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The Militant Divorce - Fathers Beware

Reproduced below is an article that ran in the Boston Globe on 12/15/98.
No longer will your ex-wife be satisfied with an equitable settlement of custody and property (even if she was so inclined), now she's being both coached and encouraged to ''get everything'' by whatever means available, including ''dirty tricks'' and psychological manipulation. It goes without saying that if men were to publically suggest these tactics, they'd be accused of ''escalating divorce hostilities'' and ''excessive aggression''...but apparently it's acceptable behavior for women.

Buffeted by men's gains, women are being aggressive
in seeking the means to even the score in court

By Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 12/15/98


Four years ago, Karen Baker's husband informed her that his company was transferring him to Japan and he'd rather not take her along. But the prospect of divorce was just the beginning of her troubles.

Baker, who lives in Marshfield, did not know how to balance a checkbook. (That had been one of her husband's jobs during their 24 years of marriage.) She didn't know how to pay the bills. And she didn't have any credit, since it had all been in her husband's name.

''There were so many things I had no idea about,'' says Baker, who was living in Pennsylvania at the time. ''I didn't even know I was entitled to his Social Security.''

Now, four years and one women's ''divorce recovery'' seminar later, Baker is a woman transformed. The divorce course - taught by a lawyer, a financial adviser, and an accountant - guided her through the court process, helped her get a handle on her assets, and convinced her that she deserved a healthy chunk of the settlement.

So confident is the newly empowered Baker that she recently turned the tables on her ex-husband. When she discovered that he owed her a ''hefty'' share of tax money that she'd paid earlier on his behalf, she hired a lawyer to go after him. She got her money; it was ''my last hurrah,'' she says proudly.

Meet today's new divorced woman. She is tough, aggressive, and armed to the teeth with ammunition on how to get what she wants in divorce court. It all comes courtesy of a profusion of new books, videos, and workshops geared to teaching women how to go for the jugular when their marriage breaks up.

The language of this material is not just militant but militaristic. It urges women to use ''psychological warfare'' to trump their husbands. It recommends espionage, furtive behavior, even, in one book, ''enemy reconnaissance.''

Yet many lawyers interviewed say such tactics are not unreasonable. Over the last decade or so, they say, the divorce landscape has changed in ways that have made the legal process more unkind and less gentle than it's ever been for women, particularly mothers seeking custody of their children. They describe a variety of factors, ranging from a feminist movement backlash to a strong lobby by father's rights groups, that make it necessary for today's divorcing woman to fight harder than ever to win in court.

Consider the new book, ''What Every Woman Should Know About Divorce and Custody'' by Brookline author Sally Abrahms and Philadelphia lawyer Gayle Rosenwald Smith.

''You have to assume you no longer have the edge in custody,'' the authors caution. ''Up until now, women have assumed that they will prevail in court.'' But ''this overconfidence and resulting lack of preparation is tripping them up.''

The reality, they point out, is that today's mothers usually take the bigger economic hit in a divorce - an average 30 percent decline in their standard of living. Yet mothers may lose custody because they have to work to support the kids. `You will need to view custody as a mind game and position yourself to win,'' they warn grimly in an opening chapter so disillusioning it's enough to make any mother think twice about leaving.

Other writers contributing to this new genre are even more aggressive, such as Newton lawyers Sharyn Sooho and Steven Fuchs, author of ''Tao of Divorce: A Woman's Guide to Winning,'' which they published on the Internet. The book integrates Eastern philosophy with divorce, and urges women to adopt such strategies as ''enemy reconnaissance, strategic information, covert planning, and the element of surprise'' to get what they want in court. (They do not rule out, for example, ransacking the house for secret places where the husband might have hidden assets or using his secretary's diary to retrace his whereabouts when investigating adultery.)

Leading way to war path

Then there is the even more combative ''Divorce War! 50 Strategies Every Woman Needs to Know to Win'' by Kansas lawyer Bradley A. Pistotnik. Among the tactics he recommends are ''control your husband by being alternately loving and indifferent to keep him in a state of continual concern'' and ''hire a detective to prove your husband has a bad character, and pay for the services with your husband's money.'' (Emphasis added)

''No matter how nice your husband has been, once he has caused you to seek a divorce, it is time to fight,'' Pistotnik maintains. ''Loss of love is a catastrophe. Revenge is all that is left to you.'' (Emphasis added)

Advice comes in other forms as well. Weston lawyer Isabella Jancourtz, author of ''The Massachusetts Women's Divorce Handbook,'' teaches a course with a psychiatric social worker at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education designed to help women through the divorce ordeal ''by taking their fate into their own hands and by becoming emotionally empowered,'' says Jancourtz.

A Pennsylvania lawyer has produced a four-hour video - ''Navigating Divorce: Women in Control'' - teaching women how to get equal control of the family assets. A California woman is in the process of launching ''Divorced Woman Magazine,'' which will debut in March. Among the subjects covered will be ''shared stories from others who have been there, including financial custody issues,'' says executive editor Tina Stassis Gustave. ''There are millions of women who need help.''

Why now? And why women?

Divorce has never been easy, and it's no picnic for the men involved, either. Just ask any of the dads in the father's rights movement, like Philip Clendenning, director of the Boston group Fathers and Families. He argues that if anyone is penalized in the divorce process in this state, it is the fathers, who are routinely victimized by ''grossly unfair'' laws governing child custody.

Custody unpredictable

To be sure, not everyone thinks women have a worse time of it than men. ''There is always clearly a person in divorce who thinks they gave too much and a person who thinks they didn't get enough,'' says Gayle Stone-Turesky of the family law firm Stone, Stone and Creem. And so often when one spouse moves on to another partner, I think it's the person who has been left behind who has the harder time. I don't think it's a male-female issue.''

But most lawyers interviewed agree that child custody cases - which formerly favored the mother - are getting more unpredictable and difficult.

''When I started law 18 years ago, the viewpoint was that men made out better with money and women with the kids,'' says Boston lawyer David Cherny, president-elect of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

Two working parents are now ''more the norm than the aberration,'' says Cherny, and judges are much more willing to regard fathers as equal and adequate caretakers - especially since baby sitters are doing so much of the caretaking anyway. ''Things aren't as automatic as they were.''

There have been a lot of changes in the financial arena, too, Cherny says. ''Years ago, one spouse was the wage earner and one wasn't, and the rule of thumb was that about one-third of the income was paid as alimony.'' But now wives often have their own income or the educational ability to earn one. ''You find the courts looking at earning potential and saying there isn't as much need for alimony,'' Cherny says. So women - despite their hard-won gains in the workplace - ''are almost being penalized. ... What's developed is almost a backlash. It's made for a lot more aggressive litigation over money.''

Throw a few other contemporary factors into the mix, and it's no wonder women are reading books about how to be conniving and savvy.

Simply determining the joint assets in a dissolving marriage can be messy and miserable, let alone dividing them up in an equitable fashion.

Hidden assets

''It used to be that you'd have a pay stub and that was it,'' says Cherny. ''You'd have a house, a car, a bank account. Now, remuneration is more complex. Our lives are more sophisticated. There are retirement benefits, stock benefits, non-cash compensation elements, deferred compensation.''

So for women who, like Baker, leave the money issues to the men, there is a lot of catching up to do to avoid being taken advantage of. And lawyers say such women are not in short supply.

''In most cases still, regardless of who is the greatest breadwinner, men are still in control of the financial documents that relate to the marriage,'' says Carole Goldstein McKay, the lawyer who produced the divorce videos, which cover such topics as how to discover hidden family income and how to avoid falling into bankruptcy.

''I've had women who have come to me who manage million-dollar portfolios for others and they can't tell me what their husbands make a year. I started to realize that women were uniquely disadvantaged during the divorce process. And what that creates is a situation where women fold too soon, because they can't afford to go the distance. When the time comes, you see women spending one or two years and $10,000 trying to gather information that is otherwise hers for free if she'd only known how to find it.

But paperwork isn't all that's making divorcing women tremble. There's the goings-on in divorce court itself, that end stop of soured matrimonial dreams. More than ever before, says Cherny, ''there's a high level of animosity in litigation tactics.''

He and other local lawyers recount stories of clients' cases being endlessly delayed by a spouse's stalling tactics, by clients being goaded and intimidated by their spouse's attorney - riling them in court, for example, in an attempt to prove they are hot-tempered and thus unfit as parents.

They describe litigation that is sometimes merely just ''symbolic.'' Says Cherny: ''You see custody battles launched not for the child's best interests, but to exploit weakness in the spouse. I've seen fathers who travel three days a week and clearly have no ability to care for their kids on a daily basis, yet they'll file for full custody, either to get leverage and put the fear of God in the mother, or to get her to accede to his demands on the financial end.''

Outsmarting hubby

One such divorce court victim is Beth McDonough of South Boston, whose four-year divorce case, finalized two years ago, went on almost as long as her five-year marriage. McDonough, 40, challenged her husband in court for custody of their daughter and for child support. In the end, she got both, but the endless litany of motions, hearings, orders, contempts, and abortive attempts at pretrial conferences, which numbered in the hundreds, started to wear out even the judge. Justice Anthony R. Nesi of Suffolk Probate and Family Court noted in his findings that ''the papers, excluding over sixty trial exhibits, fill over one large court filing tin'' and that her ''husband's huge attorney fees are due, in part, to his inability to accept anything less than victory.''

''The court process, she says, ''made me emotionally bankrupt.''

It is to avert such bankruptcy that these proactive self-help manuals are being written, and they leave no strategies to chance.

Want to outsmart your adulterous husband and defame his character in court? Sooho's and Fuchs's ''Tao of Divorce'' offers tactics to prove he's philandering, including: ''Look for any suspicious [banking] activities, such as repeated withdrawals of sums such as $505, suggesting conversion to travelers checks for $500 plus a 1 percent fee of $5.00.''

Want to convince the judge you're a morally responsible parent? Abrahms and Smith offer instruction in courtroom etiquette: Don't laugh in court, especially when your husband speaks. Don't show anger in court because it could just as easily be directed at your child. Don't wear a short skirt, because it will undermine your credibility.

Above all, these divorce experts say, be sure to do every bit of your homework. ''Women need to be prepared,'' Abrahms says. ''I think women can be naive about divorce, and I think being naive is going to handicap them. It's not such a modern world when it comes to divorce.''

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