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Free Choice Vs Costly Obedience

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Over the past few weeks, I, like many of you, have received wedding invitations, and I truly hope that the young couples-to-be have chosen wisely and will enjoy long and fruitful unions.

But living happily ever after is not a guarantee. I myself am divorced. And while unfortunately, some couples are not able to achieve a good marriage, they should, to the best of their ability strive to have a “good” divorce (though by definition that would be an oxymoron).

In other words, be the ones deciding the quality of your future, not some stranger in a robe who didn’t know you existed before you entered his/her courtroom.

Over my long association with The Jewish Press, (and as recently as this past Rosh Hashanah) I have been approached by embittered men and women, deeply embroiled in a nasty divorce and asked if I could “stop the presses” and publicize what they insist is a horrific miscarriage of justice, one deserving to be front page news. They want the whole world to know how they have been abused, maligned, ignored, threatened, financially milked and generally ruined by what they view as a totally unfair court order – ranging from division of property, jewelry and bank accounts to the children. They are the hapless victims, they claim, of corrupt, bought-off, unscrupulous, incompetent, unsympathetic judges, attorneys, social workers, teachers, rabbis, etc.

How else, they claim, can you explain the court’s ruling? Each party was so sure that the judge or jury, upon hearing their side of the story, would immediately grant them everything they petitioned for – the house, the cars, the vacation property, the investments…the kids.

But that’s not the way it works in Divorce Court. You don’t simply get what you want based on your say as to the character – or lack thereof – of the spouse you are feuding with. You can swear up and down that your now insignificant other is a sorry excuse for a human being, but that’s not necessarily the conclusion the court will come to.

While their perception of what he or she deserves and are entitled to receive, both in terms of assets and custody, may be rather one-sided, narrow minded and hence unrealistic, it is clear that the desperation, despair and the feeling of being trapped in a nightmare is very real. Sadly, many times it is something that he brought on himself. Nonetheless, the emotional pain is relentless.

And that is why I can’t be emphatic enough when I say that couples who feel their marriage is not salvageable – should at least salvage their divorce. In other words, try to work out any post-marriage issues such as custody, visitation and the division of mutual assets yourselves. Don’t allow your lives and those of your children to be hijacked by outsiders who don’t know you, in a delusional belief, fueled by anger, greed or a desire to punish, that you will come out way ahead of your soon to be ex-spouse. You are gambling with the possibility that you will come out with a lot less than had the two of you negotiated fairly.

When divorcing couples “out-source” the resolving of their major disputes, they are essentially giving up the freedom and the right to make decisions whose impact will last a lifetime. To them you are a docket number – much the same way as you are a disease, not a person, to a busy doctor making rounds.

Not only will these strangers (judge or jury) decide who gets what, when and how – they can also impose serious penalties and punishment if you don’t comply with these decisions.

The outcome of custody cases are especially unpredictable.

Basically when a couple goes to court to resolve this contentious issue, they are saying, “Your honor – you don’t know me or my family from Adam, but I am going to let you tell me if my kids will be living with me, and if not, when I can see them, and if I don’t follow your dictates exactly – like if I attempt to see my son on Tuesday instead of Wednesday – then you can find me in contempt and jail me. And for all this I will end up paying a fortune to you and your ‘experts’ (psychologists, social workers) to the extent that I will likely end up borrowing money from everyone I know or go into debt.

As I write the word “expert” I am reminded of a true story regarding a young frum mother who was mired in a relentless custody fight. The judge appointed an expert to do home visits – when the kids were with their mother and when they were at home with their father. She would watch and evaluate their interactions and give her opinion as to whom she thought the children would be better off with.

She seemed startled and a bit put off when the mother asked her what her credentials were. Several questions later, the mother realized that the expert who was to report to the judge regarding the placement of her Yiddishe children, was a never-married, childless, siblingless chain–smoking woman in her late 30′s – the only child of gentile German parents who came to America after World War II. (At least they had that in common.)

Before leaving, the expert shared that she had had a Jewish boyfriend and even though they had broken up, she would grab a Jewish man in a minute – everyone knew they made great husbands and fathers.

It was no surprise to her – though nonetheless terrifying – when Miss Court Appointed Expert wrote in her report that the father should have primary custody.

After her frantic call, her lawyer assured her that the family court judges never followed this woman’s recommendations.

None of them took her too seriously. The mother felt “so much better” as she wrote out a check mandated by the court to pay its experts for their time. As for the lawyers – both hers and her ex-husband’s – managed to stretch out a court case that should have been easily resolved in weeks to one that lasted several years and cost thousands of dollars.

The financial toll alone should put the brakes on for couples who are unwilling or unable to have a “civil” non—civil divorce and resolve their issues on their own. It’s free if you make your own decisions and have your consent document signed and legalized.

I do realize that in most cases if the spouses were able to cooperate and compromise in order to come out with an acceptable division of what is mutually theirs, then they wouldn’t be divorcing in the first place.

Two reasonable people who can resolve their disputes in a mutually satisfactory manner likely have a happy marriage.

Couples who couldn’t agree on anything or have a “give and take” relationship while they were married – obviously aren’t going to take on those abilities while divorcing. Often, there is no recourse but to go to court.

Yet, ironically, a “good” divorce is as crucial for a family’s future well-being as is a good marriage – maybe more so. And a good divorce means both spouses giving up, giving in and keeping third parties out of it as much as possible.

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