The most hotly contested, high drama, and over-the-top divorce I ever handled was in my very first year of practice. My client, a tall, gorgeous, intelligent model and actress, was scorned due to her husband’s infidelity. They shared 6 children. They also had multiple successful businesses which yielded substantial income for their family.
The wife was on a war path.
To protect or not to protect?
First, she took the quickest route to get a court order – family violence court. At that time, I must admit there was merit for seeking the court’s protection from violence. I am still not certain there was violence throughout the marriage, however. It is possible that in this case, violence was the direct result of the heightened tension once Wife confronted Husband about his infidelity. Although there is never ANY justification to be violent with anyone, I sometimes wonder whether in this case, Wife pushed buttons and calculated a violent response from Husband so that she could be rid of Husband through the quicker family violence process. I’ve seen this dynamic several times and it sickens me because I believe people should be protected from violence, but too often, violent offenders fall right into a trap that has been craftily set by their victim. In this case, once the 1-year order expired, the Wife was on a mission to return to the status quo she enjoyed under the temporary protective order. She wanted the house, the kids, child support, and for the Husband to simply be gone with no rights to see the children — EVER.
From the very beginning of my representation, I counseled Wife that her goal to terminate Husband’s parental rights was not a realistic goal. The problem was that although there was evidence of violence against Wife, there was little or no evidence of Husband’s unfitness to be a parent to the children. This is a very difficult dynamic for survivors of violence to reconcile. However, there is an extremely high threshold of evidence required before one parent can seek the termination of the other parent’s rights. I’ll touch on this in another blog post to illustrate my point. Suffice it to say, although Wife understood my analysis of the law, she maintained her objective to erase dad from the lives of his children.
Litigation, insult, and injury
It was more than a year of high-impact litigation. Every other day, Wife sent impassioned emails, demanding a judge’s involvement so that someone can CONTROL the Husband. The problem was that Husband was determined to prove to Wife there was nothing she could do to control him. At the climax of the case, during one of our contempt motions against Husband, he hit Wife with a devastating blow. Knowing that he could simply address his contempt by making a payment the day of court, he did exactly that and paid up his child support. What Wife did not expect, and what devastated her the most, had nothing to do with the contempt at all. Husband, showed up to court with his mistress. The mistress was short, dumpy and plain. Compared to my client who was drop-dead stunning on the worst day, there was no competition the mistress could offer in comparison. Yet this was the woman Husband sported in court. Short-and-Dumpy had her man. Wife had the kids and the money. Yet that day, Husband got the last laugh.
In retaliation, Wife renewed her efforts to find a way, ANY way, to erase Husband from the children’s lives. Legally it was not happening. We engaged the support of a guardian ad litem, an attorney appointed to represent the children. We employed an expensive and comprehensive custody evaluation. Only after the additional time and expense in her case did Wife accept that Husband would continue to have rights in their children’s lives.
She wanted to control and punish him through the court system. However, he showed her time and time again that neither she (nor the court) could never control him. In fact, he had taken all of the inventory for one of the Wife’s businesses, hiding this valuable asset from the Wife only to show her he was willing to destroy it all in their game of Mortal Kombat. He was the one in control.
It was awful.
After a heated discovery motion, we finally recovered the assets. Unfortunately, much of the inventory was damaged. Husband attempted to destroy Wife’s hope of financial independence. To him, the business was what they had once built together. There was nothing left to save, not even the income. Even worse, there was no practical remedy for the lost value of the inventory once it was restored to Wife’s possession. He had simply taken the position that if Wife wanted to destroy him, he would simply burn the rest to the ground.
I can’t get no satisfaction
Ultimately, we settled the case on the day of trial. However, at the 11th hour, Wife attempted her last stand at the Alamo. She was desperate. She wanted more than anything to prove to the judge she was the victim and Husband was the villain. She reneged on the settlement agreement we worked so hard to accomplish. I was furious. Once she authorized me to settle the case, she was bound to the terms of that agreement. Rescinding the agreement placed me in an ethical dilemma, and at risk of violating my code of professionalism as her duly authorized agent. Her desperate stunt gave me no other option but to fire my client thirty minutes before we were scheduled to appear before the judge to announce the settlement. Reluctant, defeated, Wife finally dropped her weapon and begged me to stay in the case. She was left with no realistic other option: the case was already done via settlement agreement. Wife got everything she asked for EXCEPT termination of Husband’s parental rights. Husband got the satisfaction of proving he would still have his way by fighting for and maintining his relationship with the kids (which I agreed all along was his right). They were both miserable and unsatisfied. The cat-and-mouse game of seeing each other in court every other month had finally come to a legally reasonable end.
The never-ending story
Nearly 10 years after this divorce, I received a phone call from Wife. She reported how her oldest child was in mental health crisis. She told me that she needed the court to MAKE Husband do this, and do that to fix what was now terribly wrong with their children. After the divorce, the children continued to spiral. They were collateral damage. And unfortunately, neither mom nor dad thought about what all of this was doing to the children. For the parents, court is a game, Battleship. The parents were so focused on winning, on claiming victory, neither of them saw the truth of the matter: there are no “winners” in divorce. The marriage loses. The children lose the security of both parents in the home. The former lovers lose the hope of ever loving any one else the same way as they loved their ex. One. Big. Loss.
The hard truth about the family law system
I share this story because it was my very first introduction to everything that is wrong in family law litigation. The system is not designed to show compassion. Although it is child-focused in concept, it is unable to deliver the comprehensive confrontation that needs to happen early before former lovers attempt to kill each other with their respective attorney-swords. This case caused me to hate family court. But even more, it sparked in me the desire to be an agent of change: to find a way to advocate for the family, and to serve it as best I can. I hate to know that this family is still in-and-out of court. It breaks my heart. And if I can help one family see this is not the end you want for your children, then my mission as a family law expert has been accomplished.