Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Park Avenue Matrons Living Under Bridges

Last Monday, New York's own DPC wrote a moving account in New York Social Diary about the disasters that befell a moneyed couple --Meet the Gotrocks. The very wealthy husband, apparently from a storied family, not only got his wife's closest friend pregnant with a daughter the "friend" had longed for, and then ran off with said "friend," but also bankrupted his wife and left her to bring up their two sons without any means, leaving their house up for grabs in a specially pre-rigged foreclosure as a kicker. The new couple, so craftily constituted, eventually got their cruel comeuppance, but there are some things about this story and others like it that should be re-examined whenever possible and kept in the limelight.

First, it's not that rare in America for a woman to get badly cheated and at the same time be thoroughly and publicly villified in the course of a divorce, whether or not she was to blame for the collapse of the marriage in the first place. How badly it turns out seems to be predetermined in inverse proportion to the wealth of her husband, with no serious competition from any other factor or quarter. Secondly, whatever the husband's or wife's wrongdoing, the loss of property and support usually devolves on the wife, even in her ongoing role as a mother, and with absolutely no concern for the children's actual suffering (as opposed to their suffering as measured by professional obfuscators in court). This is a huge miscarriage of justice which should have no place in a civilized society.

The part of this scenario that's getting glossed over is that this business of macerating women in artificially created financial woes during their childbearing years is deliberately carried out by professionals who are astonishingly well-compensated for pulling it off. Most men, especially ones divorcing for the first time, have no clue how to destroy their former wives without professional help. The point is, though, that husbands can get that help if they pay for it, and that women can't get the same help, even if they do pay for it. Unfortunately, the convention of saying that this party or that did such and such a thing to the other, when actually his or her lawyer or both lawyers together did all of it, covers up the fact that much of the conflict supposedly going on between husbands and wives during a divorce is in fact a conflation of hostilities instigated and carried out by their attorneys -- whenever the attorneys see an opportunity to rack up more billable hours. Somewhere in the middle of this, the wife becomes the one everyone wants to squeeze into a corner and drain of all resources. If she's a stay-at-home mother, she may become indigent. If she's an investment banker or a partner at a leading law firm, she ends up holding down a position of responsibility while living under seige, and often supporting her Ex and his lover or lovers as well as the children, whether she has custody of the children or not.

Nothing visible in the statutes could support the deliberate impoverishment of former wives who are also mothers in the process of bringing up children. In fact, the whole game I'm talking about is designed specifically to circumvent exactly those provisions and statutory guidelines (e.g., see DRL 236 by searching findlaw at the link to the right, above) that are designed to protect women and children in these situations. Getting around these statutes is taken for granted, though, as in all other matters, and it happens to families because there are whole cadres of parasitic professionals out there, who may not be up to speed when it comes to commercial litigation, but who make a brisk living anyway, paying their own hefty mortgages and sending their children to college, all by means of making hay on the very personal, indeed the sexual misfortunes of others.

I remember the late, mercurial Justice Lewis R. Friedman, who did so much in an effort to straighten things out during his time on the matrimonial bench at the NY State Supreme Court , addressing a gathering of matrimonial lawyers at the New York Bar Association back in 1996.


Judge Friedman urged the vast and jam-packed room full of matrimonial lawyers to bear in mind that "all these people did not build their lives, their careers, their homes and their investment portfolios just to hand everything over to you." That same evening, the youngest judge then on the State Court bench, also taking her turn in Matrimonial, as all the judges in State Court must, admonished attorneys not to bring so many junk motions before her about who was to have custody of Young Timmy (if I recall correctly) over Thanksgiving and Hannukah -- just to make another quick $15K. (Back then, in the good old days, that was it.) She objected to the lawyers calling her at home exactly when she was trying to get a turkey out of the oven, just to show their clients they had access. This was doing nothing, she said, for the child who was supposedly the object of all the frenzy.The attorneys seemed to listen respectfully, yet I noticed that, actually, the most salient thing under consideration for most of them seemed to be how each one who rose to speak in response pronounced pendente lite. The fancy lawyers identified themselves by ostentatiously using the "correct" or nominally Anglo-Latin version (pen-den-té leeté), while others resorted to anything upto and including "Pan-Dante Lite" (as in Coors). Afterwards, the panel moderator, a well-known matrimonial lawyer, left in a limo with his wife, a bestselling author -- he in black tie and she in slinky couture -- apparently for a long and festive evening that lay ahead of them.

Mark Green, who is running for Attorney-General this year, helped reform the system somewhat several years ago, resulting in a few refinements to improve attorney-client relations, but there’s obviously still a long way to go. It's been a while, too, since we heard from Karen Winner, the journalist who wrote the book called "Divorced from Justice."

A few years ago, one brave woman put up a valiant fight against this callousness and debauchery, despite a stream of assorted professionals -- lawyers and court-appointed guardians and a host of other players -- charging her outrageous sums willy-nilly, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars each, in the course of her divorce from her billionaire husband. Her husband, who had a team of faithful lawyers on auto-pilot, hardly had to lift a finger to make lawyers on both sides dance to his tune, or indeed to compose and perform arias in his praise in court and to the press. This woman stood her ground, no matter how arcane and tangled the game became. Of course, as a result, she was thoroughly reviled in the popular media on completely separate topics of chatter, by folks who may well have known less than nothing about the laws that were being sidestepped in her personal debacle. Even so, the whole cabal didn't manage to wreck her life, despite taking her for untold amounts of cash, messing up her finances, and allowing such untrue things to be written and said about her in court papers and at hearings that those assertions themselves would have been grounds for separate lawsuits, had they been shared with the general public. These lawyers never expected her to go underground or become an activist, but that is what she did do and what she did become! She writes to say that this site and this organization are the ones to watch.

My own novel solution to the problem, which was to go pro se, took me on a path that, strange to say, has brought me some personal satisfaction, adequate protection, and frequent moral vindication, though not a lot of money. Even this is not available to most women. The least I can do for others is make what I've learned in the process generally known, and I am figuring out how to do it, even while I tackle more of the same BS...

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