Divorce Lawyer War Stories

Four of Michigan's top divorce attorneys recount their most memorable cases

Published in 2006 Michigan Super Lawyers Magazine — September 2006

At social gatherings of legal professionals, divorce lawyers always swap war stories that could serve as the plot for the next War of the Roses. Read on to learn how to avoid becoming the next anecdotal topic, or to enjoy some juicy gossip and hear some sage advice.

The Drooping Wife and the Deceptive “Dentist”“A woman came in saying that her husband wanted a divorce. She did not, but she explained to me that she always did as he told her. She said she had no choice. Then she asked about my retainer and left, telling me that she’d see me soon,” recalls Franklin attorney Harriet B. Rotter. “The next day her husband called to verify the retainer amount. And then weeks passed. I was really worried about her. She was so sad and submissive. I didn’t want to call her and seem to be soliciting her business but she was on my mind.”

Finally, the wife returned and explained her temporary disappearance. After that first meeting, the husband had given the wife a check for the retainer made out to cash. “I’d never had a check for so much money,” she told Rotter. “I knew exactly where to take it. I cashed it and drove straight to the plastic surgeon to have my face done.”

Rotter told her, “I was really worried about you, but now I think you are going to do just fine.”

To Rotter, this divorce shows how important it is for people to stand up for themselves and not allow themselves to be bullied, even if that pattern has prevailed during the marriage.

Another case Rotter handled involved a young wife. “Her husband had said he was in dental school, and her parents were completely financing the young man’s education. For four years, they paid for [the young couple’s] living expenses, tuition, books. Finally, the parents started asking about graduation. It had never dawned on any of them that he wasn’t actually in dental school, and never had been.

“He admitted he was just waiting to be found out,” says Rotter. “In the meantime, the couple had had two children. There was nothing for the wife to get from him in that case, and the parents had to file a separate action to try to recover their advances, but it does show how women can be so blind sometimes. Wives can’t take at face value everything their husband tells them.”

The Unfaithful Travel Agent and a Change in the LawMichael A. Robbins, of the Law Office of Michael A. Robbins in Bloomfield Hills, a divorce lawyer for 25 years, recalls a male client who worked as a teacher and was the primary caretaker of his 4-year-old son. The boy, says Robbins, “meant the world to that man. He taught him his ABCs, read the bedtime stories, gave the baths.”

The wife, a travel agent, came home one day and announced that she’d fallen in love with someone new and she was leaving the marriage. Robbins’ client filed for divorce and wanted custody of the child. “He had recommendations from a number of people who knew him well,” Robbins says. “It was a slam-dunk case that he should be awarded custody. He was the one who was there for the boy.”

Before the matter was decided, the wife announced that Robbins’ client wasn’t the boy’s father, but that the boy was a product of another, earlier affair she’d had. Robbins says, “The judge ordered my client to undergo DNA testing. He refused. He said, ‘I’m his father and he’s my son. It doesn’t matter about a blood test.’”

Under Michigan law at that time, the man would have technically been a stepparent if he had no blood relationship. As such, he would have no parental rights. “The judge fined him $100 a day until he took the test. He wasn’t the father.”

Following the letter of the law, the judge awarded the mother full custody and granted the father no visitation.

“We went up to the court of appeals,” says Robbins. That court “created a new law, called the equitable-parent doctrine. It said that if a child is conceived and born during a marriage and a man has held himself out as the father and wants to continue as the father, he should receive the same standing as the biological father.”

Sadly, by the time that new law was written, the mother had moved far away with the boy. “That father lost his child,” says Robbins, “and that child lost his father.”

The Respectable Wife and the Hit ManJim Zerrenner of Zerrenner & Roane in Grand Rapids — a matrimonial lawyer for 39 years — handled one case so sordid that people in Hollywood have negotiated for the rights to turn the tale into a movie. Zerrenner was representing a father in a custody battle. The man’s highly educated wife held a good job with a major corporation. She was, Zerrenner says, “no trashy person.”

Nonetheless, she so wanted sole custody of the couple’s child that “she hired a hit man to kill her husband,” Zerrenner says. The woman’s brother had spent time in jail, where he’d met the man she hired to do the job for $10,000.

When he met the wife’s brother, the would-be hit man was not serving time for committing a violent crime, and he decided not to take the hop to felony hill.

“He changed his mind,” Zerrenner says. “He didn’t want to go back in. So he called the FBI and they came to me.” Around the time the wife arranged to have her husband killed, she was scheduled for a custody hearing with Zerrenner and her estranged husband, who was suspiciously absent.

“My client had always shown up for these hearings, but this time he didn’t. When we left there, the wife was convinced he was dead. She called the hit man right away from a pay phone near the courthouse. Then she went to meet him at a motel to pay him. The police nailed her, right there.” Ultimately she went to jail for several years for conspiracy to commit murder. Zerrenner’s client, needless to say, won full custody.

The Case of the Bankrupt Child AbuserA family law attorney for 27 years, Diana Raimi recalls a case in which, she says, “I represented a woman after her divorce who found out that for years her ex-husband had been sexually abusing her daughter, a child she had from a prior marriage.

“The child suffered severe psychological damage, which had major repercussions on the mother’s ability to work.” Meanwhile, the ex-husband had amassed a significant amount of debt. “My client had refinanced her home to try to pay his bills during the marriage,” Raimi says. “When they divorced she was left with all his debt. Meanwhile, she could barely work because she had to stay home with her daughter. He was supposed to repay her but he declared bankruptcy.”

The woman wrote to the bankruptcy judge. She explained that she lacked the money for a lawyer and that it looked like this nefarious man was going to get off without penalty. In turn, says Raimi, “The judge asked a fine bankruptcy lawyer to handle that end of the case.” That lawyer asked Raimi to handle enforcing the divorce judgment. Often, an ex-spouse will fail to abide by the terms of a divorce agreement. For such post-judgment matters, a lawyer is needed to enforce the previously agreed-upon terms. Both lawyers worked without charging the woman.

The legal team won some monetary judgments against the ex-husband to help their client. “We couldn’t collect all the money that he was ordered to pay her,” Rami says, “because he kept moving accounts and hiding assets, but she did get something.”

Expert Advice on How Not to Become a Memorable StoryAll four lawyers agree on many points of advice. Here are some of their key tips:

  • Try mediation. Even though Michigan law does not require it as a first step, spouses who doubt it will work are sometimes surprised at the mediator’s ability to foster an atmosphere in which both sides can be heard.
  • Seek counseling. Couples have often been in therapy before they decide to divorce. Generally, each spouse benefits from staying in therapy individually as they work their way through the often-excruciating divorce process.
  • Find a good, ethical lawyer. Avoid those who routinely approach divorce from a combative stance. As Zerrenner says, “Four people are involved in any marital split: two spouses, two lawyers. The lowest denominator of the four will prevail in a divorce. If three want to be honorable and one wants it to end up in the mud, you all end up in the mud.”
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