Writing recently for the New York Times, author Matt Richtel in an article entitled, ” Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part”, mused about whether setting an expiration date for marriage might be the best way to address new attitudes about marriage — those that render it expendable depending on circumstances.
Richtel, who writes most often about technology, makes his case for a twenty-year contract with tongue in cheek but does make the serious point that no real mechanism exists, short of prenuptial contracts, to mitigate the drama and stress of divorces that happen at statistically predictable stages of marriage.
Richtel implies that making marriage contracts renewable might have the double advantage of lessening the stigma of divorce where it proves inevitable, and, conversely, of raising the consciousness of couples whose marriages will grow stronger if re-examined and effectively re-negotiated at intervals that coincide with marriages’ biggest stressors. Various experts cited in the article suggest that these milestones involve the birth of a child, a job change, the death of a family member, or when the couple finds themselves living in an empty nest. While most of these events are unpredictable, others are not. Generally, for example, empty-nest syndrome shows up at roughly the twenty-year mark. The president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Kenneth Altshuler, quoted in the article, noted that, in his own practice, divorces seem to cluster around the 7 and 20 year marks. As it turns out, the seven year itch may be more than a movie title.
None of this is to suggest seriously that renewable marriage contracts are really ripe for serious thought given the tenor current political dialogue on the overall issue of marriage. Instead, however, Richtel’s article makes us think more seriously about what should be done at the beginning of a marriage to lessen the trauma and bitter discord that so often characterizes the end.
True, prenuptial agreements do put a temporary crimp in the image of unsullied romance that we expect to survive from the first date to the end of the honeymoon. (Although anyone who has ever planned a large wedding knows that only a strong dose of denial can keep that illusion alive.)
On the other hand, at what other point in a relationship will a frank and, mercifully, hypothetical discussion about the practical issue of divorce take a lesser toll on a couple’s relationship? Balance this against the angst that the couple will suffer if their marriage is among the half that end in divorce and at a time when love and goodwill are no longer the most important underpinnings of the negotiations. Once that comparison is made, the only remaining question is what will better serve the couple and their future children — betting everything that they will beat the odds, or promising from the start to do the right thing in the unexpected event that they won’t?
According to an article published this summer in the Wall Street Journal, there is an increasing trend among divorce lawyers to market their practices specifically to men.
As a marketing tool, from the perspective of the lawyer, this makes perfect sense. There is nothing new about niche marketing and boutique divorce firms have been all the rage for years. A lawyer who can convince his or her demographic that he or she is a champion of men and understands the injustices that too often befall them in divorce court, can gain a leg up on colleagues who trust clients to understand that experience representing both men and women benefits clients of both genders.
Jennifer Smith, the author of the WSJ article entitled “Lawyers Carve out ‘Divorce for Men’ Niche”, makes it clear that the trend is about marketing and not about law. The article discusses packing lawyers’ websites with SEO rich keywords and phrases appealing to men’s fears and concerns. There are plenty of plausible reasons for this, none having to do with outcomes for clients. Lawyers who limit their practices in this way may believe that any focus in advertising is a good thing, or may have a personal bias that male clients are generally in a better position than women to finance divorce.
The question for men facing divorce, by contrast, is whether the fact that their lawyer markets exclusively to men will make a difference in the outcome of their cases. When pressed for answers on what kind of special advice such firms offered, self-described men’s lawyers reported advising clients not to get into arguments with their wives which might result in false claims of abuse, and not to relocate to distant places if they planned to seek joint custody of their children. Hardly profound insights or advice different from that which any experienced divorce lawyer would offer.
There is no doubt that at least some of the lawyers, who limit their divorce practice to men, genuinely believe that men tend to be short-changed in divorce court. Many might be proponents of alimony reform — a hot issue across the country.
Query, though, whether any judge is likely to be swayed in his or her decision by the politics of the husband’s lawyer as opposed to by the facts of the case. To the extent that gender biases exist in any jurisdiction, count on the fact that the experienced lawyers in that jurisdiction are aware of them and are prepared to address them on behalf of their clients. All of us are bound by Rules of Professional Conduct that require us to represent our client’s zealously.
Before selecting a lawyer who touts himself or herself as a man’s divorce lawyer, men should first ask: does it cost extra, and, if so, exactly why?
After more than 20 years of marriage that ended in divorce in 2003, Connecticut resident Peter Larson seems to have been no stranger to the courts. When he returned to court in 2010 to seek a reduction of child support and alimony orders, he had two previous efforts at modification under his belt and probably felt confident that he would win his pro se bid for relief. After all, his income had gone from about $85,000 in 2003 to about $21,000 and he was unemployed.
And, in fact, he did come away with some degree of success without the help of a lawyer. The trial court recalculated his child support dropping it from its original level of $347 per week to $115 per week. In addition the court reduced his alimony order to $1 per year — not a permanent victory on the alimony front, but still an important win.
Unfortunately, Mr.Larson’s former wife, Matilde, did hire a lawyer who filed a counter-motion for contempt seeking past due child support and attorney’s fees. Ultimately, although he received a break in his current orders, Mr. Larson was also ordered to pay almost $100,000 in past-due support and was also ordered to pay almost $27,000 in attorney’s fees.
In a per curiam decision of the Connecticut Appellate Court scheduled for release next week, the Court upheld the trial court’s action.
As he had at the trial court level, Mr. Larson represented himself on appeal. His arguments of error were;
- The trial court hadn’t reduced child support enough
- The trial court should not have found him in contempt of prior orders
- The order of attorneys fees was excessive because the fees were unreasonable
The Court’s response to these claims makes it clear that Mr. Larson would have benefitted from consulting with a lawyer before filing his motion and, later, before filing his appeal. First, the court stressed the enormous discretion accorded to trial courts by appeals courts in family matters. It is never enough on appeal that the appellate judges might have decided the case differently. This means that strategic errors at the trail level can rarely be corrected on appeal.
Second, Mr Larson would have been cautioned that, because he was not fully in compliance with existing orders, he should have expected a counter-offense if he chose to seek a modification. Based on the amount of the arrearage that the court found, it is clear that his former wife had tolerated his non-compliance for a very long time up to the point that he made the first move in 2010. To the extent that Mr. Larson thought his current financial situation would — or even could — protect him from being held in contempt for falling behind, he was mistaken and any experienced lawyer would have made that clear to him.
Third, he would have been advised that law that requires courts to consider the respective finances of the parties when allocating responsibility for attorneys fees in divorce cases, does not apply in enforcement proceedings where there has been a finding of willful contempt. In such cases, attorney’s fees can be shifted to the party who failed to obey a court order as a simple matter of punishment.
While Larson complained that he had not been given a fair chance to challenge the reasonableness of the fees, the appellate court noted that, not only had the trial court afforded him the opportunity to do that, but had actually scheduled a separate hearing for that very purpose. Although Larson attended the hearing he did not, according to the court, present any evidence on the subject. It is not unusual for inexperienced litigants to expect the trial judge to take the lead in a factual inquiry.
In a 201o op-ed piece published in the New York Times entitled “A Nation of Do-It-Yourself Lawyers” John T Broadrick, chief justice of New Hampshire, and Ronald M. George, chief justice of California, stressed the disadvantages faced by litigants who, for financial reasons, feel compelled to go it alone. The authors urged members of the bar to step up to help mitigate the problem by offering so-called unbundled legal services so that litigants who could not afford comprehensive representation could nonetheless receive limited assistance in the form of consultation, coaching, and help with document preparation.
What many do not understand is that limited representation can be a minefield for lawyers since the rules in many states do not adequately protect them. We cannot reasonably expect lawyers who would otherwise be willing to play a supporting role in a lawsuit, to risk taking responsibility for the final outcome of litigation they do not fully control or to be required to provide additional or even comprehensive services without remuneration.
Still, in every community there are lawyers who recognize the problem and who are willing to address it as long as roles are clearly defined and the expectations are clear. When the stakes are high, it makes sense to seek them out.
Yesterday, the Huffington Post reported on a new study by sociologists Wendy Manning and Jessica Cohen concerning the relationship between cohabitation prior to marriage and the risk of divorce down the road.
As it turns out, the divorce rates among couples who did cohabit and those who did not are fairly equal.
While the authors of the study looked at factors such as gender, and level of committment — whether or not the couple planned to marry from the start — nothing in the report suggests that the authors considered whether the cohabitation took place before a first marriage or a second or subsequent marriage.
In Connecticut and many other states, the decision to cohabit before a second marriage carries an added risk — the prospect of losing alimony whether or not the new relationship works out.
In most cases, alimony terminates on the remarriage of the recipient. Under the so-called Connecticut cohabitation statute, things are not so clear-cut.
The Connecticut cohabitation statute uses peculiar language. Most importantly, it does not include the word ‘cohabit’. Instead it allows a court to suspend, reduce or terminate alimony if it finds that the recipient is living with another person under circumstances that alter his or her financial needs.
While the language is broad enough to include roommates, relatives, and even long-term guests, the courts have generally interpreted the statute to be focused on couples living together without the benefit of marriage.
As broad as the language of the cohabitation statute is, cohabitation can be tricky to prove especially when the couple separates in reaction to a motion by an ex-spouse to terminate alimony.
Still, the cost of cohabitation for anyone receiving alimony can be loss of a stream of income that might otherwise have continued for years. While courts have the option to suspend or reduce alimony on a finding of cohabitation, termination is far more common. Once alimony has been terminated, it cannot be reinstated.
So if the Manning/Cohen study tells us that cohabitation prior to marriage doesn’t reduce the incidence of divorce, at least for second-timers whose existing alimony is at risk, it might be wise to test a new relationship from a safe distance.
A recent decision of the Connecticut Appellate Court in the case of Felicia Pierot Brody vs. Cary Brody illustrates what can happen when the focus of a divorce case shifts from the issues in the marriage to the credibility, or lack thereof, of one of the parties to the case. In the Brody case, one thing that happened was that a lot of personal information became public – e.g., the husband’s awkward excuse for stashing condoms in his travel bag. Another consequence: Brody was ordered to pay $2.5 million in lump sum alimony even though his prenuptial agreement was meant to prevent that and even though the court was unable to ascertain his income. The trial took place in 2010. Recently the Appellate Court has ruled against Brody on all six issues he raised in his appeal.
For all most of us know, Mr. Brody might have told the truth from start to finish. However, the judge found him not to be credible which, as the finder of fact in a civil case, she was privileged to do.
Any judge will tell you that the best way to appear to be truthful is simply to tell the truth. Still, any divorce lawyer who’s practiced as long as I have, has encountered more than one client who is shocked to learn that their lawyer expects them to be honest.
What kind of lawyer wouldn’t help you hide your assets, understate your income or cover up your extramarital affairs? The answer: any good one. Yet, despite our best efforts, there are plenty of folks who remain unconvinced that honesty is the best policy even when the truth isn’t pretty.
The fact is, there isn’t much that happens in a marriage that the judge hasn’t heard before. Also, there can be two very different sides to every story even when the story is told by honest people. Your secret spending or infidelity might have led to enormous drama in your household, but in divorce court, might barely cause a ripple. Unless, that is, you deny the deed and the judge isn’t buying it.
Brody was not a divorce between members of the 99% although the basic issues were fairly universal. There was an issue of irresponsible spending — in this case buying one too many Ferrari automobiles , a wine cellar, and an airplane. There was an issue of suspected infidelity with no proof other than a few unused condoms. There was a business purportedly in decline — in this case the Defendant’s hedge fund. There were some “he-said-she-said” claims of verbal abuse. All matters divorce judges deal with day in and day out.
No case in Connecticut goes to trial without first going through at least one formal attempt at settlement usually with the assistance of a judge or court-appointed Special Master. Most cases settle before trial. Of the small percentage that do not, only a handful are appealed and those few find little success in overturning the decision of the trial judge.
In this case, the Defendant raised a number of issues that might have served him well during settlement negotiations. His business really had been embroiled in litigation with the SEC, for example, and the prenuptial agreement arguably offered him protection from a lump sum alimony award that would have to be funded by liquidating personal assets.
At trial, however, the judge found him not to be a credible witness. For one thing, he had admitted testifying falsely under oath in an earlier divorce proceeding that his wife had commenced but later dropped. Back then he had denied removing his wife’s jewelery from a safe, but had later come clean. Added to that was the finding that the Defendant had stonewalled during the discovery phase of the trial pretending that certain documents sought by the Plaintiff didn’t exist. With those two strikes against him, the case was pretty much over. The Plaintiff, whose personal net worth at the time of the marriage had been 29 million, and whose dividend income from her separate property was approximately $100,000 annually was awarded alimony and, tacitly, the designation of honest litigant.
According to a recent article published in USA Today, a study of over 7000 individuals conducted by researchers at the Ohio State University found that 79% of marital separations end in divorce.
The study found that the average length of separations that resulted in reconciliation was two years, while the average of those ending in divorce was three years. Surprisingly, the chances of reconciliation virtually disappeared among this group beyond the three-year mark. While many couples who lived apart for three or more years eventually divorced, others simply continued the separation indefinitely.
The study found that women with children under 5 years old were more likely to separate from their husbands rather than to divorce immediately.
All of this means that a great number of couples either delay or forego altogether the protection of laws designed to shield them financially in the event their marriage comes apart. These include laws governing the division of marital assets as well as laws regarding spousal and child support.
In a relatively new trend, some couples seriously contemplating trial separation begin the experiment by negotiating a formal post-marital agreement that sets out their respective financial obligations while still legally married and also in the event of an eventual divorce. In this way, they are able to enter into a trial separation — or in some cases even continue living under the same roof — with the security of an agreed-upon set of rules. This provides each of them with a degree of certainty about their financial future that would not otherwise be possible absent divorce litigation. With financial issues resolved, they are better able to understand the choices they face and to focus on other issues in their relationship.
Just like prenuptial agreements, post-marital agreements must meet certain standards in order to be enforceable. These standards are governed by the laws of individual states, but certain features are universal. First, they must be accompanied by full mutual disclosure of financial information. Second, they must be entered into voluntarily and both parties must have had at least the opportunity to have the agreement reviewed by independent counsel. All courts reserve the right to review both prenuptial agreements and post-marital agreements for fairness, but, provided there are no egregious flaws in the contract, courts generally support and enforce them as a matter of public policy.
Impending separation is not the only reason to consider a post-marital agreement. Events such as the birth of a child, a return to school, or the launch of a business can be good reason for couples to consider adding a post-marital agreement to their financial plan.
Yesterday, Forbes.com published an excellent article outlining 21 common red flags of financial hanky-panky leading up to divorce.
While a few of the signs of trouble apply only to high-asset families — e.g., frequent trips to countries with soft banking laws — others signal shady maneuvers that are common at all income levels.
If you notice that your spouse’s behavior has changed when it comes to earning, spending or borrowing money and, at the same time, all is not blissful on the home front, make some notes and do a reality check of your own. Even if you find nothing amiss, the clues you record might come in handy to your divorce lawyer further down the road.
And if your spouse suddenly decides it would be a good idea to re-mortgage the house to pay off cars or business and credit card debt, by all means take the temperature of your marriage before signing on the dotted line. The bigger the hurry, the more reason to slow things down.
Because our last post highlighted a recent Wall Street Journal report about the skyrocketing divorce rate among baby boomers — especially those who have been divorced at least once before — we decided offer a quick primer on Connecticut’s Premarital Agreement Act.
Many people worry that premarital agreements — also know as prenuptial agreements and ante-nuptial agreements — send the wrong message about commitment and generate conflict and an atmosphere of pessimism from the start of a marriage.
Regardless of your beliefs about the wisdom or morality of entering into prenuptial agreements at the beginning of a first marriage, the stakes are often quite different when we choose to marry for a second time. By then, both parties are likely to have amassed some assets of their own and, importantly, may have children whose future welfare could be jeopardized in the absence of a prenuptial agreement.
If you do decide a prenuptial agreement is for you, it is important to do everything possible to assure that it is both fair and enforceable. According to a comprehensive overview on the history and development of the law on prenuptial agreements published in 2007 in the William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law, rules regarding the enforceability of prenuptial or premarital agreements vary considerably from state-to-state. According to the authors, prenups are not enforceable in England and in parts of Canada but instead simply serve as evidence of what the parties thought would be fair at the time the agreement was signed.
Connecticut’s Premarital Agreement Act goes a long way toward assuring that a carefully crafted agreement will ultimately be enforced by the court, but it also provides a number of requirements that must be met in order for a prenup to survive a challenge at the time of a divorce.
The agreement must have been entered into voluntarily.
The agreement must not appear to the court to have been unconscionable when it was executed or when it is sought to be enforced
Before signing the agreement, both parties must have been given a fair and reasonable disclosure of the amount, character and value of property, financial obligations and income of the other party
The party opposing enforcement must have been given a reasonable opportunity to consult with independent counsel
The terms of the agreement must not make it necessary for one of the parties to seek public assistance
In order for agreements to be honored at the time of a divorce it is not enough simply to recite that all of these requirements have been met. For example, if one party can provide credible evidence that he or she was under duress at the time the agreement was signed, it will not be enough that the agreement, itself, provided that he or she was not.
The degree of specificity and complexity of premarital or prenuptial agreements varies enormously.
Agreements may cover pre-marital property only or may deal, as well, with property acquired during the marriage. Parties can pre-determine spousal support rights, allocation of debts, and much more. It is also typical for couples to agree that their premarital agreement will expire after a period of time or that rights to such things as spousal support and retirement benefits will increase in accordance with a pre-arranged schedule as the years pass.
One set of issues that cannot be decided in advance by way of a premarital agreement has to do with the care, custody and support of children of the marriage.
As with most areas of contract law, there is no one-size-fits-all document. Instead, engaged couples should make every effort to learn what issues they may face in the event that the marriage ends either by divorce or by death, and to fashion an agreement that recognizes and accommodates each party’s wishes and priorities regarding their own financial future and, in many cases, the financial future of their children and grandchildren.
According to the Wall Street Journal, a paper to be presented by sociologists from Bowling Green State University in April of this year concludes that divorces among the over 50 set have nearly doubled in the last two decades and the divorce rate for that age group is now at its highest level ever.
Among the highlights:
- By 2009 a quarter of divorces were between couples 50 and over, a dramatic increase from percentages less than a decade earlier.
- Among boomers, more women than men initiate the process.
- Infidelity ranks low as a precipitating cause of the breakdown, especially relative to the population in general.
- 53% of people in this age group initiating divorce have been divorced before.
- Having been married before quadruples the risk of another divorce for people over 65 and doubles the risk for younger baby boomers.
- Among those using on-line dating services, the over 50 group is the fastest growing.
The trend is attributed to a number of factors including changing expectations about the roles of men and women in marriage. Read the entire article here.