When people ask me what type of law I practice and I say “family law,” a common reaction is “oh, do you mean you’re living the War of the Roses all the time?” Of course they are referring to the 1989 divorce movie starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, which represents the absolute worst that divorce brings out in people. While many divorces thankfully do not rise to this level, there are a fair amount of contentious divorces that test people’s limits and faith in the legal system. We will discuss those in this post.
Contentious Divorces in PA
All Is Not Fair in Love and War
Ideally, those who cheated or were abusive or engaged in some combination of bad behavior should get their just deserts, especially when it comes to the division of the marital estate or the imposition of an alimony award. Unfortunately, looking for this sort of justice will leave the wronged party sorely disappointed and disenchanted. Fault conduct cannot be considered in determining equitable distribution and is just one 1 of 17 factors in determining alimony in a Pennsylvania divorce. Practically speaking then, the law is not interested in why the marriage ended or whose conduct resulted in termination of the marriage. This is extraordinarily counterintuitive for most people. “How could it be that he/she cheated on me and ruined the marriage and yet still gets what we worked so hard to establish as a marital unit?”
The inability of the legal system to write these wrongs leads people to engage in self-help remedies – writing to spouse’s friends/family members/co-workers (yes, including bosses), provoking rights through nasty phone calls/voicemails/emails, destroying personal property, the list goes on. Unfortunately, such behavior might land the innocent party into legal trouble, thereby adding insult to injury. For instance, causing the misbehaving party to lose his/her job may diminish the outcome of an equitable distribution/support settlement; repeated unwanted contact may constitute harassment; and so on.
Remember, it’s not that we don’t care about people’s circumstances; it’s just that we need to understand the limits of the law and work within those limits. While you can’t change what your options are, you can make sure that you get the best result out of the options you do have in a Pennsylvania divorce or separation. Focus on getting the best settlement possible, and have that be your revenge.
Defying a Court Order Does Not Guarantee Sanctions
“My husband/wife violated and keeps violating a court order and is in contempt. He/she will pay my attorney’s fees, right?” The answer should be “yes,” but that’s not always the case. Judges vary in their approaches, and even the same judge may vary in approach based on the particular circumstances. There is no guarantee.
For instance, a party in a Newtown custody case can lose custody for withholding a child once in violation of a custody order, whereas another individual will get nothing more than a stern talking to, despite having violated the custody order numerous times. That is frustrating for both lawyers and clients, because there is no certainty and no uniform enforcement of court orders.
The best you can do is present the best possible case for sanctions and leave it in the judge’s hands. Keep track of records; prepare with your attorney; be ready for cross-examination. If you choose not to pursue sanctions on any particular occasion, do not think that you can impose your own sanctions and get away with it. You want to come into court with clean hands every time, as you never know whether the judge’s perception or biases will work for or against you. It’s better not to have this added pressure, because court is stressful enough as it is.
The Court System Gets Abused, Too
We’ve all heard the horror stories about cases where people went to court endlessly, oftentimes over nonsensical claims. The worst is when those claims involved children or false claims of physical abuse. Judges are very concerned about making sure people have access and recourse to the court system. When there is doubt about legitimacy, they tend to err on the side of caution and allow the case to proceed.
Remember this when your attorney sends you yet another court date. We would love to write a letter or file a petition saying it’s all nonsense and be done, but that’s not an option. We, as PA divorce lawyers, have to go, fight the fight, and prove to the judge that the wrongdoing is on the petitioning party’s side in the first place. If we do that enough times, we can deter the litigation-happy party from engaging in such behavior and perhaps get sanctions in the process.
In sum, the sad truth is some divorces can be nasty and litigious, although we always try to avoid that route. Don’t create additional agitation for yourself in such situations by trying to fix inherent problems in the legal system; that will make you frustrated with your situation, your spouse and even your attorney for being the bearer of bad news. Trust your attorney’s advice; we see this all the time, and we know all too well what is possible and what is not possible. Remember the better the result we get for you, the better it is for us as well. If we can get you what you want, we would do everything possible to do it, so if we explain why we can’t do it and offer legitimate reasons, it’s because we truly can’t do it. Be wary of those who sell you the opposite story to get your business; if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.