Necessary Preparations

When I first met “Rayna” she was scared to ask her husband for a divorce. He pays all the bills, he knows how to fix everything in the house. He doesn’t like surprises.

They had discussed divorce from time to time over the years, and he had made it clear that he was worried for her and the children. He had explained that he would be so “heartbroken” if they ever got a divorce that he would have to stop working. His anxiety at being single would outweigh his ability to make a living. Then he would not be able to pay for her car, there would be no money for food, phones, or college tuition. She and the kids would be homeless and penniless. No, he had advised her, divorce was definitely not a smart option. Better to stay married and just live by his rules.

But as the years went by, the marriage became more difficult for Rayna. She and the kids would try to do everything exactly as her husband demanded, but they were human and would make mistakes.  If the house wasn’t cleaned right, or grades were not high enough, or clothing was in any way viewed as inappropriate the repercussions were too severe.

Fighting, yelling, hitting, broken promises, and constant threats became more and more prevalent. Rayna and the kids had to go stay with her sister to get away from the worst of the tirades.

We decided that Rayna needed to start making a little space for herself. She started working increased hours at her part time job, and saving more of her money. She opened her own bank account without telling her husband. She took out a credit card in her own name.  She surrounded herself with people she trusted at work and in her life.  So that when the time eventually came that she could take no more, she was ready.

She called and asked me to file divorce papers.  I knew that the mud was about to hit the fan, and asked if she was ready.

“Today I am a much stronger person than I was a year ago.”  That’s what she told me.  It was music to my ears.

After we filed for divorce, her husband pulled all of the nasty tricks he had threatened.  Rayna stopped for gas on her way home from work one day and used the same gas card she had always used.  It had been cut off.  She paid with cash from her wallet.   When she asked her husband what happened, he got angry with her; so she stopped asking.

A week later, she took her son to a large box store to buy back to school items with the usual credit card. Now, this card was cut off.  Again, Rayna reached into her own wallet, pulled out her own credit card and completed the transaction without her husband’s support.

When the husband’s attempts to make her stop the divorce failed, he started getting angrier. One night he got so bad that she tried to call the police, but he broke every phone in the house.  She calmed him down by saying there would be no divorce.

“We just have to live through this night, and in the morning things will be different,” she told her frightened teenage daughter.  The next morning they each packed a bag and went to stay with friends.   They lived on couches for two weeks until she found an apartment that she could afford to rent on her own.  She found the place through a friend at work; the landlord was able to give her a break on the rent; and she does not have to live with her husband any more.

One day at work, she received a call from the dealership where they had leased their vehicles.   The lease on her car was in the husband’s name and he had canceled the lease, the registration and the insurance.  They were on the way over to pick up the car from her place of work.  She was sure she would have to walk home.  But, again, a friend gave her a ride, a less expensive lease was available, and she was able to get to work the next morning uninterrupted.

This divorce is not complete, and he will be found in contempt for the rules he broke by cutting her off like that.  The money she has had to pay from her own pocket will likely be reimbursed to her when they sell the marital residence; and the whole thing should eventually balance out through the court system.  But, Rayna does not have to wait for the wheels of justice to turn slowly in her favor.  She made them turn by her own strength.

She got good advice a year before she filed for divorce; she followed that advice, and bided her time.  So that when she was ready to leave; she was really ready to leave.  Now, thankfully for Rayna and for her kids, there is no looking back and there is no control that her husband can exert over her.

What we Love: “Today I am a much stronger person than I was a year ago.”    And a year from now she’ll be able to say it again.


Living with My ex-Husband, Once a Year

Q:        My friend has a timeshare with her husband 14 days every 2 years. They are filing for a divorce. They’ve separated and he lives with his new girl in a different state now. My friend made reservations for 6 days at their timeshare and asked me & my man if we would like to go with her. Between the 3 of us we agreed that since she has the timeshare that we will pay for the rental car, food, & round trip airline tickets. It’s all set and we’ve taken off work for the vacation and everything.  When her husband heard we were going to use the timeshare with his wife he flipped. Now he is harassing his wife almost every day by email. He says he will cancel our reservations unless we pay the going rate to rent this timeshare for 6 days.  But his wife is the one that invited us as guests.
My concern is can he do this? What are her legal rights as 1/2 Owner of Timeshare? Can she go to jail for doing this? I’m sorry but I didn’t see any wrong doing here. We thought we were doing the right thing by purchasing everything else to help out and this way we all can have a nice vacation. Well not if husband has any say so in this?  Help PLEASE


Ready to hit the Beach!

Dear Ready,

Until the court officially divides the property of the parties, it is still owned jointly by both of them. The problem is that your friend acted without the permission of the co-owner of the timeshare (who happens to be her husband) and without a court order.  If anyone owes you the time or money back, unfortunately it is probably your friend and not her husband.

That said, the husband could be nice about it, or could be a jerk about it. I am sorry for you and for your friend that he is not choosing to be nice about the timeshare.  I suspect it will be one of many petty disputes between the two of them.  My best suggestion to you personally is to stay as far out of it as possible.

If you all have time and money set aside for a vacation, take it anyway – just don’t go to the disputed timeshare!  There are websites where people let you rent out their timeshares for below cost.  Do a little more research and you will all still get to have a fun vacation together, leaving the angry ex behind!

What We Love:          As bad as this woman’s situation might be, she is lucky enough to have friends who want to go on vacation with her.   Divorce can be hard; a relaxing trip with good friends is always a great idea!

A Husband Upside-down? Maybe backwards?

“When you meet my husband, you won’t believe the things I have told you about him.”  At my law firm, we hear this so frequently from women in emotionally abusive relationships.  They tell us that their husbands belittle, demean, threaten, and frighten them, and yet, to the outside world, the men are charming, funny, considerate and sweet.

With apologies to the men I have not yet met, I must add a disclaimer here.  I have never met a man who meets the description I attribute to the wives in this piece.

The women feel as if their friends and family will take the husband’s side in any factual dispute, since they see their husbands making the other wives laugh and blush.  They see their husbands glad-handing and back-slapping with the other men.  They see the man they fell in love with, when they are out in public.  And they think that everyone else is just as duped by the external façade as they were.

Truthfully, a lot of us are duped by their husbands’ façades.  We do not know what goes on behind the closed doors of someone else’s marriage.  If a couple seems happy together, we presume that they are happy.

The wife in these situations must feel especially confused and betrayed.  When she is out with her husband in a group, she sees the man she loves.  Frequently, that man can last for weeks, months or years.  The wife might even begin to doubt her own senses, and think that maybe he is not as bad as she feared.   But, then, something happens, a trigger is secretly thrown and the controlling, anger, vicious comments, or subtle put-downs begin again.  And, she is alone again.  How can she expect anyone to understand or believe her when they were out for dinner just last week, and she was laughing and dancing and hugging her husband?

So, eventually, she makes her way to my office.  She is frequently a woman whose confidence is substantially lower than her station, accomplishments or looks would warrant.  She clearly feels badly about herself and does not quite understand why that would be, or how she got that way.  She is a woman who doubts her own judgment and is afraid of what her husband will say or do when he finds out that she wants a divorce.

And then she will tell us how she lives within her marriage, the abuses, the angry words, and the accusations she has sustained.  Often, she will not have any friends of her own, because the husband disapproved of them, one by one.  She might not be wearing clothes she would have chosen for herself, but instead dress the way her husband prefers.  Frequently, she will not know the family’s true financial picture because the husband has either been the only who worked, or the only one who controlled the bills and income.

And then she will say, “When you meet my husband, you won’t believe the things I have told you about him.”

But, sadly, we do.  Here is what I have come to understand.  Nice, normal guys don’t have to pretend to be charming.  They are not in it to trick anyone.  So, they can be a little gruff, a little rough around the edges.  The controlling, creepy, abusive ones, however, can never afford to just be themselves in public. They would quickly find themselves exceedingly alone, with no one to order around.  What’s the fun of being a controlling borderline personality all by yourself? In order to lure people into their world these are sometimes the very people who have the most highly developed sense of social ability – because they are the ones with the most to lose.

So, I tell my women clients to rest easy. Not only will their family and their true friends believe them; but the attorneys and – more importantly – the Judges have all seen this before.  And they will know who to believe, despite any false impressions.

WHAT WE LOVE:  Once a wife decides to see her husband for who he truly is, she empowers herself.  The rest of the world will very shortly see him for who he is as well.

Divorce is Pretty Popular?

Does this happen to you, too?  People talk to me about their divorces all the time. I don’t just mean my clients. I mean the lady next to me waiting for our dry cleaning, my eye doctor, a mom whose son plays baseball with my son, the cop directing traffic at the corner, the woman getting her hair cut in the next chair over from me.  I mean all the time.

Sometimes I think it is because of what I do for a living.   You know, the fact that I’m a lawyer.  But the lady at the dry cleaner does not know that.  I do not wear a divorce lawyer name tag or uniform.  (Although that does remind me of this joke: what’s black and brown and looks good on a lady lawyer?  A doberman.)

I think the level of detail might increase once they find out I am an attorney.  Maybe it is because they assume I will be more interested.  Or maybe I just start asking more questions because I am, in fact, interested in people and their relationships, and – let’s face it – their divorces.  I am always looking for the good divorce story; for the people who can teach me something about how they handled a difficult or challenging situation and made it better; so I can pass the wisdom along to my clients.

I am recently starting to see a pattern develop in the realm of who says what about their own divorce.  I think that part of the reason why divorce gets such a bad reputation is because the people with the most to say about it are the people who narrowly survived a hideous episode and are still traumatized by it.  The people with calm, healthy divorces have very little that they need to say.  I think it makes sense, in a way.

Here are two recent contrasting examples.  A lady at a little league game and I are watching our sons play ball.  She asks, “did you see Tuesday’s game?”  I answer, “No. I was working. I heard we won.  Did you see it?”

She says, “No.  I wanted to come and promised my son I would be here.  But his father decided that he was coming instead, and I am not showing up here and running into to him ever again.  Last time he brought his new wife. I don’t even understand why she wants to come, this is not her son.  This is my son.  So, now, I have to go back to court for contempt because I wouldn’t let him go home with them at the end of that game, and then he said fine, I just won’t pay you until I can see the kids and I said, you have to pay me, so I called my lawyer, and my lawyer said that he has to pay me no matter what.  Now he has to pay me back alimony and if the judge says it is contempt then he has to pay for my lawyer’s fees, too.  So how am I supposed to risk going to one of his games and then she might show up and then all of us are in contempt again and paying each others’ lawyers.  So I told him he can’t come to two games in the same week, no matter what. He came Tuesday and I’m here today and so help me, he better not have the nerve to show up.  Do you know what the score was?”

I could have mentioned what I do for work; but I decided to let it go.  It seems to me she already has way more attorney involvement in her life than anyone should, why add my name to her mix?

Then, there are the people like my my eye doctor.  He has met my kids, and says something that indicates he has kids, too.  We chat about that for a few minutes, and I ask where they live, or something.  “With their mom,” he says, and goes back to his business.  That is clearly all he plans to say on the topic.  And, if I were a normal person with no divorce fixation I might have left it at that.  But, of course, here I am in my Doberman coat, asking for the gory details.  “How long ago were you divorced? How old were the kids? How often do you see them?” Etc.

And, just as you may have surmised, his was a clean and amicable divorce.  They are still friendly with each other, 8 years post dissolution.  In fact, he and his ex had dinner together with the kids two weeks ago when the dad brought the kids back from a summer vacation.  Nothing was angry or nasty then, or since.  So, in his mind, there wasn’t much to say about it.  A short and unfortunate incident that happened almost a decade ago. Nothing more, nothing less.

But, not to me. To me, that is the crux of it – the people who were not crippled by their divorces stand happily and quietly off to the side as the parade of mangled zombies proclaim the hideous aftermath of their terrible divorces.  I am not suggesting that the people whose lives were irreparably damaged by unhealthy marriages and diseased divorces need to be quiet about it.  Not at all.  I know they need to process what has happened to them and they have every right to do so.  My qualm, if I have one at all, is with the secretive success stories.

There are men and women who live in our midst – use our hairdresser and dry cleaners and ball parks with us – who know that they got out of their marriages in calm and humane ways and have lived to tell the tale.  I say, let them tell those tales.  The stories of divorce which end with “happily ever after” need to take their places in the parade, as well.

WHAT WE LOVE:  Guilty secret: I actually love lawyer jokes and challenge any one to tell me one I have not already heard.

Thankfully, Plan C

Her beautiful blue eyes fill up slowly, from the bottom to the top. Then the tears spill over and she starts listing for me all of the clues she has ignored for the past several months.  My heart just breaks for her as she unspools, in the clarity of hindsight, all of the unbidden questions (Where is he? Why did he say that? Who is he with now?) that she had dismissed in favor of trusting her husband.

Of course, it is not always wives who sit in my office, shell shocked, confused, equal parts angry and sad, describing the slow and tortuous trail that led them to the ultimate discovery of betrayal by their spouse.

The husbands come in, too.  Just as surprised and embarrassed.  Ashamed that they did not catch on sooner. Furious at being fooled by someone they trusted.  Man or woman, they are almost always plotting two simultaneous yet mutually exclusive outcomes.  In one, the affair becomes the couple’s wake-up call.  Their reminder that this relationship, this marriage, matters to both of them and only they can save it.  In this reality, we’ll call it ‘Plan A,’ the parties take stock of the small slights and errors that snowballed into this moment, and start themselves in a different direction on a fresh path.

Years from now the ‘Plan A’ couple will look back at this moment and smile fondly at how silly they had been “before” and how happy they made themselves and, more importantly, each other “after.”

Then there is the alternate universe of ‘Plan B’ in which the adulterous spouse is publicly eviscerated and left in the center of town for crows and stray dogs to peck out their eyes and chew on their entrails.

Sadly, as an attorney I can provide my clients with neither outcome.  I have known couples in both categories, so I know that the ‘Plan A’ outcome is possible and the ‘Plan B’ outcome while it might be possible is currently illegal in this country.

We all know couples who have survived the affair (or affairs) and made their own partnership stronger as a response.  Couples who can put their anger, hurt feelings, and distrust aside thoroughly enough to address and resolve the core problems which brought them there in the first place.  Granted, these are rare couples, but they do exist and claim to have benefited from the experience.  They have worked hard, together and separately, on problems and behaviors that likely date back to each party’s childhood.

They have taken on a huge challenge, trusted someone they do not feel safe trusting, and engaged in an exhausting process to get the results they want.

More common are the couples for whom an affair is the final straw on an already dysfunctional camel’s back.  These couples have a steep uphill climb ahead of them, too.  They will not be working on their own problems, they will be fighting against their spouse’s issues. They will have no partner to help them through the work, only an adversary. They will accept as little of the blame as possible and look to place the lion’s share on anyone but themselves.

Sentences like, “I would not have cheated if I felt appreciated at home;” and “we have been living like roommates for years” will bounce off of each other in courthouse hallways across the country.

Thankfully, there is a third course, ‘Plan C.’  Once the initial hurt and anger have subsided, this is where we acknowledge that both parties brought the entire mess to where it is.  Maybe the affair is what the parties needed in order to finally put a suffering relationship out of its misery.  This is trickier work in some ways – it is designed to help the parties grow and mature without the goal of fixing their marriage.

Transition focused marriage and family therapists, attorneys trained in collaborative or cooperative divorce, and neutral social workers can help divorcing parties use this time as an opportunity to become stronger and healthier individuals. It might not be a time to save a marriage or destroy a human being.  It might just be a chance to move up and move on.

What We Love:  There are the obvious ways of responding to crises, and they might be the right course for you.  But, if not – until you find the way that feels right, keep looking.

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.