Divorce Horror Stories

Family lawyers recount some of their more memorable cases

Published in 2007 North Carolina Super Lawyers — February 2007

At professional meetings divorce lawyers always swap war stories, ones that they think could serve as the plot for the next War of the Roses. Here, four of North Carolina’s leading divorce lawyers give us a rundown of what makes them shake their heads.

Heed the Greed

“I once had a client who was in business with her husband, operating a multimillion-dollar company. They also owned real estate partnerships in several states. She ran the business. He handled the finances,” recalls Joslin Davis of Davis and Harwell. Secretly, the husband funneled much of the profits into offshore accounts.
 
The couple separated when the wife discovered that her husband had been having affairs with young women in Thailand (one of whom he had brought to the United States).
 
“When they separated, he tried to take control of the business by falsely claiming that the company stock and the real estate partnership interests belonged to third parties in Florida and the Bahamas,” Davis says. “The discovery and jurisdictional arguments went on for years.”
 
At trial, the judge found that the husband’s claims were false. The husband then disappeared, presumably to Thailand, and never returned. “He apparently thought that he was again going to be ordered to jail. Our chief judge had already had him incarcerated for lying to the court and violating a court order,” Davis says.
 
“Finally, after years of litigation, my client was awarded 90 percent of the marital estate including the multimillion-dollar business and real estate.” By trying to conspire with third parties to defraud the court, the husband lost not only his share of the marital property but also all contact with his two children, with whom he had been close.
 
Davis’ advice:
  • The first priority is to save your marriage if possible. A good family lawyer can often recommend a therapist.
  • Before you take any major steps, consult your attorney. For example, couples sometimes agree to trial separations without being aware of unintended legal ramifications. “The supporting spouse may be having an affair. As long as the spouses are living together, a dependant spouse may be able to obtain pre-separation evidence of adultery,” she explains. “This can be used to support an alimony claim. By agreeing to a physical separation, a dependant spouse may lose certain rights to alimony.”
  • Both parties in every marriage need to be informed about their finances.
  • When you meet with an attorney, bring as much financial information as you can gather. Include lists of assets and liabilities, tax returns for two or three years, information about real estate, insurance policies and all other assets and debts.
  • When separation arrangements are being formalized, mediation of the issues often works beautifully. However, both parties need to be knowledgeable and prepared. If you and your spouse are considering mediation of financial matters, you must have a lawyer involved from the beginning and work with a qualified mediator. Do not mediate without being fully informed.
A past president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Davis currently serves as national vice president of that prestigious organization. She is one of the 100 members of the American College of Family Trial Lawyers and an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University Law School.
 
A House Divided
“People today are used to cell phones, automobiles and computers. They expect speed,” explains John Hill Parker of Parker, Schneider, Bryan and Vitale. However, he cautions, “Domestic law is a different dimension in time. Divorce cases can take a long time. People often feel frustrated.” He recalls one protracted case in which he represented the wife, a schoolteacher. “The husband had built their house with his own hands, and it was a nice house. It had taken him about five years. He didn’t think she should have any part of the value of the marital residence. He didn’t want to give her any money.”
 
By state law, though, she was entitled to some of the house’s value. “He was determined to wear her out. And she came close to being worn out.” The case lasted 12 years and went to the court of appeals three times. “We won every appeal and every hearing,” Parker recalls.
 
“I always tell women whose husbands try to wear them down that that is one of the ways that women lose. They give up and don’t continue the fight.”
 
Parker’s advice to both men and women:
  • Prepare to be patient.
  • Expect to feel as if you have no control over what is happening. You have very little control. Everyone entangled in domestic court feels that way. He empowers his clients by involving them in certain tasks. “I have them do things such as completing their own financial affidavits. This also saves them money.”
  • Shop for a lawyer. Parker won’t take a case until a prospective client sees as least one or two other attorneys. “You have to trust and like your lawyer,” he says. “If you don’t feel comfortable in your gut with the person representing you, you will make a difficult situation even worse.”
Parker served for six years as a district court judge in Wake County, spending much of that time in domestic court. He is one of only two attorneys in North Carolina chosen to be diplomates in the American College of Family Trial Lawyers (there are 100 such diplomates nationwide). For the state bar association, he has served as chair of both the family law section and of the continuing legal education committee of the family law section.
 
Each Divorce Is Unique
“There’s no such thing as a small case,” maintains Carlyn G. Poole, who has practiced family law for more than 25 years. “Each case is so important to the person involved. The best approach depends on that person’s particular situation.”
 
Clients often fail to recognize this. “I’ve had people say, ‘My friend got such-and-such when she got divorced.’ They want to know why they can’t have the same thing. I may have to respond, ‘Your friend’s husband may have been very generous.’”
 
Her advice:
  • Recognize that each divorce is unique.
  • Pick a lawyer with a solid reputation who understands your outlook. “It’s got to be a comfortable fit for you and the attorney,” she says. She, and most other family lawyers, sometimes part ways with clients with whom that rapport fails to develop.
  • Give your attorney’s advice a careful hearing. “What you want may not be the best way to handle the situation,” she explains.
Now with Tharrington Smith, Poole is a past president of the Wake County Bar Association. For the North Carolina Bar Association, she has been a vice president and served on the board of governors. She has also chaired the family law section.
 
Don’t Blab in Books
“I handled a case where I was convinced that my client, the wife, was not having an affair. But the marriage was so loveless that she would write sexual fantasies involving other men in her journal,” says Robin J. Stinson, who is with Bell, Davis and Pitt. “She kept this notebook in a bedside table in the room she shared with her husband.
 
“When he found it, it didn’t matter if the entries were true or not. He was totally convinced there was somebody else. His rage made things very complicated.”
 
Stinson’s recommendations:
  • “If I could advise clients in advance, I would say don’t keep these sorts of deeply revealing journals. If you must, don’t leave them out for anybody to find.”
  • If you keep a diary regularly, your spouse’s attorney can ask to see these writings (and vice versa).
  • On the other hand, if you tell your lawyer that your spouse has problems, such as drinking or drug use, which can affect your case, the lawyer may ask you to take notes about these actions. Such writings, generated at your lawyer’s request in anticipation of litigation, are protected. The other side cannot normally obtain them.
Stinson is a former chair of the North Carolina Bar Association’s family law section. About 10 years ago, this group worked to pass fairer laws regarding alimony. Before its efforts, North Carolina law required that a spouse requesting alimony prove fault, such as adultery or mental cruelty, on the part of the other spouse, which could be a difficult burden. The new legislation eliminated those requirements. Stinson has 22 years of experience as a divorce lawyer.

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