* Names and certain identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals cited.
A divorce in progress is a unique kind of tragedy. Something has died when nobody was quite looking. And if the two principals were to conduct the autopsy together, they might disagree on the most basic facts of the case: the underlying ailment, the time or cause of death, or indeed, whether a death has occurred at all.
A DARIEN MAN WE’LL CALL MARK HILL* WORKED FOR A HEDGE FUND, GROWING WEALTHY IN HIS mid-thirties; he was intelligent and ambitious, though with a froth of narcissism camouflaging his boyish insecurity. His wife, Lena*, had an important job of her own in the entertainment industry. But of the two, she was the pliant one (or was it low self-esteem, she wonders now), always deferring to his opinions and desires.
The courtship had been intoxicating, full of grand romantic gestures; there had been little time or space—or desire—for sober reflection. Red flags? After the wedding plans had all been made and the invitations had gone out, Mark presented Lena with a prenup to sign. Prenups are not unusual; some experts think them broadly advisable so long as the conversation around them is two-sided. This one was not. It had an out-of-the-blue quality that, for Lena, sounded like one of those gut strings we are supposed to listen to. Mark was not a bigshot yet. He hadn’t piled up any assets. The whole thing seemed a little weird for a young couple starting out. “And I thought, ‘Well, he loves me. We’re never going to get divorced anyway, so this won’t matter.’”
Around the time their first child was born, Mark encouraged Lena to stop working. She obliged, and the imbalance in their dynamic intensified. “He held all the cards,” Lena says. “I was miserable the entire marriage. I felt like I was invisible. I felt like I had no say. He controlled everything at work, and then came home and wanted to have the same control in the house.”
A second child arrived. This feature of troubled marriages—more kids—often baffles people looking in from the outside, but it is quite common. The bad weather seems to lift, a ray of sun pokes through—things are getting better—and you have another child.
But the underlying problems cannot be wished away. “You’re playing to the world like everything’s okay when things aren’t okay,” Lena says. As Mark’s control over family life tightened, his temper grew worse. “I was always walking on eggshells. You would wait for him to come home at night, and then if the TV was on, he’d start flipping out about not wanting the kids to watch TV. If a door handle broke, I didn’t have the authority to get it fixed. Every little aspect of life had to be controlled by him.” Lena pauses. “I used to go to bed at night thinking, ‘I can’t believe that this is all there is. How did I get myself into this situation?’”
After ten years of marriage, Lena initiated the divorce: one matter over which Mark had no control. Though not for lack of trying. “He said, ‘If you leave me, it will be scorched earth, if it takes every dime I have. I will make your life a living hell.’”
Imagine divorce on a misery spectrum ranging from amicable to War of the Roses hostile: Where do most of them fall? “I think most feel their divorces are bad, to very bad, to very, very, very bad,” says Carole Orland, a divorce attorney with Broder & Orland, a firm with offices in Westport and Greenwich. “Divorce is, for most people, one of the worst things that can happen in their lives.”
And yet it happens to so many people; about 45 percent of first marriages and over 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce or dissolution. Untold others have approached the brink of divorce and teetered on the edge. “When you scratch a bit,” says Liz Novick*, a divorced mother of one from Stamford, “what seems fine on the surface leads to so much dysfunction underneath.”
Ask people why they divorced and they try to shape clean, compact narratives, but in truth, the reasons are seldom tidy. “I’ve been divorced for four years now, and I still don’t have my elevator pitch,” says Christina Russo* of Greenwich, who was married to Robert*, an investment banker with whom she has four children. “Everyone says, ‘Why did you get divorced?’ And you want to have a sound bite, but it’s so complicated. It’s impossible to say we fell out of love, or whatever.”
Those we interviewed for this story cited all manner of reasons for the split—though what they mentioned were less “reasons” than sagas of love and sorrow tinged with bitterness. “I am one person who can say, when I got married, I really was in love, and my husband was in love,” Christina says. The distance slipped into their marriage when Robert began working very long hours. “I started to get angry, because he was just at work all the time. I was a single mom. And everyone said to me, ‘But he’s making all this money! That’s what men do! You should be happy!’ And I was like, ‘But that’s not what I wanted.’”
Robert’s career was speeding along though, and it proved impossible for him step off the gas pedal. Only then did Christina understand that their values were hopelessly mismatched. Her desire for physical intimacy faded away; even affectionate little gestures between them ceased. “What it came down to was, do you feel close enough so that you want to hold hands? The fact was we lost all our connection. The emotional connection was gone, then the physical connection was gone, too.”
That is the most typical of divorce stories. Here are snippets of others: Ted York’s* wife, Cheryl*, grew unhappy midway through their marriage, then announced she was in love with another woman. Liz’s husband fell into a clinical depression, the sad complexities of which rendered him a frustrating and unreliable partner. Travis Cole* says his ex-wife plunged their marriage into “permanent payback mode” for what he calls his youthful misdemeanors, like going out to dinner with old girlfriends. (He says he realized too late that she was wrestling with insecurities stemming from childhood abuse. We encountered several cases in which one or both partners brought unresolved traumas into the marriage.) Marina Strauss’s* husband floundered as a breadwinner, exposing character flaws—arrogance, dishonesty—that had read like swaggering confidence early in their relationship.
While nobody mentioned infidelity as a root cause of their divorce, it did prove the breaking point for two couples; for others, the suspicion of infidelity deepened existing fault lines. Two top-flight divorce lawyers we interviewed, Carole Orland and David Griffin of Rutkin, Oldham & Griffin, with offices in Westport and Greenwich, mentioned drinking, drugs and destructive personality traits like narcissism (a word that came up often in our reporting) as pervasive themes. A third top lawyer, Anthony Piazza of Piazza, Simmons & Grant in Stamford, said he’s seeing a lot of empty-nesters divorce—spouses who look at each other blankly when the children fly off.
Last year in Fairfield County, some combination of these and many other things undid more than 2,800 marriages—an average year for divorce in our towns.
How do we assess all the destruction? First, there’s the money. In this county of hedge funders, investment bankers and corporate titans, divorces costing more than $1 million are no longer exceedingly rare, and divorces that reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars are common. Then there are the divorces you don’t hear much about in Fairfield County—among “regular” couples just getting by, couples who can’t really afford to hire lawyers (but end up hiring them anyway), let alone afford to run two households on the same budget with which they ran one. For them, divorce is ruinous. When we asked Travis Cole, a nurse from Fairfield, to put a price tag on his divorce, he replies: “Well, I went into bankruptcy, let’s put it that way. Then we had to let the bank take the condo.”
Whatever one’s financial standing, says divorce coach Lisa Nkonoki, “It’s not just about money—it’s also about the human spirit.” In a particularly gothic case, an easy-going artist we’ll call Dylan Lawson* married a wealthy socialite who, he says, hindered his career until it went dormant. He still seems baffled by her desire to control him so completely, but the haste with which she bore their children and then booted him from the kingdom left him feeling suspicious and used. Worse, he says, she cleverly rigged the system to win sole custody while limiting him to brief, professionally supervised visits. (Dylan’s story has many strange facets, among them the phenomenon of “gaslighting,” or convincing someone they’re crazy. Two others we interviewed claim to be victims of it as well, so perhaps it is not so rare. Dylan’s case is extreme in that he accepted a diagnosis and its accompanying medications; he has since rejected both.)
“She took my career away and she took my kids away, and she threw some money at me,” Dylan says. “She really destroyed me in such a way that I would just cry myself to sleep every single night for months. Even now I can cry in a second. I think about my kids a certain way and I’m just in tears. My kids are my life.”
Since divorce stirs up tempests of rancor and volatility, it may seem impossible at times to find a civil way forward. “We worry about criminal court, but family court is where people kind of lose their minds,” says Nkonoki. “We are not looking at what happens to people, what we are putting them through, month after month, year after year, with these cases.”
“You know what shocks me: Do you know how many breakups, divorces and separations involve a person getting arrested, often falsely, on domestic violence charges?” Travis asks. “It’s crazy. A simple argument can lead to the police being called and a mandatory arrest.” In his own case, the police arrived at the scene of the argument to find Travis’s pregnant wife bleeding lightly from the nose (nosebleeds may occur frequently during pregnancy). “I got arrested immediately,” he says. “I got charged with Assault 3 and the risk of injury to a minor—I happened to be holding our son.” The charges were dropped when the story was sorted out “but the damage was done.”
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
A glossary of important legal terms you should understand when getting a divorce in Connecticut
1 Once your divorce is pending, automatic orders go into effect. These orders stipulate, among other things, that you can’t move out of state with your child; sell assets; change beneficiaries on insurance policies; evict a spouse from the house; or accrue unreasonable debt by borrowing money or using credit cards.
2 All fifty states in the U.S. are now no-fault states, meaning that you don’t have to prove your spouse is at fault—say, by adultery—to get a divorce. That is, neither party, in theory, can stop the other from divorcing. But we don’t want to make the process sound easy. A Greenwich wife says her husband is dragging his feet by every means at his disposal—filing frivolous motions and refusing to sign the court-recommended parenting agreement. This fall their case will go to trial, where a judge will at long-last make the final decision.
3 Connecticut, like most states, uses the equitable distribution system of asset apportionment. (A few states use the “community property” system: divide assets down the middle.) Equitable distribution says property belongs to the spouse who earned it, but will be divided fairly in a divorce. “Equitable” does not mean equal; rather, it’s a loose standard that weighs many factors, such as how long you’ve been married, whether you passed up a career to raise the children, and how well you’ll be able to support yourself after the divorce. In the famous case of the late Lorna Wendt, who sought half of her CEO husband Gary Wendt’s fortune as an equal partner in their marriage, “equitable” meant 20 percent plus alimony.
4 Alimony, money one spouse pays to support the other, is not awarded by any set formula in Connecticut. That means the divorcing couple will either agree on an amount or a judge will determine whether, and how much, alimony is paid.
5 Child support is calculated according to parents’ incomes; both parents might contribute to the total amount, but the parent with the higher income pays a proportionally greater share. In Connecticut, the payment scale ends at a combined income of $4,000 a week, so wealthy families have to extrapolate a percentage or find another way to agree on an amount.
The case of Marina Strauss, who is slogging through a toxic divorce, is especially disturbing. She tells of her husband, Walter*, getting dressed in his suit and pretending to go to work; the foreclosure on their house that he kept Marina in the dark about until it happened; the torrents of verbal abuse that left her dazed and unable to function. When she told him she wanted to leave, things devolved into “psychopath” territory. He tracked her movements by GPS, hacked into her messaging accounts, tried to convince others that she was suicidal or crazy, staged an injury to one of their children and called the police—which resulted in her arrest, complete with mugshot and restraining order. “This is not possible,” she remembers thinking while being put through the paces at police headquarters. She falls silent, still shocked at the memory. Then she bows her head and weeps.
Absurdly, Walter’s goal is to keep Marina from leaving, and he has bullied the children into the cause. “He would sit down with the kids and say, ‘If you don’t stop your mother, your life will be destroyed, nothing will ever be normal again. You’ve got to stop her or it’s going to be just as much your fault that she’s leaving.”
Though the assault case was dismissed and Marina won temporary custody of the children, she seems half-defeated as the process wears on. She looks at her beautiful family and sees that it is shattered. There is no money to fight over. But the question of custody hangs in the balance. Marina knows a custody battle would be ugly—destructive to all concerned—and she wonders if the greatest act of love she could bestow upon her children would be to let Walter have them. “He’s sort of mentally taking them away, anyway,” she says. “Maybe later they’ll…” she trails off.
COURSE OF ACTION
We have glimpsed how terribly wrong things can go. But one goal of this piece is to help those headed for divorce to negotiate its pitfalls with a clear understanding of the hazards that lie ahead. So, once you decide to divorce, you have three options: litigation, mediation and collaborative divorce. With each, the objective is to negotiate an agreement that both parties can live with on the main issues at stake—custody, assets, alimony and child support.
Litigation: This is the traditional option; you each hire lawyers and fight for best advantage. Adversarial by nature, this is the most realistic recourse for spouses who are intractably at odds. “When you’re getting divorced, the premise is usually that you haven’t been getting along,” Carole Orland says. “If there is mistrust there, or abuse there, or covertness there, I think it is rare that you can get people in those situations to sit down and work it through.”
The litigation process begins by filing a formal “complaint.” The one who files is the plaintiff, and the one who receives—the one who is “served”—is the defendant. An important point: From here on in, your divorce is a public matter. “I can go to the courthouse and get everything,” warns Lili Vasileff, a Greenwich-based financial mediator and the author of Money and Divorce: The Essential Roadmap for Mastering Financial Decisions. “But with mediation and collaborative [divorce], everything remains private, out of the public record, until your final agreement is submitted to the court.” (Some people choose to file at the outset even with collaborative and mediation, since doing so can speed the process.)
Chances are you will settle before your case goes to trial—most people would rather decide their own fate than leave it to a judge—but your lawyer must prepare diligently all the same, with discovery and depositions and possibly with forensic accountants, guardians ad litem (children’s lawyers) and psychotherapists. Litigation sometimes devolves into a flurry of motions, filed by either side, consisting of anything from frivolous gripes (she was late picking up the kids from soccer practice) to serious breaches (he stopped paying child support).
Nobody likes the litigation process. “It’s brutal,” says Lena Hill. “I was deposed twice. Both times my ex’s lawyer made me cry.”
But sometimes litigation is necessary—such as when one spouse is determined to punish the other, or “to win” at any cost. Orland has a case in which the marital estate is worth millions but the husband is battling over trifles: “I’m talking beyond pots and pans. I’m talking forks and knives. I’m talking napkins.” Of course, the cost of battling over these things far outstrips their monetary value.
Some litigate for their own personality-driven reasons, notes Lynda Munro, a retired judge who is now a member of the alternative dispute resolution and family law practices at Pullman & Comley, a large firm with an office in Stamford. We heard, for example, about a man who proved incapable of making important decisions during mediation, so his case went to trial. “Some folks need to hear any truth from a person in authority, from a black robe—and that happens in the courtroom,” Munro says.
Litigation is also the costliest. In our neck of the woods, divorce lawyers charge anywhere from $300 to $900 per hour. You’ll probably plunk down a retainer of as little as $1,000 or as much as $30,000, from which hourly fees and other charges are subtracted. Caveat: Higher fees might get you better lawyering but they hardly guarantee it. (If you’re truly unfortunate, you’ll hire a “churner,” a lawyer who makes extra work just to ramp up the bill.)
A good lawyer will, among other things, save you from yourself: She’ll keep you focused on the best interests of the children, she’ll rein in your expectations when they’re unrealistically high, and she’ll warn you off behavior that stirs the pot and thus drives up your bill. “I say to people all the time, ‘You can pay to educate your children or pay to educate my children,’” says David Griffin. “Don’t spend money on lawyers unnecessarily. Don’t have a fight just for the sake of having a fight.”
Mediation: “Discourage litigation,” Abraham Lincoln once wrote. “Persuade neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser—in fees, expenses, and waste of time.” Lincoln might as well have been promoting divorce mediation.
Mediation used to be the province of psychologists and marriage therapists, but over the past decade or two, lawyers, financial experts and retired judges have been adding it to their dockets. Anthony Piazza grew so tired of handling nasty, protracted divorces that he now shuns them, while his mediation practice flourishes. “A few years ago I had a couple in their eighties,” he says. “They were getting each other arrested. They came over here and started arguing, so we went to the back of my office and I pointed out the window to the courthouse. I said, ‘When you’re sick of that place, come on back.’ Eight months later they came back, and in three days we had an agreement.”
The two most amicable divorces we came across—Christina Russo’s and Liz Novick’s—used mediation. Two others, Travis Cole’s and Ted York’s, began with mediation and reached partial resolutions, but had to resort to lawyers and courts to address deadlocks: Travis’s ex is seeking a greater share of the custody, and Ted’s not-quite-ex is seeking alimony and a greater share of the assets. Even so, each says mediation provided clarity and structure as their marriages were falling apart. (Mediation might still require you to have a financial expert untangle assets, but the process won’t include the competing experts you sometimes see in litigation.)
Experts often contend that mediation is best suited to divorces with minimal conflict, since the usual practice is for the parties to sit down with a mediator and work through their issues together. Spouses who are not on civil terms? At the mediation table, they could easily take a match to the kindling that is their breakup, leaving the process in ruins.
But Lynda Munro points out that some mediators, herself included, conduct mediation separately, “like the Paris Peace Talks,” with the mediator as an authoritative go-between. This mode can accommodate less amicable divorces. “You had expectations going into the relationship, and when those expectations are crushed, it’s such an emotional wound that it’s not helpful to have the parties in the room together,” she says. “They become defensive, they don’t speak openly, they don’t think creatively.” (She will bring the spouses together for short periods, such as to discuss custody: “Everyone hears what the children’s needs are together, to remind them of the common purpose.”)
The agreement you reach in mediation is then presented to a judge and filed with the court. Mediators are not inexpensive: Ted’s charged $500 per hour, for example. But the process is often the least expensive and least stressful.
Collaborative Divorce (also called Collaborative Mediation): “More and more people—it’s always grassroots driven—are yearning for a better way to divorce,” Vasileff says. “They don’t want to hear the stories of where you scorched the earth and cut the house in half with a chainsaw.” Collaborative divorce, a sort of litigation-mediation hybrid, is the newest form to gain favor. You each hire an attorney—thus you have the comfort of an advocate—but there is also a mediator, typically a retired judge or an elder of the bar, and perhaps a financial expert on hand. “The unwritten rule is that you just kind of stay there until you get it done, or have a chance of getting it done, even into the wee hours of the morning,” says Orland. “The mediator doesn’t render a decision, but attempts to get the sides together within the context of what he or she knows is the likely result if you go to trial.”
Unlike litigation, collaborative’s posture is that of a team working toward a common goal. “If it doesn’t work out, those lawyers get out of the case,” Orland explains. “Then the parties start over by finding new lawyers to litigate their case.” That’s a good incentive: Nobody wants to spend a lot of time and money only to fall back to square one, with monumental new expenses awaiting. With at least three professionals working collaboratively, the process can be costly, but it is also speedy, meaning you could potentially save tens of thousands of dollars.
Theoretically, divorce in Connecticut can be easy. You can get a “non-adversarial” divorce in thirty-five days for almost no money if—here come the conditions—you’ve been married less than eight years, you have no children, you have no real estate and few assets, you have no company pension plan, no pending bankruptcy, and no restraining orders in force. That’s an extremely narrow cross-section of divorcing couples. (You can also get an expedited divorce if you and your spouse present your divorce agreement to the court and request a waiver of the mandatory ninety-day waiting period.)
Odds are your divorce won’t look anything like that. In a nutshell, your job is to cobble out a parenting plan—including a custody schedule and decisions about such matters as medical and extracurricular expenses—and a financial agreement, including alimony payments and child support. (You also have to take a six-hour parenting class, for $125.) That may sound like a short to-do list. But the process, whether you litigate or mediate, has a way of spreading out. “I had the most amicable divorce in the world, and it sucked for two years,” says Christina Russo. “When you’re married, it’s like a web. It’s so intricate, how your lives are interwoven. And pulling that apart—it’s sad and it’s destabilizing.”
Almost nobody can work out the agreements, particularly about money, on their own. You’ll need professionals to guide you through. Early on, your lawyer will want to know about any special issues at play: Is he abusing you? Does she have a drinking problem? Does he have a lover? How are the children doing? These issues might prove critical in how she handles the case.
Then you’ll do the laborious work of compiling a financial affidavit, a document that details how much you earn and spend, and what your assets and debts are. If you’re dishonest about your affidavit—say, you omit the secret penthouse in New York—you open yourself to charges of perjury. Anthony Piazza has hit upon a clause that discourages asset-hiding: “If you list an asset on your affidavit incorrectly, or you leave it off and we ever find out, your spouse gets it all. I don’t use it in every case, but in cases where my antenna goes up and I think, ‘This guy isn’t being honest,’ I put it in.”
One reason high-net-worth divorces can be so costly is that those exes can afford to fight. Families struggling to get by, however, can also find themselves locked in combat, with the bills spiraling out of control. In fact, spouses representing themselves are sharply on the rise in Connecticut. Is there any way you can save money? Yes, with a little luck. Here are three ideas:
PRO BONO HELP
Start by contacting Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut (800-453-3320, slsct.org), but know that your income must be very low for them to step in. You can also consult Connecticut Legal Aid Services in Stamford (203-348-9216), Bridgeport (203-336-3851), or ctlawhelp.org.
The court system offers family relations counselors at no cost; they are called in when you have been the victim of—or have been arrested for—family violence, and to help resolve parenting issues. The Family Services Office of the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division (CSSD) mediates divorces at no cost. The Family Services Office in Stamford can be reached at 203-965-5282, and the corresponding office in Bridgeport can be reached at 203-579-6513.
If you simply want to get a better understanding of the divorce process, consult jud.ct.gov or visit a courthouse library (in Stamford and Bridgeport), where a librarian can help direct your research. Email the librarians at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some divorces only get tougher after the judgment. The Judicial Branch offers an “intensive case management” service for intractable cases. The service is designed to reduce conflict and help parents collaborate. So far, the service has survived budget cuts, but space is limited to twenty cases per judicial district.
Assets can be legitimately baroque among moneyed couples. David Griffin reports that financial affidavits can run to sixty or seventy pages; some assets are so complex that an expert must be called in to ascribe an accurate value to them. “Let’s say it’s a private equity holding in a fund of funds in Europe, and you’re getting someone divorced a month before Brexit is announced. The value that you think it might be on one day might be very different six months later.”
Once the marital estate is established (it might take months) you proceed to negotiation. Ninety percent of couples agree on custody. Years ago, the wife was generally granted full custody (and lifetime alimony, a rarity now), but in these days of relative social equality parents usually settle on some manner of joint custody. Ted York’s is a fifty-fifty split. He and Cheryl use a fourteen-day template—sectioned in groups of five days and two days—that gives them each custody every other weekend. “I think we did really great work on that,” Ted says.
But they have not agreed on money. “She wants more than 50 percent of the assets and a ridiculous amount of alimony,” Ted says. “Even the mediator’s like, ‘Not going to happen.’” Where child support is awarded by a strict calculus, alimony is much looser, with many factors considered. But Ted says he doesn’t make much more than Cheryl does. “I’m confused and a little annoyed by her unwillingness to try to settle.”
So, they’re going to court.
THE TOXIC EXES
Does the system of divorce in Connecticut work well or poorly? This turns out to be a trick question. It can work well if both spouses are reasonable; poorly if just one of them is not; poorly if one of the lawyers is difficult; poorly if a judge makes a bad decision.
Lori McGuire*, a mother of two from New Canaan, is reeling from a financial trial against her doctor ex-husband, Edward*. Though she was awarded alimony, the judge ruled, devastatingly, that she had to pay her own legal fees even though she stayed home to raise the kids. The McGuires’ divorce tally stands at half a million dollars so far; Lori has changed lawyers twice and cannot afford another.
Now she faces the terror of a custody trial. (Usually, contested divorces involve either a financial dispute or a custody dispute; divorces that involve both are worst-case scenarios, nightmares that never seem to end.) Lori will go into court pro se—that is, representing herself—and face off against the experienced litigator that her husband hired. Adding insult to this situation, she says, she only ever wanted a reasonable outcome: half the assets, half the custody. “But he wanted everything.”
One grim truth about divorce is that it can leave a person who has no money utterly at sea. But Lori’s dilemma exposes a more specific complaint: that the breadwinner, usually male, has the advantage in the system, since the dependent operates from a position of weakness. She may find herself trying to pry assets and court-ordered support payments from ex-spouses long after the divorce is over, at considerable legal cost. “I found that filing [contempt] motions didn’t accomplish anything,” Lori says, “and they cost me a fortune.”
Carole Orland nods and says: “Some people are just intractable. For the most part, once somebody is in contempt, he or she takes it seriously. But there are some people who just don’t learn. Or don’t care. And that results in contempt after contempt after contempt.”
FISCAL PRESSURE ON COURTS
Connecticut’s fourteen family courts are greatly burdened. Each year, state residents file 11,000 to 12,000 dissolution cases, and within those cases thousands of matters great (he spent down our assets) and small (she sold his golf spikes) are contested. “There are cases where people file 300 or 400 motions,” Stamford-based attorney Anthony Piazza says, shaking his head. Thousands of post-divorce issues, meanwhile, are moving through family court at the same time. Because of Connecticut’s ongoing fiscal woes, lawyers tell us, there are fewer judges, fewer court reporters and fewer marshals, and so court dates are harder to get and waits at the courthouse are longer.
Elizabeth Bozzuto, the state’s chief administrative judge for family matters, admits the challenges are real. “We’re working harder with less,” she says. But family court is also more efficient than it used to be: “Ninety percent of our cases are gone within a year.” Family court bends over backwards to avoid trials, Bozzuto adds; indeed, Ted and Cheryl York* are scheduled for a pretrial hearing at which the judge will say, essentially, “This is how I would rule at trial, so consider agreeing along those lines.”
But Bozzuto says that for some, even this sort of benevolent prodding falls short. “With the chronically engaged, it doesn’t matter what we do.”
One strategy works well but is seldom employed, David Griffin says. “I’ve been in front of judges who—no exaggeration—heard the evidence and said to the judicial marshal, ‘Incarcerate this person.’ Right off the stand! And I’ll tell you, when that happens, the arrearage gets paid very quickly. It’s a high motivator.”
It’s the court system’s failure to respond to deeper wounds that most upsets Lori. She says Edward is alienating their children from her by telling them damaging lies—alienation being a huge divorce no-no. “His number one goal is to hurt me,” Lori says, echoing Marina Strauss’s case. “It’s very hard to know how to combat, because you don’t want to engage it, and nobody does anything to stop it.”
Children’s issues can sink divorces to the depths of misery. “As it is, when you tell your children you’re getting a divorce, it’s like throwing a grenade into their lives,” says Lena Hill. The mandated parenting class is designed to protect kids from the shrapnel. Liz Novick admits she went to the class with “a bad attitude” because so much of the instruction she knew awaited her—don’t trash-talk your spouse around the kids—seemed numbingly obvious. “But having taken the class, I would say everyone in that room, almost without exception, needed it. That was terrifying to me.”
According to Lori, her ex-husband has violated every tenet of their parenting agreement but has suffered no consequences. The guardian ad litem, she says, expresses concern but does nothing to address the problem. Almost every professional involved with the case has collected money and moved on, leaving Lori to sink in the quicksand. “I would love to blow up the entire system,” she says. “They’re a band of thieves, as far as I’m concerned.”
MOVING FORWARD Some divorces seem fated to be nightmares. It’s hard to imagine any advice that would have set those going through it on a different course. Yet for those divorces that are merely bad, we do have a few tips that might save you grief, time and money.
Treat your divorce as a business negotiation. Gather all the financial papers you can and try to figure out assets, income, debt and spending, so that you negotiate from a position of knowledge. Then figure out how you’re going to pay for the divorce. If you and your spouse are parting amicably, discuss setting up a divorce budget. A tone of transparency bodes well for the process ahead. If financial matters overwhelm you (or even if they don’t), consider investing in a session with a financial expert: They are far less costly than Fairfield County’s high-priced divorce lawyers.
Do research. Talk to friends. Interview prospective attorneys. “There are a lot of lawyers who know what they’re doing, but you need to have a good fit,” says Westport attorney Carole Orland. Questions to ask your prospective lawyer: Will you handle the divorce yourself or will you dish it off to someone else? How quickly will you return my calls? Do you practice mediation or collaborative divorce, and if so, will we explore those options? Finally, listen to your lawyer’s advice—but don’t be silent if your gut is sending a contradictory message. “Some of our best clients,” Orland says, “are clients who constantly challenge us, but in a constructive way.”
BE A GOOD CLIENT
“If you’re worried about the cost of divorce, look at yourself first,” says Lili Vasileff, the Greenwich-based financial mediator. “Your attorney is not your therapist. They are there to get a legal transaction executed for you.” Excessive hand-holding will only drive up the cost of your divorce. Stamford-based attorney Anthony Piazza sees it often: “Ten percent of my clients take up ninety percent of my time.”
KEEP EMOTIONS AT BAY
Easier said than done: What is divorce if not a storm of emotion? Still, “letting anger get in the way of good negotiation,” says Orland, is the most common error divorcing people make. Attorney David Griffin adds: “Allowing emotions to creep in can delay the process” at considerable cost to you. And if you’re hung up on past injustices, you’re not properly focused on building a healthy future, he says. “I tell people all the time, ‘If you drive the car looking in the rearview mirror, you are going to have an accident.’”
Failure to have reasonable expectations is a second common error. You won’t get more assets or alimony because you are in some sense “the victim.” “People assume that if someone’s having an affair, the court’s going to be the moral majority,” divorce coach Lisa Nkonoki says. Also, lawyers caution against comparing your settlement results with those of your friends. Griffin says: “Some clients will say, ‘Oh, my friend told me that she got alimony for twenty years. Why am I only getting alimony for ten years?’” The answer is that alimony is only part of the picture. The one who got less alimony may, for instance, have been married for a briefer period or gotten a greater share of the assets.
LEAVE THE KIDS OUT OF IT
Your job is to reassure your children that you love them. Take care not to speak negatively to them about your spouse, and not to let them overhear you complaining about your divorce. As it is, “The first profile of a ‘good’ divorce is that the parents subjugate their own needs to the children’s needs,” Griffin says. “Parents who achieve quick and fair parenting plans for their kids set a great tone.” And those who set a negative tone can inflict lasting scars. “There are numerous psychological studies that show that children of divorce—when the divorce creates turmoil and chaos—those children do not do as well,” Griffin continues. “When parents are fighting over them, kids sometimes translate that into, ‘Ooh, I’m the reason Mom and Dad are arguing.’ That weighs very heavily on them.”
WORK OUT THE “WHAT IFS”
Something that can happen after divorce is for the primary custodial parent to move away with the children. If that situation arises, you might find yourself back in court. “There’s a winner and a loser,” says Piazza. An option is to put a non-relocation clause in your parenting agreement. There is some question about whether such clauses can be legally enforced, but Connecticut will look at the issue in terms of “the best interest of the child.”
FOLLOW LIZ’S RULE
The most succinct advice we heard came from Liz Novick*: “Don’t be an asshole.” We would print those four words in bright text if we could, since they constitute a golden rule for divorcing couples. “The problem is, both people have to do that in order for it to work,” she adds. In practical terms, Liz’s rule might mean not going for full custody when you spend eighty hours a week on Wall Street. It might mean not going after a disproportionate share of the assets. It might mean treating your ex with decency. Because, if you have children together, your family is never “over.” It’s just reconfigured, says Griffin. The goal should then be to maintain civility, since you will always be parents to your kids, and you will want to share their milestones together.
A FINAL WORD ON LENA
Lena Hill decided to fight the validity of the prenup she signed before her wedding; three years later, she lost. Unsurprisingly, the prenup left her at a severe financial disadvantage, far worse off than any usual divorce agreement would have left her.
But Lena lives in a pretty house on a quiet street and has a majority of the custody. When the divorce was finalized, last year, “it was like a cloud lifted off me,” Lena says. “It made me so much stronger than I ever thought I could possibly be, and I would do it over in a second, because it brought me to where I am now.
“So I always say, bottom line, when people operate out of fear, which is why a lot of women stay in these marriages, it’s never the right choice—to not leave the marriage. You’re so unhappy, but you’re afraid of the process and what it’s going to be like [for you and] for your kids. But you’ll be okay, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”