There are no winners in divorce; only runner-ups if you’re lucky, and complete failures if you’re the other 99.99%. That guy sitting in my conference room looked about 70. Which reminds of my favorite divorce joke, “An elderly couple in their late 90’s go to a divorce lawyer. “We are here for a divorce.” Lawyer: “Good lord, why did you wait so long!?” Couple: “We wanted to wait until the kids were… (pause for effect)….DEAD."
“Hi, I’m Kelly Chang Rickert. It’s nice to meet you, Kevin.”
“My name is Jeffrey Smith."
Shit. I had just been working on Kevin Jackson’s file. And I spoke with Kevin Saxton right before that. Honestly, when you’ve been doing this job for as long as me, it doesn’t matter if they are Kevin or Jonathan. I mean Jeffrey.
“My apologies, Jeffrey.” Without skipping a beat and to avoid apologizing any more than i needed to, I continued “Thank you for coming in — 47 years of marriage! I just have one question. WHY?”
The air in the room is always thick when they come to see a divorce lawyer, so I usually keep the atmosphere light. I briefly considered telling the “waiting until kids were dead joke” and decided against it.
Jeffrey nervously ran his hands over the remaining patches of his golden-gray hair. He cleared his throat. I could tell he was preparing to launch into a needlessly long story about why he is divorcing his wife of 47 years. “We have been married 47 years and I recently told her I don’t love her and I married her out of obligation” (Obligation? I quickly scanned his Intake Form, Date of Marriage, 1970. Firstborn arrived 1970. AH).
I halfway listen to his story, and halfway inventoried the due dates in Kevin Saxton’s cases. I remembered that I forgot to put dinner in the slow cooker today, and made a mental note that my oldest had gymnastics after school today . Kevin-Jeffrey rambles on and on and I briefly caught his last sentence, “…we have started working with a life coach and at this stage in my life, I would like to retire and be happy.” I decide right now is a good time to interject, “Thank you so very much for sharing with me, but to maximize the most out of our hour together, let me just ask you a few questions, “Are you familiar with California law regarding community property?”
“Is it safe to assume that every asset you have listed was acquired after you married?”
“You do realize parting with half of this will put a great impairment into your retirement plans?”
He looked at me quizzically, not understanding why fractions matter in divorce. “Sir, everything you have acquired is community — and once you divorce, since your wife is in her late 60’s and has never worked and has no job prospects, there will be 2 households for you to support.”
“Even if I hire you?” I laughed.
This innocent little phrase is the very reason i have come to tire of my job. Divorce, they say, teaches you a lot of things, like fractions. It’s inexplicably sad that Hollywood TV shows give divorce lawyers the power to do things to change laws so their client can suddenly get 100% of community property. Or twist facts such that an involved caring father could suddenly lose 100% custody to his wealthy evil heiress wife. I received an email from a mom in my mom’s group once. “I have money. I will pay you to get sole custody.”
“Sir, paying me does not change the law. Yours is a long-term marriage, and in your intake form, you even note that all of these pensions, retirements and real properties are community property.” I said gently, carefully concealing the familiar annoyance creeping up inside my ears.
“So what is it that divorce lawyers do?” Jonathan or Kevin or Jeffrey asked.
We are expensive babysitters.
Kevin/Jonathan/Jeffrey laughed. Darn it, I thought out loud again.
“Well, we do a lot of things. Divorce is a legal separation between you and your wife. We need legally unwrap you and your wife from the stuff you created over the years — custody, support, property division. In your case, your children are grown, so the only issues at hand at support and property division. If you have co-mingled separate assets, or you seek reimbursements of separate assets, I can help you go through these claims,and perhaps hire a forensic accountant to trace…in the end, I am helping you move onto your next stage in life as a single man.” He looked at me blankly. I was not sure if he has absorbed what I just said, or thinking I have a pretty face. Or maybe he was just old and went into an old-man’s daydream slumber.
“I don’t know if divorce is the right path for me. I need you to make me an argument for it.”
Whoa. I am now thoroughly pissed off at modern television and society, depicting divorce lawyers as those who wave a “ divorce flag”. Like that one divorce lawyer in Chicago who put up billboards all over the place with hot naked men and women, declaring “Life is Short. Get a divorce”. I think being a divorce lawyer for over 20 years has made me super protective of my marriage. No one ever said marriage was easy, but compared to divorce, it’s preschool. Most of the good divorce lawyers I know are married, some to their 2nd or 3rd wives, but nevertheless married. The truth is — today, you can part with your marriage as painlessly as your car lease, and most people do it. And most divorce lawyers out there don’t care about the WHYs as much as the HOW MUCHs, as long as they get a new client on retainer.
I looked at his balance sheet. HIs assets totaled approximately 2 million. This guy could totally afford me, and my children’s tuition for next year is due end of this month. And he wanted me to TALK HIM INTO GETTING A DIVORCE!
I decided my financial security is not worth ruining a 47-year marriage. Plus, it’s early in the morning and I had 3 other prospective clients coming in today.
“Jeffrey — ” (I said very carefully, lest I forgot) “Don’t do it. This late in the game, you would be throwing away everything you have secured for retirement. Not only that, you would be destroying a life you spent the last 50 years creating.”
“But she won’t let me quit my job. She won’t follow me to Washington state, where I want to retire. My life coach wants us to pursue our dreams.”
Washington state? “Wait — where are your children located?”
“Pasadena. Kentucky,and Idaho.”
Strange. Sure, I’ve also dreamed of retiring in Washington state.The other day, in a setlement conference, opposing counsel introduced me to Sequim, a place where “the best retired pilots go”, he says. Apparently, on the Olympic peninsula, there is a phenomenon called a “rain shadow” whereby some parts of Washington are shielded from Seattle’s yearly 42-in rainfall average. In the Olympic peninsula, you only get 24 inches of rain. You can also purchase beautiful log homes on 2 acres of land, with 360 views of the Puget, on a handful of Los Angeles home equity. (I just handled a divorce where the couple purchased their El Sereno home for 400k in 2015. They just sold it for 800k). I can pretty much retire if I move to Washington state. I would miss listening to people whine about their spouses, and my free lifetime voyeur pass, but I’d deal with it.
Yes, Washington state is the perfect place to retire and I should have left it at that.
But I don’t see life coaches, and this guy can’t possibly think like me.
On a hunch, I asked, “Is there something in Washington state?” I asked off-handedly, and by “something”, i meant, “someone”, but as a divorce lawyer, I have to be extremely subtle about prying.
“Not really.” He hesitated, his eyes squinted, attempting to suppress evidence of his split-second decision to tell a half-truth: “Well, I do have a high school friend that I have recently connected with at a high school reunion.”
I didn’t attend any of my high school reunions and neither did my husband. They were in New Jersey and Florida, and we have 2 children and busy careers in Los Angeles. But NOW I distinctly remember why I chose to skip those things.
Jeffrey/Kevin rambled on and on about how after 47 years, his passion for life was reignited by Woman in Washington, and Life Coach Lisa encouraged him to pursue his passion, which leaves him in a position to leave his current wife Sally.
The rest of this initial consultation went smoothly, without any wrong names, bad jokes, or uncomfortable half-lies. I ran a Dissomaster to calculate the amount of spousal support he would pay to his at-home wife who is in her late 60’s. I explained the “forever alimony jurisdiction rule” as applicable to long-term marriages. We inputted all of the assets into a Propertizer program, and manipulated it to create different scenarios of how property would be divided. Jeffrey asked me when the BEST time to divorce would be. My answer is, “NEVER.” He didn’t believe me, I then explained in the game of Life, or Monopoly,every time you land on “Divorce”, you went bankrupt, and how these games were so clever. He pushed me some more, and I advised, “Since you are on the brink of retirement, perhaps you should wait until you no longer earn this 6-figure salary, so support could be accurately calculated based on your retirement financial circumstances”.
After we got all the legal stuff out of the way so I feel like they are getting their $500 worth, I pushed him a bit more. “Sir, if you are not set on this decision, I strongly encourage you to seek marriage counseling. Whatever you are experiencing with this girl you found on Facebook is not worth throwing your life away.”
Uncomfortable long pregnant silence ensued. I caught myself, “I meant, at your high school reunion, not Facebook, I am not sure why I ….” He interrupts, “No — you must be psychic. I attended my high school reunion, and she looked me up on Facebook shortly thereafter. We have been communicating with each other for over a year, and I am in love with her.”
Woman in Washington. Well, I guess I have to acknowledge her. “Well, what is her name?”
Internally I rolled my eyes. Besides the fact that name is so clique that it summons images of a little girl sitting next to Forrest Gump on a schoolbus, and throws rocks at her dad’s house, and later tries to jump off a balcony, it just is the perfect name for a cheater.
I sighed, “Sir, love isn’t what you think it is,” I cautiously added, “Love is almost 50 years of marriage — “
“NO, that’s obligation,” he interrupted.
“…and a lifetime of memories. Damn Hollywood for making up love." “And DAMN FACEBOOK!”
We debated back and forth about his impending decision. I used the power of community property and lifetime jurisdiction over alimony to sway his decision. Our hour was up, and I said goodbye to Mr. Kevin/Jeffrey.
After I let him out, I checked the phone on my desk, with dozen of notifications of missed texts. One of them from my husband Scott, “We are very lucky!” he said.
“You have no idea”, I quipped back.
Then I posted on Facebook, “After 52 years of marriage, 3 kids and 6 grandkids, a prospective client says “I want a divorce. I am not in love with my wife anymore.” On a hunch, I asked, “Does Facebook have anything to do with your sudden decision?” His eyes opened wide and he whispered, “You’re psychic.” No, sir, I have been a Divorce lawyer for 20 years. #facebookcausesdivorces”
A few months later, I receive a call from Jeffery’s wife, who couldn’t contain her sobs over the phone. She had left a message with my assistant and not identified herself. Since I am barred from giving her any legal advice after her husband has already consulted with me, I never would have returned her phone call had I known. She told me that whatever I said in the conslt with Jeffery changed his mind, and they now are working on their 48th year of marriage together. She said, “Kelly, you saved our marriage.”
I didn’t land that client, but I saved a marriage.
Marriage is Grand! Divorce, a hundred grand! http://lawyerkelly.com
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