“I’ve never been divorced before,”said the thin man sitting across the desk from me. His dark narrow eyes darted back and forth as he nervously sipped the bottled water my receptionist had given him.  He sank into one of the two wing-back chairs in my office. “I don’t know anything about it.  I have a million questions.”

In my line of work as a divorce lawyer I meet all kinds of people. I tried to put the thin man at ease. I put my fingers together in a church steeple, closed my eyes halfway, and leaned back in my burgundy leather office chair in my best Perry Mason imitation. “Well I’ve been divorced twice, so ask me your questions.”  I then proceeded to give him the following answers to his questions one by one.

Question 1.  I had an affair.  Am I going to lose everything in the divorce? 

Adultery gives your spouse grounds for divorce, not the right to 100% of the house, cars, 401(K), and everything else.  Jointly owned properties are divided equally.  The judge can make a marital award to make sure the division is fair.  In determining the marital award, the judge considers several factors.  One of these is who was at fault in the termination of the marriage.  The judge can also make adjustments for any marital funds you have spent on the affair.

Question 2.  Will the court take the children away from me because I cheated?

Adultery may make you a bad spouse but it does not necessarily make you a bad parent.  In Davis v. Davis, 280 Md 119, 372 A.2d 231 (1977), the Maryland Court of Appeals said

Whereas the fact of adultery may be a relevant consideration in child custody awards, no presumption of unfitness on the part of the adulterous parent arises from it; rather it should be weighed, along with all other pertinent factors, only insofar as it affects the children’s welfare.

The court looks at what is in the best interests of the children, not what is in the best interests of the parents.

Question 3.  Can My Spouse Get a Divorced if I Don’t Agree?

While it takes two people to get married, it only takes one to get divorced.   If you don’t want a divorce, you can slow down the process, but a spouse determined to get a divorce can get one.

Question 4. Do I Have to Have a Lawyer to File for Divorce?

It is not a requirement that you hire a lawyer for your divorce.  The Maryland courts have published divorce forms on the Internet and there is a self-help desk at the Montgomery County, Maryland, Courthouse.  We have do-it-yourself divorce help on this website and we have published self-help divorce books.  However, divorce cases can get complicated quickly.  If your case involves child custody, alimony, real estate, retirement funds or other assets, we recommend you hire a lawyer.

Question 5.  Does the Mother Always Win Custody?

In the old days many judges followed the Tender Years Doctrine which presumed that mothers were the better care taker for young children.  Today, however, the standard is best interests of the children.  Many jurisdictions, like The District of Columbia presume that joint custody is in the best interests of the children.

Question 6.  Can a Husband Get Alimony?

Today, there are many cases where the wife makes more money than the husband.  In those cases, husbands are entitled to the same rights as wives including the right seek alimony.

Question 7.  How Much Is All This Going to Cost?

In most cases of a long marriage, the judges in Maryland, Virginia and DC will divide marital assets equally, but they are not required to.  If you make a lot more than your spouse, or your spouse is ill or requires some training to get back in the workforce, you will probably have to pay alimony.  The judge decides the duration and amount.   Once custody and alimony are determined, you can use online calculators to determine child support.  You may have to pay all or a portion of your spouse’s attorney fees as well as your own.

 *  *  * 

The thin man sighed and said, “Thank you.  It’s not what I wanted to hear but I feel better knowing than not knowing.  I want you to be my lawyer.  What’s the first step?”

“Sign my retainer agreement and pay my retainer,” I replied as I pushed the document across the desk and held out my Mont Blanc fountain pen.  “I’ll start working on your case immediately.

 

It’s graduation time!  Caps will soon be flying as a new crop of graduates join the work-a-day world. My youngest graduates from high school this year. Time for commencement speakers to encourage and offer advice for new graduates.

I remember a lawyer spoke at my graduation from law school. He told us that while we fantasized about the luxurious life of a lawyer, the truth is that we didn’t know how good we had it as students. We would soon be longing for those bygone days when we had no court deadlines, client demands, irritating opposing counsel, and judges overruling our objections.

My first day of starting work as a lawyer, a seasoned attorney expressed a similar sentiment. He said, “You guys have it made. This is the richest  you’ll ever be in your life. No mortgages, no wives, and no children.”

I haven’t been asked to speak to a graduating class, but if I ever am, I would try to pass along some tips for their first job, like this:

 1.  Ask questions.

Your boss will give you assignments and tasks. The instructions will not be clear.  My niece interned in my office. Her first day in the office, I was meeting with a client. I called my niece on the intercom and asked her to bring two coffees to my office. She told me later that she had never made coffee before and didn’t know how to work the coffee machine. Now she has a PhD.

When I clerked for the Public Defender in law school, I was sitting next to him at counsel’s table taking notes, when turned to me abruptly and whispered urgently in the middle of a trial and said, “Run back to the office and draft a motion to suppress evidence.” That was my first motion and I had no clue how to draft it. That’s something they don’t teach you in law school. I was saved by Marjorie, the long-time secretary, who calmly pulled up an old one on her word processor and changed the names. Find the “Marjorie” in your organization and make friends with them.

Tom was the draftsman assigned to me when I worked as a chemical engineer at P&G. I designed, on paper, a tank to hold Toluene, which is a flammable liquid chemical used in making soap. I used pressure, volume, humidity, and temperature in my equations to calculated the size of the tank needed. But it was Tom who told me about the quick-connect flanges that would help the truck drivers load the tank so they wouldn’t be cursing the engineers who designed it. They didn’t teach that in engineering school.

The guys at the P&G plant in Hamilton, Ontario, wanted an air pressure line to deliver a soap making slurry to them so they would not have to move it across the plant in wheelbarrows. I designed a system that would do the job theoretically according to my equations. But again, it was Tom, who pulled out the blueprints for the plant to make sure there was room for me to run the pipes.

2.  Make a To Do List Each Morning.

I had a great boss at P&G. He was a quintessential engineer. When he assigned a job to me, he would pull out a little blue-green sticky pad, and in a very log key, calm manner, make a neat numbered list of the tasks that needed to be completed.

If you’re good, you will soon find yourself overwhelmed with too much to do. I had a paralegal who was very good at her job. But she suffered because she always wanted to give everything 100%. Perfection became the enemy of results.

Don’t lose sight of the 80/20 rule. That is 80% of the value lies in 20% of the things. So if you have a list of 10 things to do today, and you accomplish the two most important tasks, you have finished 80% of your work. The rest is out-plant. Out-plant means try to delegate it to someone else.

3.  Attack Your Work. 

You can learn things from bad bosses. One of the meanest bosses I ever had taught me this. He would call me at home about a contract of tax issue I was working on. He didn’t just work, he attacked his work, with a vengeance until it was completely defeated. We all have those projects that we just don’t want to do.

Try this. I take the case file and put it in the center of my desk. I clean everything else off my desk. Then I sit on my hands and do nothing else for 20 minutes. At the end of the 20 minutes, I attack the file. It works for me.

4.  Get Your Points on the Scoreboard. 

I recommend you keep a log of the projects you work on and the completion dates. You can  turn the log into a memo at the end of each month to give to your boss as a “progress report.”  Your boss is usually not aware of everything you are doing. It is important that you not only score points, but that your points get on the scoreboard so everyone sees them.

5.  One Word.

My high school commencement speaker was Scott Zimmerman, a local disk jockey on the radio. Scott started his speech by saying he was going to give the graduates one word that would be the secret to success in whatever they wanted to accomplish. At the conclusion of the speech he said he would now reveal that one word. At his signal, two students unfurled a huge banner that had one word written across it.  That one word was “UGOTTAWANA”.

 

When you negotiate or mediate divorce settlements for a living like I do, sooner or later you get to a closed door. We call that an impasse.  Both parties grit their teeth, cross their arms, and dig in their heels. Further progress seems impossible.

I don’t have dynamite or a magic wand to open that door to get past a divorce settlement impasse. But I do have a couple of tricks I learned from Alice.

“Alice: I simply must get through!
Doorknob: Sorry, you’re much too big. Simply impassible.

Alice: You mean impossible?

Doorknob: No, impassible. Nothing’s impossible.”

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Shrink the Divorce Case Impasse Down to Size

I just finished a divorce case that was too big.  There were too many issues to keep track of.  The disputes included temporary and permanent alimony, the country club membership, the house, utilities, the trust account, the IRAs, the 401(k)s, the bank accounts, the paramour, and the incomes and businesses owned by each party.  Moreover, everything was interrelated. Once you thought you had nailed down one dispute that caused an issue in another item.

How did Alice get through the impassable door that was too small for her?  She drank a potion and grew smaller.  She shrank her problem down to size.

When there are too many issues in a case, I think of Alice drinking that potion to grow smaller. I try to reduce a ten foot stack of issues to one number  — with a dollar sign in front of it.

I put everything we can agree on in the first paragraphs of the agreement. Then I put everything else in one paragraph as one number with a dollar sign in front of it. Reducing everything to one number sometimes works wonders. The parties are better able to bargain to a number they both can live with, and roll their many grievances into that one number, instead of squabbling about every slight during their marriage.

Break the Case Into Separate Pieces

Sometimes opening the door to break a divorce settlement impasse requires a different approach. My client wants custody of his children. His ex-wife wants to keep custody.  Tensions are high and this seems like an impossible impasse.

But nothing is impossible. You can eat an elephant if the pieces are small enough. I prefer the image of emptying the ocean one teaspoon at a time.

Let’s ask Alice. She finds a key on a table near the door, shrinks down to the right size, and finds that she has left the key on the table and is too small to reach it. Then she finds a cake that she eats and that causes her to grow inordinately tall.  She grabs the key and then drinks the liquid to become small again.

She has broken her problem into smaller pieces.

In the custody case, we started breaking the custody down into separate pieces like school, work, medical care, religion, homework, discipline, baby sitters, tv and video game schedules. Then we broke down the time-sharing schedule into weeks, days, hours, summers, holidays and vacations. It took a lot of time, but we were able to settle this case one piece at a time.

The next time you find yourself at an impossible door remember to ask Alice.

President-Elect Biden calls for us to try to understand each other.

I just got off  the phone with a friend who voted for President Trump. I am trying to understand why.

My friend does not wear protective masks because he says that physics proves a mask will not stop the Covid virus. He says most experts agree with this. I do not believe he is correct.

He thinks that only 15,000 Americans have died from the Covid virus and that hospitals make more money if they characterize deaths as caused by Covid. I think that almost 250,000 have died from Covid and hospitals do not misreport the numbers to make more money from Covid deaths.

I told him that we can take some time now to sort out the facts, determine the truth without political spin, and come to some mutual understandings. He doesn’t think so. He thinks people are inherently bad. I think everyone is trying their best to be good.

There is a wonderful book called City by Clifford D. Simak. It takes place in the future and is a series of  stories told around campfires by dogs who were given the power of speech by an extinct creature, Man. One story is about a message, that when read, causes you to instantly understand another person.

Imagine what it would be like if such a passage existed.

You will be able to have a pleasant Thanksgiving this year, even if you invite your crazy uncle.

Democrats and Republicans will understand each other. Compromises will be made. Deadlock will be unblocked. Congress will get to work on bipartison solutions to the pandemic, health care, the economy, criminal justice reform, and infrastructure.

Judges would understand what lawyers were telling them. Opposing counsel will suddenly become reasonable. Litigants will no longer need the courts to decide disputes.

Men and women will understand each other. Truce will be declared in the war between the sexes. Arguments will end. Spouses will stop getting divorces.

“If  you can pay for your sign the first year and your rent the second year, then you’re a success.”
— Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr.’s father to his son

I blew the dust off the half-moon shaped stained glass framed in walnut. After 30 years of paying for marble, glass and brass, we have decided to give up our physical law firm offices at 1117 New Hampshire Avenue due to the pandemic and become a virtual law firm.

The stained glass is the transom that stood over the door of my first office. I commissioned a local artist to fill the half-moon with “1117” in fanciful shades of blue and green. That was the address on New Hampshire Avenue.

It was love at first sight. It was a three-story brick townhouse painted grey — the only one left standing on the block – which used to have rows of them. The others been torn down to make way for restaurants, apartment buildings, an office building, a hotel, and a parking lot. There were steps in front leading up to a red door with a glass window and half-moon shaped transom. Inside the front door there was a small tiled hallway for taking off your coat and then another door that led to the parlor room.

The parlor had high ceilings, wood floors which we covered with fake Persian rugs, a large bay window in front,  a carved wooden fireplace mantel that caught your eye and went from floor to ceiling with a built in mirror above it. We filled this room with furniture, green ferns, and for an eccentric touch, an old wooden barrel full of fancy canes and swords. We painted the parlor walls a dark green and wallpapered above the wainscoting with broad orange and cinnamon stripes. We stationed our receptionist at a desk in this room.

You entered the second room through a large open archway framed in dark wood. There was a stair case to the second floor on the right as you entered. But this room held a surprise. The wall on the left encroached into the room so that the second room was not as wide as the first.

Knocking on the wall made a hollow sound.  So we drilled a hole and looked inside. There was a magnificent staircase with a built-in bench behind the wall carved with the same wood and in the same ornate style as the fireplace mantel in the first room. We took out the stair case on the right and opened up the antique staircase on the left.

A  huge wood pocket door separated the third and last room. This was my office, my sanctum sanctorum, my fortress of solitude. Here I crafted the contracts and corporate minutes that commemorated in writing the deals of businessmen for the sake of good order. And here I drafted the complaints and petitions to enforce those contracts or seek damages or defend against the same depending on who hired me. 

I decorated it with law books, oriental statues, and plants. I placed a sleek desk in the center of the room. It had two chrome trestles for a base and a black marble slab for a top. There were two flower-patterned wingbacks in front of my desk in which clients could sink, sheltered from their legal troubles, and protected by the wide wings of the chairs and the strong arms of their lawyer.

“Old too soon,
Smart too late.”
— Mike Tyson

I was on the phone with an old friend of mine when he remarked that people who wore masks to fight the Coronavirus were stupid.  I told him that I was wearing a mask.  That started a debate over the size of molecules and how porous cloth was.  We each recited facts and quotes from our favorite television news channels and the Internet.

Just the Facts

I argued with my friend that there are basic facts we all agree on.  For example, I told him, we all agree that a golf ball is round.  Otherwise we would be unable to communicate.

“Is a golf ball round?” he rejoined.  “Look closely and you will see it has little dimples in it.  And what if I called it a cube?  Would it still be round?”

What is the truth?

I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, went to church every Sunday, and learned about how George Washington could not tell a lie.  And how Abraham Lincoln walked a mile to return three cents change to a shopkeeper.

I became a lawyer, swore to live by the Code of Ethics, act as an officer of the court, show candor toward the tribunal, avoid even the appearance of impropriety, walk far from the edge of the slippery slope, and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (unless it was told to me in confidence by a client).

My word is my bond. I expect everyone else to do what they say and keep their agreements. If not I will turn my back on them, excommunicate them from my circle of friends, and sue them for breach of contract and specific performance.

Upon Reconsideration

But my conversation with my friend had me thinking about truth and lies. Have I been too harsh in my judgment of others? Too harsh in my sentences? Too intolerant of appeals? Too rejecting of rehabilitation?

The people I banned from my life had both good qualities and bad qualities. I had not spoken to my old friend for 30 years over a disagreement we had. However, when I was spending too many hours at work, overweight, and headed for a heart attack, it was my old friend who dragged me up to the track and made me join the track club.

People come with good and bad qualities – even you and I.  If you can find a way to protect yourself from the bad part, short of banishing them from your life, maybe you can continue to benefit from the good part.

 

Ms. Moriarty produced her client’s tax returns a week later. When I entered his office, Holt was looking at them with a magnifying glass he kept in his desk drawer to look for clues in the fine print.

“Ah, Dr. Wright, I think we have solved this case. It seems there was a good reason for holding back the wife’s tax returns. I had several hypotheses going. Among them was speculation that she was getting income as gifts or trust funds from her Daddy or Granddaddy. But it turns out there are no trusts or gifts.”

“Then what is the solution, pray tell, Holt?”

Holt made a steeple with his hands and said, “When you have eliminated all other possibilities, the one that remains, no matter how improbable, is the correct solution.”

“So what is the correct solution?” I asked.

“Elementary, my dear Wright.”

Holt handed me the magnifying glass and the wife’s 2019 tax return. She had filed separately from the husband. The return listed her occupation as Software Architect. Holt  told me she was employed by Apple. Then Holt pointed at the line for her income:  $250,000.

“She makes more than he makes!” I uttered excitedly.

The wife dropped her alimony claim the next day.

 

 

 

”Fairly new attorney although in her 30s. Used to be a  paralegal and decided to become a lawyer. Teaches paralegal classes at the community college.” Holt proclaimed to me. “She’ll learn. She just needs some seasoning.”

“You deduced that from the phone call?” I asked.

“No, I Googled her.”

Holt started flipping through the case file on his desk. “Where the devil did she get the husband’s income? I don’t remember giving it to her. Ah, here it is. It’s in his tax return. But she used his 2019 return and she did not deduct his $57,000 in business expenses.”

The next day, Holt scanned and emailed the husband’s documents to Moriarty with a request that she send reciprocal documents from her client. Moriarty said she would.

Instead she sent a draft Consent Order under which the husband would pay the wife’s living expenses plus insurance until the trial. She said that since the husband had not provided any proof of assets before the marriage, the wife was asking for half of everything.

She declared this was her last offer and that the husband could either sign it by the end of the week, or she would, as they say, see him in court.  She added that she now doubted a settlement could be reached after the last telephone call.

I watched as Holt attacked his computer keyboard  like a mad piano player with fingers flying in all  directions at once.

Draft No. 1: Dear Professor Moriarty:  You never asked for statements prior to the marriage. They are not the subject of our discussion. Besides, your client is well aware that mine did not come to the marriage penniless.

“No, strike that.”  He started again.

Draft No. 2:  Professor Moriarty: Responding only to those parts of yours that move the case forward…

“No, I will rephrase.”

Draft No. 3: Professor Moriarty: Attached you will find statements from my client’s accounts which predate the marriage. I cannot advise my client regarding your alimony proposal until I receive your client’s tax returns and therefore am unable to meet your deadline. Sincerely yours, Sterling Holt

I have always admired the way Holt’s brilliant and somewhat eccentric mind works as draft by draft he drained blame, ego and drama from his reply.  The resulting correspondence was lean, purposeful and business-like.

I caught up with Holt at his office at 221B Billiard Street, where his secretary, Ms. Hobson said he was expecting me. The office was well-appointed in a traditional style with leather, brass and mahogany accoutrements. There were Jade treasures from the Orient hidden among the books behind the glass and wood of his bookcase. The red and blue rug was from Tibet. The chess set was ready for the first move.

I sank into one of the two wingback client chairs as Holt spoke on the phone and typed on his computer at same time.

“It seems my new client’s marriage to the daughter of a well-known politician is not working out.” Holt had the habit of starting his sentences halfway through his thoughts. Which was why he needed me perhaps, to untangle the story.

Holt had just been hired, by email and telephone exchanges, to represent a Mr. LeStrange, successful investment advisor, in a divorce. The marriage had lasted three years and while  there were no children, there were allegations of a mistress. The wife wanted 110% of the husband’s income and assets, although she would settle for half her monthly livi expenses and half of the assets.

Holt rang up; the opposing counsel, one Marion Moriarty. “This is Holt.” he said.  “I’m representing LeStrange.  Just calling to introduce myself and see if it is possible to settle this case.”

“Yes, it is possible although your client is an adulterer and abandoned my client and has paid none of her expenses since deserting the family home.  I’ll need copies of the husband’s tax return and statements for his bank, stock and retirement accounts.”

She also requested that the husband indicate his good faith by paying for the wife’s expenses, while the parties negotiated a final settlement. Her expenses included country club dues, gym membership, manicures, and clothing.

“How did you arrive at the temporary alimony amount?” Holt inquired.

“I used the guidelines.” responded Moriarty.

“And what incomes did you use?” asked Holt.

“$150,000 for the husband, and $40,000 for the wife.”

“And where did you get the husband’s income?” Holt asked her.

“You gave it to me.”

“And the wife’s income?”

“That’s her 2020 income for the year to date.” said Moriarty.

“So you used $80,00 for the wife’s income for the whole year?”

“Yes, of course.”

Holt raised an eyebrow. “Temporary support is for necessities, not country club dues,” he said.

Moriarty replied. “I’ve written articles about this. The judge will maintain the status quo.”

Holt rejoined, “The person who cites herself never lacks for authority.”

Moriarty hung up and the line went dead.

An Honest Lawyer Works HereIt is not a compliment to say a lawyer has a “sharp practice.” It does not mean that he is the sharpest pencil in the drawer or that he is well-dressed.

I first heard that term when I clerked for the public defender during my final year of law school. I asked the public defender what it meant. He told me it was a lawyer that took short cuts and could not be trusted. You needed to get everything from him in writing because he was not as good as his word.

Webster’s Dictionary defines A “sharp practice” as a “dealing in which advantage is taken or sought unscrupulously.”

Occasionally a divorce client will hire me thinking that I will help them take advantage of their spouse. They want me to find a loophole or a way to keep more than their share of assets or income. Like the President, they are looking for their Roy Cohn.

Upon entering my office you will see a sign from The Honest Lawyer Pub in England. Take note. If you are looking for your Roy Cohn, he is not at this address.