Simplify your divorce – improve your life!

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.

D-familylawI had a surprising phone call today with an old friend.  He has been in the divorce process for almost a year, and could not see a way to conclude the process and get on with his life.  The reason, sadly, is because his wife won’t let him.  After all of these years of letting her call the shots, he is still thinking that what he needs to do is follow her orders and she will cooperate with him.

He is mistaken.

When the wife told him that she wanted a divorce, he hired a mediator and filed the papers.  They went through the financial discovery process and decided what the state guidelines would most likely order him to pay on support.  The wife told him that the number was too low, so he increased it by $500 per month.  Then she told him to move out, and he did.

So, the situation became a perfect one for the wife:  her bills are paid, she does not have to live with her husband, but neither is he free to move on.  Every time the two of them have been scheduled to appear in front of a judge to report on their progress, the wife has declined to attend.  When the husband has tried to encourage the wife to go to court, to meet with mediators, or to sign an agreement, she has declined.  When he insists, she threatens to hire a lawyer.

Now, we all know why he would rather not push her. Hiring an attorney is an expensive and daunting  proposition. The only thing worse than hiring your own lawyer is paying for the opposing party’s lawyer.  So, out of fear, he backs off.  And stays married.  And pays more than a judge would likely order.  Because he is waiting for his wife to act reasonably.  For the first time in 20 years.  I told him I thought that it was an unlikely scenario.

The truth of the matter is that sometimes the good guy just has to be the bad guy.  It is not fair to my friend, or his children, or even his wife, for their divorce to drag out this long.  They are living in a state of perpetual limbo and no one is truly happy.  I walked him through a little of the procedure for what he needs to do to get in front of a judge, without lawyers, and ask for a divorce.  My friend is looking for a reasonable breakdown of assets and liabilities, and – frankly – so is the judge.  The court is not trying to punish anyone.  In a no fault state, the job of the judges is to help everyone who needs a divorce get the most fair and equitable divorce possible, in a reasonable time frame.

I hope my friend uses the advice I gave him as an opportunity to take the power away from his wife and let the divorce finish.  He will be happier, and so will his family.  He will have to wait a very long time if he wants to wait for her approval.  I just don’t think it is coming.

What We Love –  The laws are in place to protect society’s interest in everyone getting a fair and equitable outcome in their divorce, as much as possible.  You do not have to wait for your angry spouse to come to her senses.  There is a court system in place to do that for her.

Getta’ loada’ THIS guy!

D-moneyI rarely do this, but – you think your ex (or soon-to-be-ex) is a jerk?  Getta’ loada’ THIS guy!

Mr. and Mrs.  “Michaels” were married while Mr. Michaels was finishing his education at a prominent New York law school.  Mrs. Michaels worked two jobs so they could afford a decent place to live while her husband started his own litigation firm and built a clientele.  After about 10 years of marriage, a decent nest egg accumulated, and a respectable law practice in full-swing, they moved to the suburbs and had a baby.  Mr. Michaels kept working, but moved his practice to the town where they lived.  Mrs. Michaels made child-rearing and house maintenance her new career.

Shortly after their son graduated high school, his father announced that he wanted a divorce.  He told his wife that if she cooperated with him, he would “always take care of her,” so she cooperated.  They sold the marital residence, and split the profit without her ever seeking any legal advice on her own.  She moved into a small apartment and put the rest of her share into a savings account, waiting for her husband to give her half of their retirement accounts and savings.

She took a job working in retail to make ends meet, because he never gave her any money at all and she needed to pay her rent.  When she would ask him about alimony for rent payments he would tell her that since they were still married he could not pay her alimony.  She should just pay her own bills to the best of her ability and he would pay her back once he settled their accounts.

18 months after they separated, Mr. Michaels called his wife and told her that they were “automatically divorced” by the laws of the state because they had been living apart for 18 months.  He further told her that there was no money left in their accounts, he had spent it all on his own needs, and furthermore she was making more than he was on their tax returns, so he would be looking for alimony from her.

I am not making this up. A bright articulate woman in her 50s walked into my office and asked me whether she was automatically divorced, what had happened to all of their money, and whether she would be responsible to pay her ex-husband-the-lawyer alimony from her minimum wage job. The answers are:  there is no such thing as an automatic divorce, I did not know where the money went but I was about to do my best to find out, and the circumstances would have to be pretty extreme for her to have to pay him alimony.

Here is what we found out.  He declares income of about $500 per week, and rent of $750 per week.  His restaurant charges alone are more than $500 per week.  He just doesn’t report any of it as income.  He has no credit cards or other debts, purchased a new motorcycle for himself over the summer, and goes on monthly vacations out of state.

Last time we went to court he told the judge that he could not defend himself against my motion for alimony because he is “indigent” and could not afford an attorney.  The judge looked as if she was about to give him some time to hire a lawyer when I interrupted. “Excuse me you honor, but the Plaintiff himself is an attorney,” I told her.  The courtroom full of people gasped and chuckled at his audacity, and we were given our hearing.

The fact that this woman wants to trust her husband is one thing.  He is a lawyer and she has spent almost 30 years trusting him.  But as soon as she began to understand that he is lying to her, and apparently trying to defraud the court and the IRS into the bargain, she was smart to get her own legal counsel.    There is an old saying, “Trust, but verify.”  It is okay to believe what people tell you, but there is no harm in making sure it is true, and a good lawyer is just the person to verify when things look sketchy.

WHAT WE LOVE:  Divorces have an objective discernible truth, and given the opportunity to look for it most judges will find it.

A Diamond Necklace

D-DiamondI was looking for something in my jewelry box recently, and ran across a piece I had almost completely forgotten.   The diamond necklace from Brad.

Brad and I dated for about two years.  We never lived together, and the relationship never got too serious, but we were “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” in our 30s.  He was a really nice guy, I just could not tolerate a few of his worst habits, and he did not care for my disapproval.  Fair enough.

The end of the relationship began in Hawaii.  We were there on vacation with friends for a week.  While there, our completely disparate natures became increasingly obvious on a daily basis.  There was no dramatic scene or fight, thankfully.  It was just that by the time we got to the airport after the flight home we were ready not to see each other for a while.

To paint the scene, a typical day on our Hawaiian trip went something like this.  We wake up, and it is incredibly beautiful outside.  I jump out of bed, get dressed, run downstairs and have breakfast with our housemates.  After breakfast, I bring a cup of coffee upstairs to Brad.  He rolls over, opens one eye and wants to go back to sleep.

I grab my shoes, and my friends and I leave for a hike.  We get home after lunch and Brad is sitting up on the bed with the shutters closed so that the glare from the sun doesn’t interfere with the televised basketball game he is watching.

Et cetera…

We had been back from Hawaii for about two weeks, when it suddenly occurred to me that we needed to confirm the fact that we had broken up.  We had not seen each other the whole time and probably only spoke by phone minimally, but after two years it seemed wrong to leave an ellipsis at the end of our story. So I called to ask if he wanted to meet for coffee.  He countered with asking me out to dinner.  I hesitated, not wanting to give a false impression of my intent.  He said, “Don’t worry, just for old time’s sake, one last dinner together.”  I agreed.

He picked me up that Saturday night wearing a suit and tie, drove two towns away to a yacht club, where he had made reservations in their upscale restaurant.  Every word of the prior sentence was a first in our relationship.  I became very nervous that he had misunderstood why we were seeing each other that night.  But, I did not want to insult him or hurt his feelings, so I went along with all of it.

We had, of course, a very lovely meal.  We talked about people we knew in common and what was happening at work for each of us; we had wine, ate delicious food in a romantic setting, and really relaxed and enjoyed ourselves.  It felt much more like the beginning of our relationship, before we had tired of each other’s flaws.

As we waited for dessert, Brad reached into the pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a wrapped gift box which he handed to me across the table.  I was embarrassed and tried to hand it back.  I felt like a fraud to have let him do all of this when I knew that we were breaking up.  I tried to find a nice way of explaining it to him.  As I stuttered, Brad said something which I can still recall with perfect clarity.  He took the box from me, and as he opened it and revealed a diamond solitaire necklace, he said,

“I want you to have this because it is something I should have done while we were still together.  I was not a good boyfriend to you and I should have been.  You deserve diamonds for being great to me, and I wish I could do more.   But, please, always remember me kindly by taking this necklace.”

Well, it worked.  I have never had a harsh thing to say about him, and we help each other out from time to time when we can.  More than 15 years after our trip to Hawaii, we are still happy to hear each other’s voices on our phones.  If I were to do a hard analysis of what I spent on Brad over the two years versus what he spent on me (not only in monetary terms, but in terms of emotional effort, physical inconvenience, hurt feelings, and all the rest), the diamond necklace was not enough to make it all worthwhile.  But, the sentiment – the acknowledgment of our imbalances, is a gift I have always treasured.

What We Love:  A thoughtful word or gesture, especially as the final part of a relationship, can leave a lasting positive impression.

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