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Splitsville: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Chicago Times Magazine
Nov/Dec 1988
by Sallyann Jacobson

Nita M. was one of the saddest women I ever knew. A great beauty in her youth, she aged and withered away during a divorce that should have taken one year, but finally took five. The main culprit in the case wasn't her husband, who had offered a reasonable settlement from the start, but her lawyer, who ran up his fees by misleading her about what she was entitled to and who prolonged her emotional suffering rather than ending the matter so she could heal. Like many people entering a divorce, Nita never informed herself about her rights under the law. She interviewed only one lawyer, and never questioned a word he said or a bill he sent.

"People spend more time choosing an automobile than an attorney," Rosaire Nottage sighs. "It pays to shop around." Nottage has been practicing divorce law for ten years and believes in stripping away the mystique surrounding attorneys and helping the client become an informed and demanding consumer. "The key is to interview several lawyers," she says, "while understanding the role of an attorney and the nature of your particular case."

Finding lawyers to interview is not difficult. Ask your friends, your family, your therapist, or your marriage counselor. Or, if they can't help, try the Chicago Bar Association or the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, both of which have referral services.

The interview itself is a lot harder. A visit to plushly carpeted offices can be an intimidating experience in itself, and stammering out the most intimate details of your marriage to a stranger in pin stripes can leave you feeling humiliated and confused. The secret is to prepare. Many attorneys would like you to merely worship the law as a mysterious god whose secrets are open only to the qualified few. This isn't quite the case. A trip to your local library and a quick browse through books like The Illinois Do-It-Yourself Divorce Kit by Fred Gerhard or The Insider's Guide to Divorce in Illinois by Nancy Albert should demystify the process.

But your attorney can only be at his or her best when you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve—bearing in mind that your lawyer is not your therapist, your best friend, or a miracle worker. If you're fat, blue, and forty before your divorce, you'll probably all three when you're single again.

Also, beware the attorney who promises to "take it out of his hide" or "teach her a lesson she'll never forget," however comforting that may sound. Divorce law in Illinois is not an instrument for revenge, and any attorney who peddles that view is not telling the truth. Since 1977, the basis for the law in this state has been "no-fault divorce." Judges are no longer interested in apportioning blame, no matter how diabolical you think your partner’s behavior has been. They are concerned with only four questions: Has the marriage broken down irretrievably; how shall the marital assets be divided; should maintenance be awarded; and who will have custody of the children?

"Your divorce lawyer is your advocate," says Nottage. "He should not be feeding you any delusions about what your position is." The attorney should also be honest with you about the cost of any specific demands you may have. Quite often people will pursue small things in a divorce case and see success as a kind of emotional victory over the spouse. Aunt Emma’s tea set takes on a whole new value in the eyes of both parties who may run up thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to wrench it from the other’s grasp.

These tussles turn into pure tragedy when the couple starts fighting over the children. "I’ve actually asked clients whether they really want custody," says Eunice Ward, Nottage’s partner, "or whether they’re simply using the children as a weapon." A good attorney should point out that a complicated custody case can cost as much as $40,000, and be a devastating strain on all concerned, including the youngsters.

A discussion of fees is a very important part of an interview. Most straightforward divorces cost between $3,000 and $5,000, although Nottage and Ward admit that some attorneys do charge more. The best way to avoid a perplexing and undocumented list of charges at a later date is to get a base-line cost for your case and an explanation of how the lawyer breaks down his or her bill—before you retain them. Good questions to ask: Will the named partner actually be conducting the case, or will he hand it over to a junior? Does the law firm differentiate between work done by paralegals and work done by attorneys, or do you pay the same for both? And will your lawyer consult you before the fees reach an unmanageable level?

If you are in genuine financial difficulty, there are people who can help. Chicago’s four legal-aid societies—the Legal Aid Bureau, the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, the Cook County Legal Assistance Foundation, and Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation - are set up to provide representation to those who can’t afford to pay for it.

Before you succumb to the temptation to do it yourself, bear in mind the story of Dave’s Disaster. Dave is a friend who drew up a property settlement with his wife some years ago at a time when his business seemed to be doing well. She was an unstable woman who had publicly promised to ruin him unless he did right by her. So, to buy himself some peace and quiet, he agreed to pay her a large sum of money. For the first tow years meeting this obligation was a struggle, but Dave managed to honor the agreement. In the third year, however, business turned so bad that he could no longer make the payments. And, because a property settlement is a legal debt like any other, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The irony is that no court would have made hi agree to a divorce settlement of that size, as any good attorney could have told him. While his ex-wife is harassing him for money she will never see, the legal fees he saved himself are now being paid to bankruptcy lawyers.

Perhaps the most important advice is summed up in something my father told me when I was going through my divorce some years ago. "Divorce is not an end so much as a beginning," he said. "It pays to have a little patience to get it right. If you’re fair to others as well as yourself, you’ll have won the most important thing of all, peace of mind with which to start again."

Copyright 1988, Chicago Times

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