I frequently receive articles in my news feed with headlines such as “Divorce System Prompts Bitter Couples to Use Kids as Weapons.” The first paragraph of that particular article noted that “the epic hatred” between the author’s friend and the friend’s former husband played out in an acrimonious custody battle that “scarred the boys’ psyches in ways both awful and permanent.” The rest of the article seems to conclude that it is the “system” and the lawyers who are responsible for this damage. However, the parents are the ones who were unable to set aside their hatred for the sake of their children. The “system” is a last resort if the parents are unable to resolve their differences without the need to air their dirty laundry to a stranger in a public forum.
As a member of a family law firm that takes great pride in its reputation and philosophy of putting children first, I take umbrage at those articles, which are fueled by television shows such as the HBO series, Divorce, and the headlines about Brad and Angelina and all the other celebrities that engage in public custody battles.
HBO SERIES, DIVORCE, IS BRUTAL DEPICTION OF THE WORST KIND OF BEHAVIOR
I watched Divorce, primarily for research purposes, although I did find the show compelling. It is billed as a comedy, but, apart from one or two scenes with Molly Shannon, I do not recall laughing. Frances, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, and her husband, Robert, played by Thomas Haden Church, are the couple whose marriage is ending. Frances and Robert have two children, who apparently are not the least bit shocked or bothered when they learn their parents are getting divorced. Despite Frances and Robert originally trying to resolve their issues with a neutral mediator, they each play dirtier and dirtier in every succeeding episode. Of course, the show depicts the true villains as the divorce attorneys.
I found all the attorneys portrayed in the show behave in a way that is the antithesis of how the attorneys at Richardson Bloom & Lines handle family law cases. For example, when Frances switches from her stroke addled first attorney to the “barracuda,” Robert is served with the complaint for divorce at their son’s basketball game, which Robert is coaching. Frances claims she did not know that was going to happen. While that makes for good drama, it has no basis in reality. First, how would the attorney know where to find Robert unless Frances told her? More importantly, however, your attorney should never ever do something you don’t know about and approve in advance. Attorneys’ rules of ethical conduct specifically mandate that the client is in charge. Once you decide that it is time to file a complaint for divorce, one of the things you should discuss with your attorney is how your spouse will be served. At RBL Family Law, we usually suggest that we send a neutral letter asking the other spouse to acknowledge service of the complaint, without the need for “in-person” service at all. We tell our clients that having a sheriff show up at the home or the office is a bad way to start the process. If the other spouse does not respond to our letter or we do not hear from an attorney representing him or her, then we will use a private process server. Every client should know that he or she is in control of how everything is handled. You should fire an attorney who pulls a surprise move without obtaining your prior consent.
CONFUSED CHILDREN AND VICIOUS RETALIATION
The final episode of the season is the saddest. In the opening scene, Frances is in her new attorney’s office, and claiming she doesn’t want to embarrass Robert. Her attorney tells her that Frances does not have to act ugly; that is what the attorney is for. That strikes me as ridiculous, as I am certain that outside of television, the other party attributes everything the attorney does to the client. Frances’s attorney suggests an accounting of funds, and Frances agrees that would be prudent. Frances then okays a “hard eight”, but does not ask a single question about what that means. The scene changes to the children standing in front of the school confused about which parent’s home they are to go to. Lila, the daughter, is hit by a car after she and her brother, Tom, decide to walk home. We are lead to believe that this accident will give Frances and Robert great insight so that they will focus on the well-being of their children, the innocent victims.
That new found caring for someone besides themselves ends quickly, however, when Robert’s funds are frozen by court order and he is not able to proceed with his new venture that is about to close. While I do not know the law in New York where Divorce is set, I can assure you that this could not happen in Georgia. The Constitution requires notice and hearing: it is called Due Process. Even in an emergency, before an order is entered without a hearing, the other side must at least be given an opportunity to present evidence as to why such action is not necessary.
Robert is furious when he learns what happened, but decides to take his revenge after leading Frances to believe he is proud of her new gallery venture. Robert agrees to allow Frances to take the children skiing at Windham over the weekend, even though it is his weekend with the children. Frances has already mentioned the trip to the children and tells Robert that they got very excited. Shame on Frances for mentioning a trip to a ski resort on dad’s weekend without first getting dad’s permission to switch. Clearly, Frances intended to back Robert into a corner. To strike back at her, Robert then apparently reports that Frances has kidnapped the children.
The final scene of season one of Divorce is of a state trooper pulling over Frances and the children. Even though Frances explains that there has been no custody hearing and she has Robert’s verbal permission to take the children skiing, she remains detained on the side of the road. She calls Robert, who refuses to answer, and tells him he has made a “terrible, awful, irreparable mistake.” Who knows what revenge Frances will seek that undoubtedly will place the children squarely in the line of fire.
REALITY CHECK: YOU ARE IN CONTROL
Again, none of that would happen in Georgia. Absent a court ordered parenting plan, both parents have an equal right to custody. In Georgia, a law enforcement officer would ask to see the court order, and if there was not one, may try to mediate a dispute, but would not pull a family over and detain them on the side of the road absent some allegation of a crime other than kidnapping.
The point of all of this, of course, is to emphasize that the client is in control of how he or she behaves, as well as what actions his or her attorney take. Obviously, no one can control the other spouse, but we can certainly control how we respond to his or her antics.
One of the most, if not the most, unfortunate consequences of divorce is that you will not be able to see your children every day. Nonetheless, that reality must be accepted and either the parents or the court need to decide how the children will spend time with each parent. Some parents suddenly believe that the other parent is completely and incompetent to parent the children, even if that parent has been doing it every day for years. Most attorneys’ response to that opinion is to counsel their clients that the court will start with the premise that the best thing for the children is to have frequent, meaningful contact with both parents. It is very unusual to see a parent be awarded sole custody of the children. Our understanding of children and what is best for them has evolved over the years. Most attorneys will counsel their clients that the worst thing you can do to your children is engage in a high conflict divorce. RBL Family Law attorneys even provide our clients with books on the subject in appropriate cases.
The articles and shows are accurate about one thing: if you choose to engage in the kind of scorched earth tactics as seen in shows like Divorce or written about in some of the articles I read, the only people who will benefit are your attorneys. But do not be fooled; you absolutely have the choice not to engage in those tactics. If you do, then you need to own that and not put all the blame on the attorneys or the “system”. Typically, we are trying desperately to tell you that such tactics are a bad idea. When you interview a family law attorney, ask questions and demand answers. Do not relinquish control of a process where you are the one that must live with the results.