want to go on like this," Pitt reflected to NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday in 2019, his turn in Ad Astra as an emotionally adrift astronaut haunted by the end of his marriage while on an interstellar mission almost impossible to separate from his real-life saga.

"I had family stuff going on," he told the New York Times when asked if his own experiences helped shape the character. "We'll leave it at that."

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Since the implosion of his marriage to Jolie, Pitt has made the most of whatever time he's been allotted with the kids. In the earliest days he was limited to monitored visits while the aforementioned investigations were taking place, but they have long since segued into normal outings, overnights and various holidays. Jolie also bought a home in L.A. that's five minutes away from the house she and Pitt previously shared, an easier set-up for the kids.

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But while they focused on their brood's needs, disagreements regarding the children persisted behind the scenes. After months of being at odds and with a showdown in court looming, the exes avoided the need for a trial by finally agreeing to custody terms in November 2018. "Brad is hoping the worst is behind them and that they can move on from the fighting and painful past," a source told E! News at the time. "He knows in the long run the kids are best with both their mom and dad in the picture. He can now move forward and try be a stable and constant positive influence in their lives."

Another source said that Jolie was "pleased to be entering the next stage and [was] relieved with the progress for the health of the family."

Pitt told PeopleTV on the 2020 SAG Awards red carpet, "I got friends, I got lovely kids, I like my coffee, I like my dogs. I've got no complaints."

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Meanwhile, after making the promotional rounds in 2017 for First They Killed My Father, the based-on-a-true-story film she directed (and Maddox produced) about Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia, Jolie took a more extensive break from work, more likely to be spotted at Whole Foods, Toys R Us or Target than on a set.

"I don't enjoy being single," Jolie told London's Sunday Telegraph in September 2017 during her press tour. "It's not something I wanted. There's nothing nice about it. It's just hard."

"Sometimes maybe it appears I am pulling it all together, but really I am just trying to get through my days," she continued. "Emotionally, it's been a very difficult year and I have had some other health issues. So my health is something I have to monitor." (She told Vanity Fair she had a bout with Bell's palsy, which caused temporary facial paralysis, and developed hypertension in 2016.)

She hasn't directed since before filing for divorce, but returned to acting in 2019's Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which made almost $492 million worldwide. 

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Her latest film, the thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead—featuring Jolie as an intrepid firefighter, the sort of crafty-badass role she can eat for breakfast—opened in theaters and premiered on HBO Max in May, and she stars in Nomadland director Chloé Zhao's upcoming addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Eternals, due in theaters Nov. 5.

But while the Oscar winner has kept busy, she recently acknowledged that she basically had no choice but to alter her career priorities for the time being.

"I love directing, but I had a change in my family situation that's not made it possible for me to direct for a few years," Jolie told Entertainment Weekly in April, not going into detail but hardly needing to explain what she meant. "I needed to just do shorter jobs and be home more, so I kind of went back to doing a few acting jobs. That's really the truth of it."

Those Who Wish Me Dead was filmed pre-COVID, so the kids went with her to Albuquerque, N.M., for the shoot but also did some flying back and forth to L.A. to see their dad.

At the onset of the pandemic last March, a source close to the family told E! News, "All the kids are home with Angelina but they have continued seeing Brad and go over for their regular visits."

The Jolie-Pitt brood is used to being on the go, their globetrotting mom having always been intent on her children being true citizens of the world. Yet not surprisingly, having to stay close to home for most of 2020 was much more of a challenge for their mother than for them.

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"Well, I was never very good at sitting still," Jolie, who's turning 46 on June 4, told British Vogue in November. "Even though I wanted to have many children and be a mom, I always imagined it kind of like Jane Goodall, travelling in the middle of the jungle somewhere. I didn't imagine it in that true, traditional sense. I feel like I'm lacking in all the skills to be a traditional stay-at-home mom.

"I'm managing through it because the children are quite resilient, and they're helping me, but I'm not good at it at all."

Asked where she felt she was at in life, Jolie replied, "I'm feeling that I've come through a few things. I'm trying to be hopeful. I think this is something we've all discovered through the pandemic." As to whether she was at a happy stage, she said, "The past few years have been pretty hard. I've been focusing on healing our family. It's slowly coming back, like the ice melting and the blood returning to my body."

And as her ongoing fight to do what she thinks is right for her kids has demonstrated, that blood runs hot when it has to.