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The Deal with Hush Money Payments

April 14, 2023

At Slate, Prof. Tess-Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08 discusses when hush money payments cross a legal line.

At Slate, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08, Professor of Law and Psychology, was recently asked to expound upon “Why Donald Trump’s Hush Money Payment Is the Thing That Finally Got Him.” 

Wilkinson-Ryan studies the psychology of legal decision-making. Her research addresses the role of moral judgment in legal decision-making, with a particular focus on private contracts and negotiations.

From Slate

… Tucker Carlson defended the former president thus: “Paying people not to talk about things — hush money — is ordinary in modern America.” The argument—which is tangential to this case, as what Trump is in trouble for is not the payment itself, but the way it was accounted for — had us wondering. So we called up University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law professor Tess Wilkinson-Ryan to get at the question: What’s the deal with hush money payments? Why can someone like Donald Trump just pay people off? When does this practice cross a line?

Wilkinson-Ryan teaches and writes about contracts and researches the moral psychology of legal decision-making. She is also the author of Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order — and What We Can Do About It. We chatted about hush money payments, their relationship to nondisclosure agreements, and their limitations and extralegal power. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Molly Olmstead: So, when is a hush money payment legally OK, and when is it not?

Wilkinson-Ryan: It’s legally OK in a pretty broad swath of situations. It’s legally OK if the information being kept confidential is not about a crime, or if keeping it confidential doesn’t otherwise violate the law. If the payment itself is illegal — imagine bribery or blackmail — that’s a matter of criminal law.

But largely, we’re not talking about that kind of situation. We’re talking about cases in which two parties would have an agreement to keep something confidential. One party pays the other one and says, I’m paying you this money because you promise not to tell anybody about the affair. In those cases, there’s nothing illegal about making that transfer. But there might be times where the contract isn’t enforceable… . 

Read the full interview at Slate.