Divorce Corp. – A Perfect Storm
A movie was released this past Friday, January 10, in select theaters around the country called Divorce Corp.. Divorce Corp. is an expose on Family Courts in the United States and paints a frightening picture of Family Court “Justice”.
In the nearly 22 years I have been a practicing attorney, over half of which has been devoted exclusively to the practice of Family Law, I have seen personal family problems transformed into family tragedies through the divorce process. Here are a few examples:
- A 14 year old boy committed suicide because he was not allowed visitation with his father.
- An 18 month marriage is currently going on 3 years of litigation with legal fees in excess of $75,000.
- Two diametrically opposed rulings by two separate judges in one case based upon the exact same set of facts.
- A 67 year old retired man ordered to pay $4,300 per month FOREVER to his former Wife due to a technicality found in the divorce agreement by her lawyer. Wife had waived alimony in her divorce agreement and received 2.5 million dollars of cash from her property division.
How can these kind of things happen? In my judgement there are several different factors at play, all of which combine to create a perfect storm of chaos and perceived injustice. Here are my thoughts:
First and foremost: It’s us- the lawyers. People come to me with their most serious and personal problems. I can choose to work with my clients in a way that helps them achieve their goals in a calm and rational manner, or I can fan the flames of the dispute (and thereby increase my billable hours). A vast majority family law practitioners chose to “fan the flames” in my personal opinion.
Second: Ineffective docket management system. In South Carolina no judge is assigned to a set of cases (a “docket”) and no other person (i.e. court clerk) is responsible for making sure cases proceed through the legal system in an efficient manner. Many times, in fact, cases seem to be suspended in perpetuity.
The current system can appear random and without a clear purpose. Virtually every time a litigant appears before a judge it is for the first time. A Judge never gets to know the parties and become familiar with the issues between them. The parties, if struggling in the process, never gain the confidence that our legal system can provide them with clear, reasoned rulings based upon a complete understanding of the issues between them.
Third: Fault. Proving legal fault (adultery, habitual drunkenness, physical cruelty) fuels litigation. Adultery is by far the most common ground. If proven, the offending spouse is barred from ever receiving alimony, regardless of fault committed by the other party. In other words, Husband can be a crack smoking, adulterous wife beater, but if Wife has sex outside the marriage just one time, she will be forever barred from receiving alimony.
The financial rewards to those with an alimony obligation who can put “adultery” on their spouse is obvious. Lawyers are paid great sums of money and often create great suffering within a family in order to get the evidence necessary to prove an adultery case.
So, what can be done?
- People must demand that the legislature reform the Family Court system.
- End FAULT as a legal basis for divorce.
- Judges should be assigned to, and responsible for, a set of cases (a docket) that they will work with from beginning to end.
- Lawyers should not be permitted to file lawsuits in divorce, excepting in cases involving the most dire circumstances, without first attempting to resolve the matter in a different dispute resolution process. If tort reform is good enough for doctors and insurance companies, why then is it not good enough for the families in our communities suffering these problems?
- Lawyers need to establish new ethical guidelines tailored specifically for lawyers who want to practice in the Family Court. Zealous representation in a criminal defense or an injury case is a completely different ethical standard than what is required in the Family Court. The new ethical standard for Family Court practitioners must place the welfare of the family above the desire for a lawyer to achieve a “win”.
- Lawyers who want to practice in Family Court should be certified by the South Carolina Supreme Court. Divorce is complicated stuff! A lawyer practicing Family Law must have a complete and precise education of all the varied legal, psychological and financial aspects of divorce. Lawyers should also know how to draft accurate, clear agreements that are focused on the welfare of the entire family while also providing a framework to avoid and/ or resolve future problems between the parties as they may arise in the years after the legal case has ended.
People in other countries think that the way we resolve domestic relations matters is crazy. I think it is crazy, too. All things change, and the Family Court system will eventually change, so why not us and why not now?