Maria Shriver, Kim Kardashian, Stevie Wonder, Britney Spears . . . Who do they have in common? Top LA divorce lawyer Laura Wasser.
If anyone ever had a platform to write a divorce book for today's generation, it's Laura Wasser. She has been practicing in her field for nearly twenty years, represented many of the country's top celebrities and has been celebrated for her unique style, her empathy and her expertise. Wasser's personal and professional life have been profiled by publications like the Los Angeles Times, Vogue and Interview. Most important, her approach is different from almost any other and she articulates it in a simple manner.
Laura Wasser addresses an entire generation who want―and need―to handle their breakups differently. It's no secret that the divorce rate in America is more than half the marriage rate. Yet the means for dissolving a relationship often seem hopelessly mired in an outdated perception of how it's supposed to be done. Wasser acknowledges that this generation's realities have evolved greatly since the previous generation's in almost every way, and that they want to get divorced cheaply and efficiently and maintain control of the process themselves. The daughter and partner of a prominent Los Angeles Family Law attorney, she has a deep history in the field, and she knows the available roads to resolution like nobody else. At times psychologist, at times strategist, and distinctly of this generation, Laura and her book will offer readers safer passage through what can be a devastating time, emotionally and financially.
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LAURA WASSER was named one of Hollywood Reporter's 100 Power Lawyers in July 2012, one of the California Daily Journal's Top 100 Lawyers in Sep. 2012, and one of Southern California's Top 50 Women Attorneys for 2012 and 2013. She has been profiled in publications ranging from the Los Angeles Times to Vanity Fair and has represented the likes of Heidi Klum, Ashton Kutcher, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Reynolds, as well as many pro bono clients from the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
How Do You Know?
OLIVER ROSE: I think you owe me a solid reason. I worked my ass off for you and the kids to have a nice life, and you owe me a reason that makes sense. I want to hear it.
BARBARA ROSE: Because. When I watch you eat, when I see you asleep, when I look at you lately, I just want to smash your face in.
— THE WAR OF THE ROSES
It is not always so cut-and-dried. A woman I’ll call Lisa phoned my office asking if she could come in for a preliminary consultation. It happens all the time. A relationship has gone sour in a big way, and even though the person has not yet said the word “divorce” or even the word “separation” aloud, he or she nonetheless wonders if it might be a good idea get some guidance on what’s what.
I certainly understand the impulse. For one thing, I’ve been in those exact same shoes: pretty sure this wasn’t working out but not yet really at the point of calling it quits. And for a lot of people, a first meeting with a lawyer—no pressure, nothing to sign—is an integral part of the process. There’s something about sitting face-to-face with an attorney in an office that enables people to come to grips with the very idea of divorce—or to reconsider the idea. Like a number of my colleagues—not all—I offer that preliminary consultation for free. I’ll ask a few questions, deliver what I call my Family Law 101 lecture, and let the prospective client size me up as well.
That’s just what happened with Lisa. As do so many of the people who ask for a preliminary consultation, Lisa began by saying how strange it felt to be sitting in a divorce lawyer’s office at all. It was “surreal,” she said—“unbelievable” to be in this situation and to be actually uttering the word “divorce.” It just didn’t fit with the way she thought about herself and her life. Then she talked a little about her husband, her children, and her circumstances. I told her some facts about financial settlements and custody agreements under California law. We shook hands, she said she still wasn’t sure she was ready to go forward, and she left.
A year later, Lisa scheduled another appointment. We talked about what had changed in a year—very little—and I answered some more questions about finances and custody. Lisa sighed and said she still wasn’t sure she was ready, and again we shook hands before she left.
Once a year for the next three years—a total of five years in all—Lisa came into my office to reiterate her story and listen to me reiterate my Family Law 101 lecture. By year three, we were hugging good-bye, and in year four, we showed each other photos of our children. Finally, in year five, Lisa said she was ready to dissolve her marriage, retained the firm, and asked me to begin proceedings.
Five years from the preliminary consultation to the decision to separate may be a record for my law office, but it is not a particularly long time for a marriage to unravel. The rarity is the sudden epiphany or single turning point showing you with dramatic clarity that your marriage is over, although that does happen. Most relationships hover on a precipice for years before one party or the other finally decides it is time to jump, and coming to the decision isn’t easy. The expectations you assumed when you entered into the relationship and the responsibilities you have as a partner in the life and family the two of you have created loom large. You’re aware that any and every action you take can have a ripple effect on those expectations and responsibilities—and on other people—and you want to tread carefully. You are right to do so.
First, Get Some Counseling
BERNARD: Joan, let me ask you something. All that work I did at the end of our marriage, making dinners, cleaning up, being more attentive. It never was going to make a difference, was it? You were leaving no matter what.…
JOAN: You never made a dinner.
BERNARD: I made burgers that time you had pneumonia.
—THE SQUID AND THE WHALE
People get married because they fall in love. They get divorced, however, for one of three reasons.
One reason—and it is perhaps the most compelling driver of divorce—is unacceptable behavior on the part of one or the other partner. Abuse—physical or psychological—tops the list, but excessive or out-of-control drinking, drugs, gambling, serial or random adultery, or resorting to prostitutes all qualify.
One caveat here: People can and do change their behavior. As the affected but powerless spouse, you may be able to spur your badly behaving spouse to do just that. I know of a number of instances where ultimatums have been issued—e.g., “Either you go to rehab or I am out”—and the situations have been resolved and the marriages saved. The key is to be particularly clear-eyed in facing the reality of your partner’s behavior. How many chances has he or she squandered? What is the real likelihood of a change this time? How far are you willing to go to help? What line can’t you cross? But once you’re sure in your mind about the answers to these questions, it can be well worth it to try again to save the relationship.
The second major reason for divorce is the proverbial inability to communicate; you just don’t get each other anymore. Except for exchanging logistical details about who has to pick up whom from soccer practice and when the dry cleaning is supposed to be ready, you no longer even have much to say to each other. There are no more of those deep, endless conversations that used to keep you up til two in the morning; now when you converse, you find you’re talking past each other.
The third reason people split up is that they grow apart. It happens—period. You get older, and your interests and goals change. Or one of you falls in love with someone else. Or you both do. Or you simply fall out of love with each other and do not want to be together as a couple anymore.
In all three cases, before you say the word “divorce” aloud, it is important that you make the effort to go to couples counseling first. After all, coming together was a major step; so is splitting apart, and the feelings you once had for each other should not be set aside lightly. If there’s still something there—if there’s enough there—don’t you owe it to yourself, not to mention to each other, to see if you can salvage and revive it? If there’s a chance of that, counseling is likely to find it, and once it has been identified, you can decide if it’s worth pursuing.
When my significant other and I were going through a difficult time, we found ourselves arguing loudly, frequently, and ineffectually. He got so aggravated so much of the time that he would literally pivot on his heel and walk out of the room. (Yes, I have that effect on people.) What infuriated him was what he saw as my tendency to treat every argument as a courtroom battle and to turn into, basically, the prosecutor.
A few sessions of therapy were immediately helpful: He could not leave—that’s simply not allowed in counseling—and I was checked each time I started to litigate our issues. Once we were both talking like normal people and listening to each other, we worked it out.
The idea in counseling is to sit down with an unbiased third party to whom you both can express grievances in the presence of the other. That unbiased third party might be a qualified Marriage-Family-Child counselor (MFCC) or a psychiatrist or a psychologist or a social worker or the clergyperson of your choice. You meet in a room containing just the three of you, with no distractions, and with time enough for both of you to have your say.
Sometimes, just the act of venting is helpful. Counseling provides a safe haven for precisely that kind of free-ranging release: You can say things in the therapist’s office, with the therapist present, that would be incendiary or hurtful in your living room. And often when you let ’er rip, you get all sorts of things off your chest and out of the way. I have known couples who realized it was time to quit therapy when the issues they were venting about were down to minor matters—in one case, her distaste for the way he had “decorated” his man cave and his annoyance that she had signed up for yet another evening course at the local college. That couple figured that “if this is what we’re venting about, we must be okay,” and they sure didn’t need to pay a therapist to adjudicate those low-level issues. They stayed together and routinely turned to a therapist when the high-level issues threatened to get out of hand again.
It is the safe-haven aspect of counseling and the presence of the third party that make it so effective and important. Both ensure that each of you can be heard, and qualified couples counselors know what to do with what they hear. They can help you cut through the resentments that have built up and find a renewed civility with each other—useful whether you end up dissolving your relationship or not. They can also pinpoint suggestions and recommend tools that open a valve through which you may be reminded of why you got together in the first place. In a great many cases, it’s a matter of finding ways to spark a sex life that has become routine, infrequent, and unfulfilling. There are counselors for that, too, and such renewal is often enough to move you to a reconciliation.
There is even a case to be made that any couple that can afford the luxury of counseling should indulge in it. Just as you go to the gym regularly to keep your body fit, regular couples counseling can keep your relationship fit as well.
But for couples in difficulty or on the brink, counseling is essential. What you must understand about it is that it can be hard work. The operating motto for counseling, however, is that if a relationship can work, you should work for it. Things may never be as fresh and rosy as they were when you first came together—that kind of passionate excitement does fade—but you did marry each other, and maybe it was meant to be. If so, counseling can help you rediscover the reasons.
Couples counseling gets many couples back together. But not all, and not always. For your own sake and that of your children, however, I recommend it—I almost insist on it—as the first step for anyone unhappy in a relationship. The truth is, however, that the great preponderance of prospective clients who come to my office for a preliminary consultation have gone the couples-counseling route already—and in their case, it has failed. They’ve made the attempt and exhausted the possibilities—in fact, the counseling may have helped clarify their thinking—and they are ready now to dissolve their relationship and move on.
As a part of this soul-searching, indulge me in something. Make a list of at least five things your spouse or your marriage holds you back from—things that you would really like to be doing. Items on the list can be as simple as sleeping with others, working out more, or spending more time with friends, or as complex as getting a degree, finally seeing April in Paris, or learning ancient Greek. Put the list aside; we’ll get back to it in chapter 15.
New Year’s Day, and the resolutions are as numerous as the hangovers. Lots of people resolve to lose ten pounds. One of my clients resolved to shed a hundred and sixty pounds—her husband. A lot of people feel a similar impulse.
It is why January is such a big month for divorce lawyers. People emerge from the holiday season swearing that come hell or high water, they are not going to spend another Thanksgiving/Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/you-name-it with their in-laws. They are not going to go through another overpriced family vacation during which they have to put on a good front for the sake of the children who see right through it and are surly and undisciplined anyway. Another connubial New Year’s Eve kiss, trying to feel party-ish and hopeful while contemplating yet another year in a relationship that has ceased to be fulfilling or make either of you happy, is just one kiss too many. My office is flooded with phone calls on January 2: A lot of unhappy wives and husbands figure that if they start now, they can have a new life by the time the holidays roll around again.
And a funny thing happens. Once people you know start to get divorced, you think about it, too. It’s why divorces come in clusters within prescribed communities. One person in the women’s book club announces she is splitting from her husband, and before you know it, two more have done the same. Or somebody in the lunch crowd at the office gets divorced and has to spend lunch hour at his lawyer’s, and pretty soon a couple of other folks have followed suit. It’s almost as if divorce were catching. More likely, once one person in your circle does it, you see that it is possible—specifically, that it’s possible for someone like yourself. It’s not so “surreal,” as Lisa felt at first, after all. Then the discontent that has been festering in you comes to the surface, and making a change, frightening as it is, becomes something you feel you can do, too. You just feel the time has come.
How do you know it’s time to end your marriage? There’s a simple answer to that question. It’s time to dissolve a relationship when the pain or oppression of being in it exceeds the fear or anxiety of being on your own. Unfortunately, no one and nothing on this earth can tell you when you’ve reached that tipping point. Not your best friend, not your accountant or lawyer, not your mother, not a Cosmopolitan magazine quiz or a checklist or, heaven knows, a book can decide this for you. What this book can do, however, is tell you some things you should not leave out of your consideration when you are toting up both the pain of staying and the fear of going and weighing the one against the other to decide if it’s your time to move forward.
Sometimes, to be sure, life gives you an unmistakable sign. A client of mine returned from shopping at the mall to find her husband on the receiving end of a blow job from their nanny while the couple’s four-year-old twins napped in the next room. She said that once the initial shock had worn off, she considered the incident her get-out-of-jail-free card.
State of the Law
The fear of being on your own is the fear of the unknown, and you can eliminate some of it at your computer or by heading to the nearest library. Family law is a matter of state jurisdiction in the United States, and you will want to find out some basics about the law in your state—specifically, the laws concerning your children and those concerning finances.
But perhaps the first thing you need to find out is how your state deals with the issue of fault. No-fault divorce, premised on the idea that both partners assume equal blame for the failure of the marriage, is now enshrined in the family law books of all fifty states. In many of the fifty, however, spouses can choose to proceed on either a fault-based or no-fault basis, and the choice will often depend on how the no-fault concept is applied in your particular state. In my home state of California, for example, no-fault is almost an absolute. This means that a judge asked to rule on, say, the division of community property will not even consider complaints about a spouse’s serial adultery or lengthy, drug-induced absences from the family home. It is all just an even-steven split down the middle. In New York, by contrast, such factors may be brought forward in a hearing over equitable distribution of assets even if the divorce is by mutual consent.
The laws regarding a couple’s date of separation also differ from state to state. What must you do to ensure that you are legally separated? Does this stop the clock on the length of time you will pay or rec...
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