Archive: 2011

Money Talks

December 12, 2011

If you’re interested in knowing how much money people make and how they spend it, you’d love my job. I’m an expert on what people in different professions earn, and I have an easy familiarity with the borrowing and spending habits of my fellow Greater-Philadelphia-Metropolitan-Area dwellers of every socio-economic stripe.  Within ten minutes of meeting with a new client I know how much he and his wife earn; by the end of the consultation I know how much they spend or save, whether they pool their money or keep it separate, how much debt they have, and whether these very subjects are related to the reason they are getting divorced.

Isn’t it interesting how taboo these subjects still are?  I don’t know how much my closest friends earn, how much they have saved, or what balances, if any, they carry on their credit cards.  And I would never ask.  In contemporary American society, we continue to abide by a widely accepted social norm that this information is private. Surprising, given the almost complete disintegration of barriers which previously prevented people from talking about sex and intimate relationships. People think nothing of walking down a crowded sidewalk talking into their cell phones about the graphic details of a sexual encounter or a medical condition, but did you ever hear someone talking on a cell phone in a public place about the amount of the bonus she just got?  I haven’t.

I actually think it’s a big relief to my clients to be able to discuss the particulars of their financial circumstances with me, and to express their fears.  There are lots of people they can talk to about their disintegrating marriage, the reasons for it, and the pain they and their children are experiencing.  But they don’t sit down with those family members and friends to review bank statements, mortgage balances, or tax returns; they don’t talk about the nuts and bolts of what a divorce really is, at its most basic: an economic transaction.

And the fears are rampant.  It amazes me how consistently – with some exceptions, of course – people spend whatever is available to them, and perceive themselves to be in difficult financial positions regardless of income level.  Meaning that the couple with a combined income of $500,000 might have nothing but an expensive house, mortgaged to the max, retirement funds they can’t touch, and a checking account.  No savings at all, and no clear idea about how to make lifestyle changes to enable that considerable income stream to support the family when divided between two households.  And sometimes there is a total disconnect between perception and reality.  Like the client with tremendous inherited wealth who is terrified at the prospect that she might have to ever spend any principal, because in her family of origin, the standard was that one should be able to live entirely off the income from one’s stock portfolio, so as to preserve it for the next generation.

Maybe if we felt freer to talk about money, we’d be able to think about it with less anxiety and more realism.  But I don’t see any signs we’re moving in that direction.

Divorce Equality

September 6, 2011

A woman called me the other day who wants to get divorced.  Which initially sounded fine, since that’s what I do.  But upon further discussion, turns out it’s not fine.  Turns out I can’t get her divorced and neither can anyone else: she’s stuck in a marriage that she and her spouse both want to end, with no feasible way out.

Sound like the eighteenth century?  Or Saudi Arabia perhaps?  Not so. To the contrary, this woman suffers from a thoroughly modern problem.  The problem is that her spouse is a wife, not a husband.  This woman married her partner in Vermont – can’t you just picture the quaint inn, the rolling green hills dotted with charming black and white cows, the wedding package so appealing to same sex couples in that most progressive state of all – and after the wedding they packed up and came home to Philly.  Therein lies the problem.  Pennsylvania does not recognize their marriage as valid, thanks to our “Defense of Marriage Act.” Not only does this nasty law passed by our homophobic friends in Harrisburg back in 1996 prohibit same sex marriage in Pennsylvania, but it also provides that a same sex marriage entered into in another state is “void in this Commonwealth.”  And if Pennsylvania doesn’t recognize you as being married in the first place, our courts have no authority to divorce you.

So why not tell my would-be client to go back to Vermont to get divorced?  Because she can’t.  Because although Vermont allows non-residents to get married, the opposite is true when it comes to divorce: you have to live there.  And this is not unique to Vermont – it’s the case across the board. There is no state in the country which requires residency as a prerequisite for getting a marriage license.  In other words, you can drive to Vegas from anywhere at all and get married in the Elvis Chapel. Which is why gay and lesbian couples have flooded into Vermont and Massachusetts and New Hampshire and the rest of the states where they can get married – for the weekend, that is.  But like Vermont, all states require that at least one spouse be a resident in order to file for divorce. While “residency” is defined differently by different states, it still means someone’s got to live there for some definite period of time – in the case of Vermont, for six months before a divorce complaint can be filed.

What’s my would-be client to do?  She’s stuck, unless she or her wife a) move to a state that will recognize their marriage; and b) live there for long enough to satisfy the residency requirement so they can file for divorce.  If they don’t do this and one of them wants to marry someone else?  She can’t.  Because she’s still married.  The irony is overwhelming. Gay people fought so hard for marriage equality and now, when some of those marriages don’t work out (see, they’re not so different from straight people!) they need to fight for the right to get divorced.

I’m confident that within my lifetime the U.S. Supreme Court will rule that it is unconstitutional to prohibit same sex marriage and this ridiculous state of affairs will finally go away.  But until then, some gay friendly state – maybe Vermont? – should consider eliminating their residency requirement for divorce.  There’s some serious pent up demand out there.

Buyer’s Remorse, a/k/a “The Call”

July 10, 2011

It’s like a dance.  I know the rhythm and the moves.  It goes like this:  I suggest a settlement proposal to my client. Let’s call him Guy and let’s say I recommend we make the following proposal: Guy’s wife gets the house, Guy keeps his 401k, and Guy pays Mrs. Guy alimony of $2,000 per month for three years. I make this recommendation because it would be, in my very educated and very expensive opinion, an excellent deal for him but not so tilted in his favor that opposing counsel will reject it outright. I’m looking for her to come back with a counterproposal we can negotiate down from and still end up with a good deal for Guy.

I have to convince Guy that this is a reasonable proposal.  He wants to offer no alimony.  I have to push him to understand that this case is one where alimony is clearly involved, so not offering it at all makes our proposal worthless because it will seem like we are not serious about settlement.  I also have to make sure he understands that our proposal will just about certainly be rejected, that it’s a starting point he needs to be prepared to move off of.

Finally, after a long meeting, I get Guy on board.  We make the proposal.  We get a counterproposal – house and 401k fine, but Mrs. Guy wants 7 years of alimony at $3,000 per month.  Guy flips.  I calm and explain. I tell him that a court actually could order that much alimony – it’s in the ballpark. I call opposing counsel and tell her she’s way off base, that a court would never order that much alimony, and that we may come up a little bit from our initial offer but I certainly am not going to recommend to my client that we split the difference between our two alimony proposals. I call Guy and tell him we should try one more round by increasing our offer a little but ultimately be prepared to split the difference, as that would still be a very reasonable deal for him. .

More rounds of negotiation ensue.  I argue with opposing counsel. Guy argues with me after every round. We finally settle on alimony somewhere in the middle. Guy is relieved to have it over with and pleased that we can avoid court. The settlement agreement is written up and signed.  Guy thanks me profusely.

Two days later I get The Call.  Guy is talking fast and loud.  He’s very upset. He’s getting screwed. He showed the agreement to his brother-in-law, a personal injury lawyer in Virginia, and brother-in-law can’t believe Guy has to pay that much alimony.  He talked to his buddy at work who told him that there is no alimony in Pennsylvania. None of his friends who have been divorced pay alimony.  What’s going on?

I listen. I sigh inside.  I soothe.  I remind Guy of the facts in his case which form the legal basis for an award of alimony in Pennsylvania (his income being way higher than hers, long marriage, no liquid assets being divided).  I talk to him about weighing the cost of his legal fees to litigate this issue vs. the dollars at stake. I remind him of the roll of the dice he’s taking if we go to court – could come out better than this settlement but also could be a lot worse. I also tell him that discussing his divorce settlement with friends and relatives may be a bad idea.  Every state’s law is different.  Every case has different facts and circumstances.  It’s just not helpful to compare your divorce with your cousin’s or your barber’s.

Guy listens. He calms down.  He sighs.  He remembers that we did talk about all this before.  He’s okay.  Not happy, but okay.

Dance over.


May 20, 2011

As an unofficial expert in the field of matrimony, I have come to believe that I, unlike many of my clients, am good at being married. I should know – I have two spouses.  One is my husband, whom I met on my first day of college and have been married to for 28 years.  I spend evenings, weekends, and vacations with him.  We’ve raised two children together, with all of the love and commitment that entails.  The other is my law partner, Joni, with whom I’ve been practicing for 20 years.  I spend my days with her. We have built a law firm together, which also entails an awful lot of love and commitment. Throughout the years we’ve added many “children” – associates, support staff, a new partner, and scores of law students and baby lawyers whom we train and mentor and generally fuss over and then proudly send out into the world to fight the good fight.

A business partnership is so much like a marriage.  Joni and I have been through times of prosperity and times of great financial stress, we’ve mourned a beloved paralegal lost to AIDS, and we’ve rocked our employees’ babies in our arms.  We’ve moved to different (and bigger) offices over the years, creating a space and a culture we want to live and work in.  My husband had the opposite experience of having a business partnership go sour and it was just like a divorce.  The hurt, the anger, the recriminations, the endless negotiations – it was all so familiar to me, and he so needed to get out.

So what is it that makes some people good at a partnership, personal or professional? I think being easy going is a really huge piece of it, being comfortable letting the other person make decisions even if they’re not exactly what you would have decided yourself.  And then there’s money.  So many of my divorce clients tell me that their marriages broke up over disputes about money (far more than disputes about sex, by the way.)  About how to spend it, how to manage it, and when to borrow it.  Since I can count on one hand the total number of arguments I’ve had with both my spouses about money in my collective 48 years of marriage to them, that’s probably the key.

In the last few years, I’ve added spouse number three, Megan, Joni and my third partner. So far so good with her as well. Think I’ll skip that model on the home front, though.

Getting it Right

March 7, 2011

I love looking back over the years (decades!) I’ve been practicing family law and thinking about all the clients whose lives I’ve touched and vice versa.  Some lightly, some intensely.  There’s a very rich texture to my professional life, filled with knowing so many different kinds of people at such an intimate level.  People I would never meet otherwise, people with backgrounds and circumstances so different from mine, people who cut hair and fix cars, people who transplant hearts and run big companies, men who cry in my office because they ache from missing their kids so much, women who peel back shirt collars to show me bruises.

One of the ways in which my clients differ is in how they want to work with me, and as far as I can tell, it is not related to any common characteristic such as socioeconomic level or gender. What I mean is the level of involvement they want me to have in their representation. Some clients are complete delegators.  They hire me to do a job – let’s say a divorce – and then they totally rely on me to move things forward, giving me only as much information as I seek from them to move their case along.  Other clients want me to be involved in every decision they make and want to review with me in detail every action I take: every document received, every phone call to opposing counsel, every letter before it’s sent. And most clients fall somewhere in between.  One of the arts of being a good lawyer is figuring out as early as possible in the course of the representation where your client falls on this spectrum and adjusting your approach to fit.

I think I’ve gotten pretty good about making these calibrations – it’s almost unconscious now – but I still make mistakes sometimes.  With some people, it feels like I can never do enough, and for others, they basically just want to go to sleep and have me wake them when it’s over, and that’s not really possible (especially where court is involved!).  If I knew the right sports metaphor I think it would be appropriate here, but I don’t and I wouldn’t use it anyway because I hate sports metaphors.  So let’s just say I’ll just keep trying to get it right, and hopefully I’ll get closer and closer to batting whatever it is.

“I (Skype) do”

January 30, 2011

Nuptials via Skype. Can it be done? Maybe, but who would want to?  One group which might is gay couples who live in states which don’t allow same sex marriage. A couple of months ago, two gay men had a wedding ceremony in their home town of Dallas in the decidedly not-gay-friendly state of Texas, with a minister officiating via Skype from Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriage is legal. So clever!  Ultimately, the marriage was invalidated by D.C. on a technicality (despite the fact that D.C. had issued a marriage license), and the grooms were told they would have to re-do the ceremony in D.C. in order to validate the marriage. Nonetheless, it’s clear that this is just the beginning of something big.

Marriage laws are all state specific. But where are you when you’re on the internet?  You’re nowhere and everywhere. If a state will issue a marriage license so long as the officiant performs the marriage within its borders, isn’t the officiant complying when she boots up her computer from her church in Massachusetts and addresses the happy couple via Skype as they stand before family and friends in, let’s say, Alabama?  The Evangelical Right will surely rush right out and try to amend state marriage statutes so as to prevent this, but, as with everything motivated by a desire to curtail the scope and power of the internet, ultimately it’s likely to be a losing battle.

And if that won’t work, consider what another gay couple recently did – they got married on a flight from San Francisco to New York while the plane was briefly in Canadian airspace. Sounds like a jolly time, as passengers happily tweeted news of the on-board ceremony.  In their never-ending quest for more extras to charge for, perhaps a gay-friendly airline which flies over countries where same-sex marriage is legal will start offering in-flight wedding packages?  Could be the new thing for 2011.