Berlusconi's only fear... Divorce!

Judges can't scare him, but his estranged wife certainly can. And she doesn't want money – she wants justice

Silvio Berlusconi is so far above the law he's practically in orbit. He's not afraid of judges, prosecutors, police, traffic cops, dog wardens or even criminals. There's only one person in Italy who scares him: his wife of 19 years, Miriam Bartolini, better known by her nom d'arte, Veronica Lario. And this weekend, she's preparing to unleash the weapon that could at last do him serious damage – an acrimonious, contested divorce.

The second Mrs Berlusconi has three ways to hit him. She can be awarded a large slice of his €10bn (£9bn) fortune. She can complicate the Berlusconi inheritance by winning for her three children with him the right to be involved in running his many companies. And she, above all, knows where the bodies are buried. Already, Italians are asking what new and politically devastating Berlusconi skeletons she will produce in an attempt to secure her children's inheritance.

Italian papers announced on Friday that Ms Lario, 53, had filed for separazione con addebito – the first official step towards a divorce in which she will claim that her husband, 73, is to blame for the failed marriage. Her lawyers will likely dwell mercilessly on the nature of Mr Berlusconi's numerous relationships with starlets, show girls and prostitutes.

Soon afterwards, it emerged that Ms Lario had not yet filed the claim. But no one in Italy doubts that a court, probably in or near Milan, will receive the papers within days – unless the Prime Minister has an uncharacteristic last-minute change of heart. Since the summer, Ms Lario has been waiting for an offer of an out-of-court settlement that never arrived. The final deadline, set for the end of October, has now elapsed.

Ms Lario, whose property alone is worth €20m, is not driven by concern for her bank balance. Aside from the threat of dragging politically lethal skeletons from the closet, the divorce will decide who inherits the mogul's vast wealth.

Cesare Rimini, a celebrated divorce lawyer from Milan, told La Stampa newspaper that the real battle would be over who inherits what from the mogul's media and entertainment group. Mr Berlusconi, has three children with Ms Lario; Barbara, 25, Eleonora, 23, and Luigi, 21. But it is his two children by his first marriage who play the most prominent roles in his business empire. His son Piersilvio, 40, is vice-president of the Mediaset TV group, while his daughter Marina, 43, chairs the holding company Fininvest, which contains the family stakes in Mediaset, as well as AC Milan football club, Mediolanum financial services and the Mondadori publishing house.

Ms Lario is demanding equal treatment for her children. Victory in court would allow this. But against Mr Berlusconi's wishes, it would diminish the standing of the older, more powerful children. Already the expectations of Ms Lario's first child, Barbara, of a heavy-hitting job in her father's empire are becoming obvious. It's no secret she wants to run Mondadori. But nor is it a secret that the formidable Marina is opposed to this.

The simmering family tensions will make it difficult for a peaceful and consensual carve-up of the empire, the Corriere della Sera newspaper noted. Experts say that the empire's strength has until now been the close family co-operation, and obeisance to the man who created it. The approaching divorce, which might prove ruinous personally and financially, could end all that.

The court papers haven't yet been served. But it's now gone five minutes to midnight. And Mr Berlusconi, the man who never backs down, will have to do just that – or face a battle which, for the first time in his life, he knows he can't win.