What should people understand about divorce? Next to a death or terminal illness, divorce is the most traumatic emotional event. There’s no such thing as a good divorce, but there are amicable divorces. Try to retain as much respect as possible for your spouse. Divorce is basically a business transaction. It’s about equitable distribution and a dissolution of a partnership. [That’s] the healthiest way to handle it.
What’s one of the first things you tell clients? Someone comes in and tells me, “We’ve grown apart.” “OK,” I tell them. “Get out your checkbook.” You have to explain, “What’s your net worth?” If it’s $100, your spouse will get $50. But what half? That’s important. What assets are they going to receive? I would take liquid assets every time.
How should people choose a lawyer? Someone honest and straightforward who won’t raise unrealistic expectations. Hire the best lawyer and forensic accountant you can afford and recommend that your spouse do the same. If you’ve been in a long-term marriage with substantial assets, you want to get it resolved quickly. You don’t want to get a judge involved. And hire a busy lawyer. If a lawyer isn’t busy, he’s going to work that case to death.
The worst cases? I stopped doing custody cases in 1990 because a lot of people had a chattel approach to their children. Men would use children as a lever when they had no desire to raise them, because they knew it would scare their wives. In one of my last custody cases, I was representing a Ph.D. psychologist who left his wife, and she was upset and vindictive. He was paying alimony and child support, but she told the children that there was no TV and the fridge was empty because he didn’t pay. The husband had terrible allergies. The wife bought a cat and had the children pet it and go visit him and he’d break out in hives.
Most memorable case? I had a wife who hired a hitman. He happened to be a policeman, and she was arrested and charged with conspiracy. She got probation. It didn’t affect marital assets, so it was not relevant financially.
Why do marriages fail? People lose respect for one another. Most of my clients had been married for 20 to 30 years. A client in her early 70s came into my office in a black dress, white gloves and pearls and wanted a divorce after 50 years of marriage. She told me, “I’ve hated that son of a bitch for 30 years.” It’s never one event. An affair, for example, is not the problem; it’s a symptom. It’s a culmination of many things—clothes on the floor, being late, not closing the bathroom door—resentments that build up over time. It surprises people, but
affairs and insults have no economic value unless they affect the marital estate.
Does everyone need a divorce lawyer? I tell a school teacher married to a policeman, “You don’t need me. You have a house, pensions and savings. Split them in half.” My minimum fee was $5,000 and they don’t need that expense. Most people get pro se (DIY) divorces today.