Jan L. Warner and Jan Collins
Question: We had been married for 19 years when my husband and I began litigation. Three years later, we're still not through. I had given up my career as a teacher - not to mention retirement and other benefits -- to stay home and care for our two children. My husband, a professional, left me for another woman who works in his office. My husband tells me that he does not want a divorce because his girlfriend is pressuring him to marry - which he does not want to do. Therefore, he and his lawyers have made sure that my case has dragged on and on for nearly three years. It's on the docket. It's off the docket. It's back on the docket. It's off again. It's refiled. We had a 30-minute temporary hearing almost 18 months ago and a couple more skirmishes, but I am still getting the same support now I got then - which is not enough.
My husband is much more capable of paying lawyers than I am --but I have already paid $45,000 (borrowed from my family) and still need more. I have not been unfaithful, but after three years, it's getting tough. And my lawyer tells me that if I do anything wrong, I might not get what I deserve. At the same time, my husband is free to dilly dally all he wants. It just isn't fair. Isn't there something I can do? I'm at the end my rope.
Answer: Unfortunately, overloaded court systems often allow divorce to become a war of attrition that drags on and on for one poor reason or another. Although courts have rules that require cases to be disposed of, as you have now learned the hard way, there are ways around the rules. When the time runs out and the case is taken off the docket, it can be either restored or refiled.
Today, family courts have become courts of volume. Throughout the country, too few family court judges dispose of far too many case filings each year to mete out justice. From what we've been able to piece together, if each family court judge in the United States worked 48 weeks per year, 5 days per week, 8 hours per day just hearing cases of all types, the average case will get in the vicinity of one hour of judicial time on the bench. Of course, the vast majority of cases are settled or disposed of in less time and some last longer, but, regardless, an hour is an inadequate time for a harried judge to decide on the disposition of assets acquired over five years of marriage, much less 19 years.
What can you do? You may have a right under state or federal law to have your case heard efficiently, enforcing that right is all but impossible. A notable musician's wife went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, claiming that New York's divorce laws are unfair to women because cases drag on and on in the logjammed courts. She documented spending more than $600,000 in legal fees. Guess what the Supreme Court did? Nothing.
Another option is matrimonial arbitration, which is basically "trial by contract." In this forum, there can be final and binding determinations of your alimony and division of your assets by a trained matrimonial lawyer or retired judge. Child-related determinations, however, are subject to court review.
Mediation may be yet another option. Regardless, maybe it's time for you and him to discuss realistic alternatives because if you've paid $45,000 and he has probably paid even more, you should have reached your pain threshhold.
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