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.