Practicing family law over the years has involved unexpected and surprising experiences. I have met people during the most difficult periods of their lives–some in truly extraordinary circumstances. My job is to help them through hard times with the best possible outcome, yet some of my clients have faced hardship with such courage that they continue to inspire me.
An angry and volatile ex-husband
In 2000, I represented a woman in a divorce that was was nothing short of Promethean. She was physically and emotionally abused. Her husband, an attorney, had to be forcibly removed from their home. He refused to support his wife or their children, so the court to invade his retirement accounts to provide support. For eight years, he pursued an endless stream of lawsuits against his wife, her family, his children, attorneys, and several judges–anyone he could blame for the end of his marriage. He sued me for damages because I helped his wife divorce him.
The court kept ruling against him until he owed me and another lawyer penalties of more than $50,000.00. I continued to represent her during those years, but I was terrified that he would come after me in his rage over the divorce. Finally, faced with a warrant for his arrest, he stopped the lawsuits and was disbarred. This summer, he died. When his former wife came to see me after his death, she said, “You saved my life.”
A woman who lost three children
Another client, a woman who struggled through a very contentious divorce, essentially lost her three sons. Her first son died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) at fourteen months; she found him lifeless in the crib one morning. Shortly after she came to see me for a divorce, her middle son developed leukemia at the age of twelve. After eighteen months and a heroic struggle to save him, he died.
A year later, when the divorce was finalized, her 17-year-old son announced that he didn’t want to live with his mother anymore and moved in with his father. Her husband had waged a war of alienation and convinced the oldest son that his mother had not taken adequate care of his brother who died of leukemia… an utterly untrue allegation. I remember the day she learned of her oldest son’s charges, and when he moved our of her house. Maybe I should kill myself, she whispered. I wrapped my arms around her as we left the courthouse, and told her that she mattered and had love to give the world. I invited her to Thanksgiving dinner with my family because she had no one to be with. It was incredibly sad. Years after, when I visited her, she had found a way to help and save homeless pets. Her courage and love found another place.
Giving up child support
I have witnessed some clients’ amazing capacity to rise above the anguish of a bitter divorce to forgive a spouse. One woman was married to a mentally and emotionally ill man. They had two young children. The husband was a high-flying investor who was earning a substantial income and enjoying the life of the wealthy. Even his in-laws, his wife’s parents, invested in his business. But it all came crashing down. The feds accused him of massive investment fraud. My client and her husband lost their home and their savings. Her parents and friends lost their investments in his enterprise. He was facing huge monetary fines because of his fraud. And his bipolar condition overwhelmed his life. He started drinking, using drugs, and getting arrested for petty crimes (breaking into people’s homes and robberies).
The court ordered him to pay child support, but, unable to maintain a steady job, he accrued child support arrears of $50,000.00. My client moved in with her parents to survive financially. When the Support Collection Unit sued him for the child support he owed, his ex-wife, my client, made a courageous decision: she dismissed the arrears. She knew that he was spiraling downward, would likely end up in jail at some point, and would never be able to pay what he owed. A courageous and forgiving act. And she was right: in the next few years, he became homeless and was in and out of jail. My client and her parents pulled themselves together financially, and she raised two beautiful and talented daughters.
Limitations of a family law attorney
Not all of my efforts as a family law attorney have succeeded. One client is a young woman with an intractable addiction to alcohol and drugs whom I am trying to help. She gave up her home and children while the addiction ruled her life. I am still working to secure financial assets and security for her. But she has moved out of state, drifting from one bad relationship to another, see-sawing between binges and hospitalizations, and gradually losing ties with her children. I continue to email and call her, hoping that she will pull herself together, but it’s very sad to see her life coming apart.
Practicing family law involves listening to a lot of heartache and emotional struggle. I see people do mean, spiteful things they never dreamed they were capable of, to spouses they used to love. Divorce can bring out the worst in someone coping with betrayal, rage, sadness and loss. However, like most trying situations, it also allows for moments when humanity can shine.