Simplify your divorce – improve your life!

A Successful Marriage?

I met this great couple yesterday.   I guess I really should not call them a couple since the reason they were in my office was to sign their divorce agreement.  Plus, they’ve been separated for a few months now. Nonetheless, they were great together. She is beautiful, serious, hard-working, and stable. He is hilarious, carefree, funny and fun. You can see how they would have been a great complement to each other. You can also see how things could have gone wrong.   Finally, they are not the right couple for each other. Their adult employed daughters are 24 and 22 years old.  In all, I consider that they have had a successful marriage.  I told them so.

Until yesterday I had been working with the two of them via telephone and email.  We put together the outline to their agreement the way they wanted it and I was reducing it to writing. The 3 of us needed to sit down together and go over the salient points of the agreement so we can finalize open items, make sure that everything was in compliance with what a court will allow, and hopefully get it signed if possible.  I had emailed them my final draft in advance.

The 2 of them walked in together smiling and joking with each other.   We sat down in the conference room.  The wife pulled out her copy of my draft, neatly marked and tabbed where she had questions.  She pulled out a calculator, a pencil, and a notebook.  The husband sat next to her, empty hands folded on the table in front of him, just smiling at me.

“Did you both have a chance to review the agreement?” I asked them.

They both nodded.

I turned to the husband, and asked, “Do you have any questions?”

“No,” he said, “my ex-wife read it, so I know its fine.” 

He was not being a martyr.  He was not being sarcastic.  He was not even being stupid, it turns out, because I had done my own due diligence on the matter and it is as fair and reasonable a distribution of assets as any judge would order.   He was right.  She read it, and it covered both of them.

Now, I am not saying that they are taking the divorce lightly.  There is clearly pain in both of their faces when they discuss the efforts they have made to keep the marriage together.  They feel that they have failed at something where they wanted to succeed, and that is difficult.  They are each disappointed in themselves and each other that divorce is their only remaining option. 

BUT, they do not feel the need to make the situation worse by fighting with each other; attacking each other; pitting the kids against each other, or even short-selling each other on the financials.  They just want to maintain a friendship in which they can someday attend their daughters’ weddings and hopefully their grandchildren’s birthday parties in peace.

I asked them if I could bottle them.  I wanted to be able to take a portion of that affection and good will and pass it along to my other clients; the ones who don’t face this process with the same sanguinity.    The husband just chuckled and shrugged.  The wife rested her hand on her husband’s shoulder and told me that she will always love him. 

No deep thoughts or brave words of wisdom, just two good and kind people letting each other go forward in their lives.  All I can say is they were able to preserve enough respect and affection for each other during the rough times of their marriage that there is still plenty left now, at the end, when they need it the most.

Maybe the lesson here is not just for people going through divorce, but even for couples who think they will never divorce.   Not every married couple is the right fit.  The wife can be her perfect square self, and the husband can be his best round self – if they don’t fit as themselves then they just do not belong together.  But that still leaves room for respect and affection and kindness.

Maybe what we can all learn from the man who says, “my ex-wife read it, so I know it’s fine,” is that by creating a foundation of trustworthiness, they are able to trust each other long after they are no longer in love.

What We Love:  Don’t squander all of the good will during your marriage – you might need it during your divorce!

Scared into Staying

I sat across the deposition table from an older attorney.  A nice man, I grew up with his son and knew the family.  I had always liked him, but at this particular moment I felt an urge to slap his face as he winked at me and said, “These two lovebirds will be back together in no time.”

He represented the husband.  More accurately, he had represented the husband’s wealthy parents in real estate and business dealings for more than 30 years.  He knew they were good people, solid pillars of the community, and reliable clients.  He made the mistake of presuming their son was the same.

I represented the wife.  She was young and pretty with a 2 year old son she was desperate to save from the bad situation in which they lived.  I had interviewed friends and witnesses who all told basically the same story.  The couple met in their favorite watering hole, shared a love of cocaine, and got married in a stupor.  The husband’s parents were able to keep fights, arrests, and restraining orders at bay because of their considerable financial interest in a small town.

The wife had a few miscarriages, which she blamed on the drugs.  The husband told people that he was secretly relieved when the pregnancies didn’t take. Then, during her last pregnancy, she sobered up, and it took – or the other way around.  And after she got clean her husband got angry.

She brought me her copy of a police report which reported that he had grabbed her by the hair and thrown her down the stairs while she was pregnant.  She dropped the charges.

Every time she tried to get out of the marriage he threatened her.  The usual list of threats includes “I will kill you/myself/our child,” “I will never give you a nickel and you will be homeless/hungry/poor/kicked out of the country club,”  “You will never see me/our child/our friends again,” “I will stalk you/your friends/your family until your dying breath.”  His threats also included “I will have you arrested for drug abuse.”  This was enough to make her scared to leave.  The physical violence made her scared to stay.

Until the day that everything changed. 

She was asleep.  He came home late, drunk and angry.  His crashing into furniture woke the baby, who started to cry.   The dad went into the nursery to yell at the baby, the mother jumped up and ran in just in time to stop the dad from slapping the baby across the face.  That night, she threw random clothes and baby items into a bag and slept at a friend’s house.  The next day she started calling lawyers to file for divorce.

“It was one thing when he hit me,” she told every divorce lawyer she interviewed, “but I cannot let him hurt the baby.”  Lawyer after lawyer refused to take her case.  Some knew the husband’s family and did not want to cross them.  Others knew of the husband’s family and assumed she was lying.  And even those who did not know the family found her story to lack credibility when she refused to press charges.

All she wanted was a divorce, her freedom, not an all-out war.  She wanted enough money to get out of town safely and start a new life.  If she pressed criminal charges she knew the backlash against her would be insurmountable.  But, by trying to keep her case low-key, she was giving everyone the impression that things were not so bad; just a little rocky.  Her husband was busy telling people that they were just passionate about each other; fights were part of their relationship, and they would be back together in no time.

During the deposition, she finally had the chance to tell her story.  She told it as calmly and honestly as she could.  She spoke directly to her husband’s attorney and answered every question he asked, whether or not it made her uncomfortable.  She explained the beatings, the anger, the abuse, and the threats.  Not in a melodramatic tone, just slowly, accurately, and credibly.  By the time she was done testifying, silent tears ran down her cheeks.

When the husband’s attorney said that he had no more questions, I was relieved.  I could not wait to get her out of there.  But, she had one more thing she wanted to say on the record.  “I have not pressed charges,” she told the lawyer, “and I do not want to go back to the police.  Please just let this end, and let me out.”

 

At that moment, I felt as if she was the bravest person I had ever met.

A lesser person might have chosen not to believe my client that day.  He could easily have told his clients that there would be a long legal battle ahead of them and could easily have run his bill into the 6 figure range to make sure that grandson stayed in town.  But, to his eternal credit, he did not.  Within a week I had a reasonable (though not generous) settlement offer on my desk.  Within 6 weeks the parties were divorced.  And about 18 months later I received a postcard from my client.  She and her son had moved out of state, she was engaged to a nice guy, and they were buying a modest, but affordable home together.  Her bravery had paid off.

What We Love:  Sometimes it is the truth, plain and simple, which helps determine the outcomes.

Let’s talk for a moment about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.  Not every family sets up a belief in either of these characters.  But, many do.  So when is the right time to dis-abuse your children of the fiction you have created for them?

Do both Santa and the tooth fairy exist for the same length of time?  Once the tooth fairy’s cover is blown, does Santa automatically disappear?  Do they both fall under the catch-all heading of “pretend visitors that make childhood better?” Or are they distinct entities from each other?

A common way people decide to let their kids in on the secret is when a child calls their parent on it.  My 8 year old recently just looked me in the face and said, “Mom, you’re the tooth fairy, right?”   No need for me to guess in that situation. I just smiled and handed over the money that was hidden behind my back.  My next sentence, of course, was, “but you cannot tell any other children!”  I don’t know what is going on in other families and I do not want to be the one responsible for the end of this particular innocence.

But, what if my kids never guessed?  Or, upon guessing, decided it was too horrible to think of a Santa-free world, so never mentioned their concerns to me?  Would I let it just continue?  Would my teenager be opening gifts from Santa every year?  If an adult child needs his tooth pulled, would he expect a quarter under his pillow the next morning?  Which would be more upsetting to a 21 year old? Learning that there is no tooth fairy? Or realizing that his parents had lied to him throughout his teenage years?

This is pretty much the conversation I was having with my client last week.  She caught her husband cheating on her in 2008, but decided that her son would be devastated by a divorce; so they just stayed “married.”  The husband had various affairs in different states while spending down the family nest egg, thinking that he was getting away with it.  The wife took a job to help compensate for the missing money, and hoped things would eventually return to normal. 

5 years later, they are embroiled in a hideous divorce.  Both parties are angry and bitter that they wasted so much of their lives in a sham marriage.  There is no money left in savings; and the wife is living in assisted housing because the husband refuses to help pay her bills.  (We are waiting for the judge’s order on that one.)

But the angriest person in the whole picture is their 21 year old son.  He has confronted each of his parents about the fact that although it was their choice to stay in a loveless marriage, by lying to him they never gave him the choice of whether he wanted to live inside that particular set of lies with them.  He keeps looking back at uncomfortable holiday meals, angry non-celebrations of birthdays and milestones, and feeling as if there was a script that they both saw and he did not.  The script of their deceits and anger, which would explain the parts of the picture he did see.

He told his mom that it is as if she let him believe in Santa until he was 20 years old.  What might have begun as a harmless story made to help the big scary world feel a little friendlier, devolved into a pathological behavior in which what was obvious and sensible was hidden behind fantasy and fiction.  He is furious at them for tricking him.  But I suspect he is angrier not only for the fact that the lies worked, I think he must have suspected all along that something was foul in their household, and every time they hid the truth it was as if they expected him to act stupider than he really is.  They were asking their son to dumb-down his own emotional intelligence just when it was their job to help him develop it.

The divorce will eventually conclude, and the parents will be able to begin their own pathways to healthy sane relationships.  The son will also eventually learn to trust his own feelings and forgive his parents for trying to protect him.  But all of them will likely always wonder when would have been the right time to admit to their child, and themselves, that the marriage was over.

WHAT WE LOVE:  No matter how long it may take to come out, once it is acknowledged, the truth is powerful and liberating.

I am batting a thousand during lunchtime this week.  Not sure at what, though?

Monday:  Met a male colleague of mine for lunch.  During the talk of kids and work, there seemed to be an unspoken “…and…” before and after each of his sentences.  Finally, I was out of ability to politely ignore the obvious.  “What,” I asked him, “is going on?”

He sighed, and a little embarrassed, said, “I moved out.”  After 25 years of marriage, after years of asking his wife to try marriage counseling with him, and after making sure his kids are safely into good schools, he gets to have his own life back.  He got a nice apartment in the same town as the family, and although they are only separated, he is not sure where this will end.  

I expected him to be happier than he is.  I thought the idea of a temporary (or maybe permanent) space of his own, a little breathing room in his life, was exactly what he needed.  It’s not, though. What he has wanted all along is still the same thing. He wants to be happier in his marriage.  Not out of it.

Tuesday:  After trying almost every week all summer, I finally got to catch up with a woman I have known for about 10 years.  She sat down and came right out with it – her husband filed for divorce.  She has done everything in her power to try and talk him out of it, and is reaching the end of her rope.  Her current plan of action is to sign a separation agreement in which she agrees to give up all of her rights, or potential rights, to any support or any share of his net worth, now or in the future, and just keep living with him, as a legally separated couple.  I told her it is a terrible plan.  I am apparently the twelfth person who has told her it is a terrible plan.  Coincidentally, I am also the twelfth person to whom she has told her plan.  She concedes that it might be a terrible idea, but she believes it is her only choice.

She is in her mid-thirties and thinks she is too old to start again.  She does not want to find a new home, and a look at school systems, and decide about her job and maybe even start dating again.  She did all of that and didn’t love it the first time around, there is no evidence she will like it more this time.

I agree with her, in some respects, and told her so.  I said, “It sucks to have to go to the back of the line when you are so close to the front of the line.  But if you are in the wrong line, the sooner you get out of it the better off you will be.”  Imagine spending all day in line at the DMV only to be told that they don’t renew licenses there anymore.  I asked her if she wouldn’t rather be in the right line, instead?

Wednesday:  Lunch with my Mom.  I happen to know that my parents are not separated and are not filing for divorce.  I figured this would be a lunch free of divorce chatter, and was looking forward to it.  I got to the restaurant first and ran into a friend from high school who I have not seen in a few years.  I said, “Wow – you look great! Have you been working out?”  

“No,” he said, and smiled sadly.   I really thought about stopping him right there. “Don’t say it!” I wanted to yell.  But, he was already well into his answer, “. . . in the process of getting divorced. . .”  Poor guy.  A few more details about what he has had to do to make sure his wife and kids can stay in the house, even if it means him having to take a second job, and then my mom showed up and the conversation turned to grandkids and parties.

I am not exactly sure what I take from all of this.  I know that in my own legal practice I usually work with people who are more emotionally prepared to move on with their lives.   I know that even the most amicable and simple divorce is still an emotional train wreck for the people who have to live through it.  Although I put most of my energy into making the process as humane as possible, it is still ultimately a death.  Wherever my clients go after the divorce is over, what they are leaving behind them includes some pretty devastating broken dreams and promises.  

I tell them this a lot, though: as difficult as it is right now, you will be better off when it is over than you were before it began.  You deserve a better life than this and you cannot get it by staying where you were, you have to move forward.  Every time I run into one of my clients after the smoke has cleared the one thing they all tell me is that I was right.  They are happier now than they were while they were married. They just couldn’t see it coming.

What We Love:  The ultimate end of a divorce is freedom – the freedom to live the life you choose.

Enforcement means forcing someone to do something they do not want to do.  Just because a judge rules that your ex-wife has to treat you with respect in front of the kids, doesn’t mean she is going to do it.  A judge who orders alimony payments does not show up at the husband’s house and take money out of his wallet.  Although, it would be pretty awesome if she did!

 

There are state agencies in place that will help enforce child support orders, because the 1970s era “deadbeat dads” impacted more than just the kids who were not getting child support; they arguably effected our entire economy.   Kids who do not have enough money for food and clothes are not good students, tend to drop out, have fewer marketable skills, and may become drains on society whether it is through under-employment, unemployment, or crime.  It is in the state’s best interest to make sure that child support gets enforced.

 

But what about all of those other orders judges make in divorce cases?  The state does not have a direct interest in every case.  If a husband is ordered to pay a percentage of his annual bonus, or make timely alimony payments, or kick in for half of the doctor’s bills, and doesn’t.  Then what?

 

If a Mother is supposed to deliver the kids dressed and fed in time for church every Sunday morning, but always manages to blow it, one way or another (a ripped dress; a sandwich in hand, fifteen minutes late for a 30 minute Mass) whose job is it to straighten her out?

 

Unfortunately, this job falls to the one person in the whole world who is proven to be the absolute least qualified to bring out positive behavior from the forgetful or offending spouse – the ex-spouse.  Crazy, right?  But, true.  Want your child support payments on time? Go to the professionals.  Want your child’s face washed before a big event? You are on your own.  

 

There are, of course, some avenues of recourse through the court system.  You can ask the Judge to find your ex spouse in contempt for failure to follow the court’s orders or the Separation Agreement.  But, it is difficult to rise to the level of contempt that a judge will notice.  If alimony is always late, sometimes by a week, and sometimes by only a day or two; a judge is not likely to get involved.  If the visitation schedule is respected; but the kids just aren’t dressed nicely, a judge will not want to hear it.

 

These are the situations in which you and your ex-spouse really have no choice but to find a partnership.  You can try enforcing by being tough, as in, “Late alimony from you means no weekly bonus phone call from the kids,” if that is what works.  Or you can try being generous, “I bought Suzy a new dress, and here is a gift card for you to buy yourself something as well, can she wear the new dress to church next week?”

 

If nothing works, maybe you just need to adjust your expectations, and limit your own disappointment.  Maybe a matter which would not rise to the level of court intervention should not be something you care about, either.  If alimony gets paid every month; just late – then know that it comes late and don’t look for it on the first of the month.  If punctuality is your hang-up, always offer to be the one who picks up the kids, instead of waiting for them to be delivered to you.

 

The divorce isn’t truly final until all of the court orders and rulings are complete.  How you live in your divorce world depends in large part on how you choose to live in it.

What we Love:  Enforcement is an opportunity for re-thinking the dynamic between you and the person to whom you are no longer married.

A Former Client called today.

 

Her ex-husband, from whom I divorced her about 10 years ago, passed away.  Frankly, he lived a lot longer than I would have guessed.  While we were going through the divorce process, I never expected him to make it to the next meeting or court date.

 

The poor man had a serious alcohol and drug problem.  Not the glamorous Phillip Seymour Hoffman, millionaire by day/junkie by night kind of problem.  He had a 1920s hobo kind of problem.  He came to court with the tops of his shirt collar frayed and holes in the bottoms of his shoes.  He looked 25 years older than his age, and was not above drinking absolutely anything that might produce a buzz.  I believe he sniffed gasoline and glue when he could not access alcohol.

 

Sadly, he almost never had a problem accessing alcohol.  While they were married, in a gesture of goodwill, his wife helped him purchase a bar.  It was the local dive where he spent most nights drinking, and they were able to get it for a good price.  She thought that they could make a go of it, since he was always there, anyway.  She would cook food and manage the finances; he would manage the bar.

 

In retrospect and from a distance it is easy to see this as a bad idea.  Do not give your diabetic uncle a bakery, either.

 

It turned out to be an even worse idea than you might have thought.  They lost everything – the bar, their house, their credit, their life savings, their relationship, and ultimately, his liver.  The divorce was short and painful.  He promised to look for work, she promised to keep their kids functioning.  They have stayed in touch all along, and she made sure that the kids always visited him when he was in a position to see them.

 

This is the part of the telephone conversation that made me smile.  It turns out, she followed the best piece of advice I ever gave her.  I told her to keep a life insurance policy on him.  She told me today there were months when she had to decide between the $50 premium payment and using that money for groceries, but she always followed my advice, and maintained that policy.  She said she heard my voice in the back of her head, saying, “He cannot help you while he is alive.  Give him the dignity of helping after he is gone.”

 

So, she called today to tell me that after all of these years, and everything they have been through, her Husband is helping her pay off some debts and buy their daughter a used car.  It’s not much, but it is more than he has been able to do for them since I met him; and I honestly believe it would have made him happy to do it.

 

What We Love:  If your lawyer gives you good advice, follow it.  If it works, let your lawyer know.

 

D-College-CostsI received a call this week from “Tony,” a fictitious name for a man I represented in 1998, when he and his first wife had a 3 year old son together.  He has been a generous and involved father to his child from that marriage for the entire 15 years since his divorce. He paid child support on time and in full even when he was diagnosed with Leukemia and had to take a medical leave of absence from his job for two years. He never missed a payment. In fact, he was never even late with a payment.  He has since remarried and has an 11 year old son with his current wife.

We’ll call the first son John and the second son Jacob.  John came on every vacation with Jacob and their dad and his wife.  John has played as many sports as Jacob, he has gone to as many ball games and concerts and family picnics with their dad as Jacob has.  The dad never lost his connection to John, never let the new family exclude John. John and Jacob know that they are half-brothers, but they feel that they are brothers.

In all his years of paying more than the court ordered by staying current with child support, and adding whatever extra-curricular activities he could, of making sure that John and Jacob both had health insurance, glasses, braces, cleats, and haircuts, Tony and his second wife always knew that once John turned 18, the child support payments would end.  The love, and care, of course, will never end.  But they were able to budget their lives knowing that in July of 2013, they would essentially get a pay increase.

Imagine Tony’s surprise, then, when he received a phone call in August from his ex-wife (let’s say “Tina”) telling him that he needed to start paying for John’s college tuition room and board.  Tony and Tina both have copies of the same divorce agreement they signed in 1998.  They both read the same words.  Tina saw it and read, “Tony has to pay one –half of full tuition, room and board at a state University.”  She figured that meant that if those costs are now about $12,000 per year, that it was time for Tony to start paying her $6,000 per year.  If John goes away to college, or stays home with her should not influence (in her interpretation) how much money Tony owes her.  She figured she could take $6000 from Tony, and have John take out student loans for anything else he needed.  She just saw that paragraph as another pay day for her.

Luckily, Tony called me.  I have to admit that I could not at first recall the specific language of the agreement.  When we discussed it by phone and he said that he was obligated to pay half of John’s college, I thought that might be true.  But I asked him to bring me a copy of the agreement anyway, so I could read it myself.  It seemed like a bigger commitment than Tony would have made.

I told him that because of his illness, if necessary we could move the court for a modification, but that is a last resort.  Remember, if Tony had to pay me to represent him in court, and Tina got an attorney, too, all of that money would be directed away from John’s education and into lawyer fees and court costs.  The worst possible scenario, if you ask me.

Sure enough, he brought me the signed agreement and court orders and as soon as I had a chance to read them, I could see the confusion.  The agreement is that both parties will help John get as much financial aid as he can get, and then the two parents will pay equal shares of what is left; but not more than the cost of a state college. If Tina pays $5000, Tony has an obligation to match it.  But if John only needs $5000 from his parents; then Tony is only responsible for half of that amount.   The best part, to me, and to Tony, is that none of this money will go to Tina.  John will continue to have his dad helping him get through life and do what he needs to do; but all of Tony’s money will be going directly to John’s benefit, not by way of Tina – and not to lawyers’ fees.

What We Love:  It is always worth having an attorney read a legal document for you.  It might cost you an hour of the lawyer’s time, but it could save you thousands of dollars in mistakes.

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