The 2011 American Bar Association Annual meeting which begins this week in Toronto, holds special meaning for me. On Friday August 5, 2011 I will be sworn in as Chair of the Family Law Section (FLS) of the ABA. I am so honored and excited. The FLS has 10,000 members who are all interested in the practice of family law, whether they are lawyers, judges or law students (over 9,000 are lawyers). Our goal, and mine, is to improve the practice of family law and to minimize the negative impact family law can have on families. My platform will be a continuation of our “Families Matter” project which has the reduction of such an impact on families as its goal.
Practicing family law has been gratifying, knowing that we can and have helped many families. It also can and has been frustrating. When bad results happen to good people, especially to children, it can be devastating. But our job is not to be devastated and depressed, but to persevere and find better solutions. Through the ABA we are working to improve the system and to hopefully help all families achieve better results that are better for the whole family. Of course this is a difficult task, but it is one that any civilized society must undertake. All family law professionals (lawyers, judges, psychologists, accountants and others) play a role. Is our system perfect? No way. In fact, our systems vary from state to state and from community to community. But we are evolving. Today, family law is not an area of the law that is looked down upon. To the contrary, it is an area of the law viewed by many as one of the most important areas of law that exist. What other area has the ability to affect families and futures as much as ours? And with that comes a significant burden, a burden to help families and a burden to improve society.
I am glad to be in a position to help families. In my practice I often have that opportunity, and as Chair of the Family Law Section of the ABA, I have been given an even greater opportunity. I will try my best not to squander it and to do what I can to help families and professionals who are helping those families. If there is anything I can do, I hope you will call on me to serve you. It will be an honor to serve and I am sure, an experience I will never forget.
There is no question that a Prenuptial Agreement is unromantic (although I have heard of a man getting down on one knee to offer a prenup to his fiance). Whatever the reason a prenup may be desired (a bad first marriage and expensive first divorce, for instance), asking your intended to sign a prenuptial agreement is very unromantic. But then again, many things about marriage are unromantic. The decisions about the wedding, for instance, are often a struggle between the desire for the most beautiful, exotic wedding in the world versus the finances available. Or whether to even have a big wedding and invite everyone, or save the money for a first marital home? Even the question of who to invite to the wedding can be very unromantic and often the cause for dissention. Should a relative who has been unfriendly to the fiance’ be invited? Do step-parents walk down the aisle? So the issue of whether or not to sign a prenuptial agreement is not the only practical question an engaged couple faces. But it may be the most troubling. After all, isn’t the request to sign a prenuptial agreement bascially a nice way of saying I don’t trust you one hundred percent? Or at least, maybe it is a way of saying I don’t trust me, or us, one hundred percent. Either way it casts doubt on a couple’s certain belief that their marriage will last forever.
But many, about half of all marriages don’t last forever. And what really should be avoided is a contested divorce. And that is the one true potential benefit of a prenuptial agreement. It can avoid, or at least reduce litigation and the related costs.
So the issue of whether or not to execute a prenuptial agreement is a balance bewteen practicaity and romance. And for a couple being looked upon these days as the epitomy of romance, the Prince William and his bride, Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, it is understandable why apparently no prenuptial agreemen was signed (click here for press coverage of that issue). It is understandable why they may have opted for romance, but even so, it was a required consideration, and likely that the question at least caused the Prince to consider it. There is nothing wrong with weighing options, even if only for a millisecond, especially for a future leader (at least a future figurehead leader) of his country. But for a fairytell wedding, it seems a prenuptial agreement just would not have fit the storyline. And they are not the only ones to feel that way. These questions and emotions are not unique to British Royalty. In my practice I have seen this exact dilemma often, and can never predict whether a prenuptial agreement will actually be signed. But the process is intriguing and one of the most human endeavors I have the opportunity to witness from time to time.
Is infidelity epidemic for athletes? I think not. But I do think that famous people have more opportunities for, are given more opportunities for, or are solicited more for extra marital relationships than the average person. Does that make it okay? No. Does that make it a little easier to understand, yes.
I am often asked why athletes or other famous people seem to have more extramarital relationships than the average person. First I am not convinced that is true. But second, if it is true, there must be some explanation, even if we don’t like the explanation. One such explanation is that the offer or opportunity is probably much more present for these high profile folks. Should they resist, sure. Are they human, sure. Is it human to cheat?????? Having sex is human. Seduction is human.
ESPN just wrote an article on this topic and interviewed me about it (that is what gave me the idea for this blog entry). You can see the article by clicking here. What is interesting to me is not the cheating, but America’s fascination with it. Stories of infidelity amongst the famous are always big news. Tony Parker, Tiger Woods, A-Rod, Bill Clinton and on and on. Why do we care? Perhaps it is because we expect more from our heroes. We expect that those whom we admire, those who are more athletic than the rest of us, more successful than the rest of us would also be more moral than the rest of us. After all, we are supposed to play by the rules, why shouldn’t they, especially when they already have so much. Perhaps the fascination is with the fact that the rich and famous are never satisfied, even though we would be if we had a tenth of their wealth, fame or success (but would we?).
To me the real issue is the relationship that is being hurt. If there is a family that is otherwise working well, extramarital affairs are quite an obstacle. In my experience, it seems that most such affairs start well after the marriage is on the down turn. Yes new relationships should wait until a marriage has fully ended, but we are not a patient species.
I do not have the answers, but I do enjoy asking the questions, which is a good place to start. Tell me what you thing by commenting.
I was recently asked to comment for CNN (click here to see the video clip of my appearance on “Newsroom” with Don Lemon) about a new fad: Divorce Insurance. My first reaction, as I told Anchor Don Lemon, is that the best insurance against divorce is not getting married. Of course that was said “tongue in cheek”, but really, if you plan to get married and want to pay, monthly, for divorce insurance, it seems very strange if not counterproductive to the goal of a long-lasting marriage. Let’s explain it this way. If a couple, or even just one spouse is considering a divorce, AND they know the expenses of a divorce are already paid for by insurance, isn’t that just one more thing that facilitates them moving forward with divorce? It is almost like saying “hey, we paid the insurance, let’s collect on it”.
Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements can predetermine division of assets and alimony. Once those things are decided, only issues related to children remain. And how can you predict the cost of issues relating to children. There are so many variations on parenting time, decision making, travel expenses, etc. How can we insure against all such costs?
Yes, divorce insurance sounds like a nice, safe bet. Why not limit your exposure? But when you start to think about the concept, it unravels. For instance, if I want to be sure I have the best divorce lawyer, is there any guarantee that the best lawyer will accept my insurance company (since insurance companies typically pay reduced rates to lawyers)? And what about a wealthy spouse who can afford a good lawyer and then, when the other spouse says “well, I need a good lawyer too”, the court’s reply may be “You have insurance so use that”?
I am all about prevention, but smart, effective prevention. To me, that is a prenuptial agreement. A prenuptial, or post nuptial agreement forces a party to think about all of the possibilities specifically. It is unclear to me how divorce insurance can address evrything, but if it makes someone more comfortable getting married, then perhaps it is not that bad. But for the best protection, I would suggest a consultation regarding a prenuptial agreement (which of course must be prepared and reviewed by an attorney in the proper jurisdiction, and I am certainly offering advice since prebuptial agreement laws vary from state to state). And besides, isn’t it nice flying without a safety net sometimes? Yes, I am a divorce lawyer saying that. Perhaps the thrill of a good marriage is that each spouse is voluntarily continuing to commit without fear of consequence. But if that thrill has been spoiled once by a bad divorce, then perhaps a prenup is right for round two.
In our experience as divorce lawyers, we are often fortunate enough to see clients after the divorce has passed. While some struggle for years, many, if not most, move on and find happiness that they may not otherwise have found. That is one of the most gratifying parts of our job. Since the future is never certain, and is almost always frightening for anyone going through a divorce, the ability to watch people go through it and survive and succeed is an awe inspiring experience. Almost everyone who goes through a divorce, never ever dreamed of the possibilty of a separation or divorce. Then, to accept the failure of their marriage, a project they worked on, planned and tried their very best to make work, is always difficult. And much more so when children are involved. Yet inevitably life moves forward. New relationships are formed, different connections are made, and life goes on.
The bottom line is that change is inevitable and when it is as significant as a divorce, everything changes. But as human beings we strive to improve our circumstances, no matter what is thrown at us. And guess what, many people succeed in that. No, not everyone moves on and is better off for divorce. Money is tighter, logistical difficulties preventing non-custodial parents from seeing their kids arise, but we learn to cope with these issues. Of course there are times when the path of divorce was too quickly chosen. But in the majority of cases we see, the die has been cast, as in Sandra Bullock’s case. When the couple has passed the proverbial “point of no return” (one party cheating with porn stars?), then the real question is how to move on respectfully and with dignity. And I suggest that Sandra Bullock, at least from what we can glean through the press, has done exactly that. It is refreshing to see and likely inspirational to many.
A Georgia Public Broadcasting article suggests birth rates and divorce rates are down in this poor economy. But is this a good thing? We must remember that divorce, is a legal proceeding, not a determinative identification of which marriages are stable and which are not. Perhaps the economy is preventing some folks from filing legal papers or hiring lawyers, but does that really mean more people are staying together (and if so, happily?). I think not. From my perspective, many people who have struggled for years trying to maintain a marriage have had it. On top of years of marital or relationship troubles, the stress of a poor economy puts many couples over the top. The economy may be the proverbial “last straw”.
Couples who are in distress, especially those living in separate residences, often need the court’s assistance to decide how funds are shared between the parties and how time with the children is allotted. But in a poor economy, many cannot afford an attorney so they often ignore the legal process and engage in self help. This may work on an ad hoc basis, but troubles are inevitable. And if we do see a decrease in divorce, unfortunately, in my opinion, we will see a rise in other legal areas, such as child kidnapping, criminal claims of abandonment and even domestic violence as people take out their frustrations on each other (frustrations which a “good divorce” or “good divorce agreement” might have avoided).
So, the real issue is not whether divorce rates are down, but are marriages healthier? Are people now staying together and resolving their issues. Or are they simply not able to afford the safeties and resolution mechanisms divorce courts provide?
When Diane Sawyer signed off after ten years as an anchor of one of America’s most loved news programs (Good Morning America), she quoted Dr. Suess (the story of her leaving GMA can be viewed by clicking here). The quote was “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” What a way to view such a big change.
If people going through a divorce could try to use this perspective, what a difference it might make. While it can be debated forever whether divorce in general is a good thing, the truth is, once it happens, about all one can do is to try to manage it in the best way possible. Dr. Suess’ philosphy, reiterated by Diane Sawyer is one magical way to take a difficult situation and view it in a whole new light. For a guy who had such an influence on kids, adults could learn a thing or two from him as well.
Today, August 15, 2010, the Governor of New York announced that he signed a bill permitting “no-fault” divorce in New York. So what exactly is “no-fault”? Well it varies across the country, but generally it means that one need not prove the other spouse was at “fault” in the break up of the marriage. That is, if one person believes the marriage is over, that is all that needs to be proved. And that will make “uncontested divorces” easier.
But does that make fault irrelevant? In many states the answer is no. Georgia and many other states permit introduction into evidence, proof of “conduct” such as adultery, drug use, spousal abuse and gambling. These types of conduct can affect the decision of the court on issues such as alimony, custody and division of property in some states.
But what no-fault divorce allows, is a less confrontational divorce for many who have peacefully and amicably come to the decision that their marriage should end. The removal of the need to prove “fault” removes the need to accuse anyone of being the cause of the divorce. While such conduct issues may be relevant in some states for some issues, many people simply desire to move on and resolve their differences in a non-confrontational manner. This new New York law makes it a bit easier in New York to do what people elsewhere in America have done for years, to divorce without pointing fingers or laying blame. It is about time.
Today was an historic day in family law. A federal, not simply a state court judge, ruled that same sex marriage should be allowed. While the ruling is much more than simply an opinion by a judge that such marriages should be allowed, the real significance is that the burden now shifts to opponents of same sex marriage to overturn the decision on appeal. As any lawyer will tell you, it is always better to be the Appellee than the Appellant (the one filing the appeal).
Far be it from me to attempt a full fledged legal analysis of the decision in this format, but the simple and straightforwad result of this decision is that the concept of same sex marriage has taken a huge leap forward and seems well on it’s way into acceptance, at least in our legal system. While most studies seem to indicate that the legalization of gay marriage was an eventual certainty, this case seemed to move the process along much more rapidly than many expected.
Regardless of your view on this topic, there is no doubt that this is truly an issue that will be discussed over and over, in courthouses and coffee houses.
Past generations have confronted many changes to widely held opinions and positions (Loving v. VA-interracial marriage; Roe v. Wade-abortion; Brown v. Board of Education-segretation in schools). Yes each issue is different, but the fact that in America we can examine, debate, vote, litigate, appeal, then vote again, is a wonderful thing. The checks and balances and open processes we use are extraordinary. There is no way to please everyone, but what an interesting issue and what interesting times we live in.