From The Other Side Of The Bench
By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
If you lived to be 100, and played three games of Monopoly every day of your life, you would not acquire as many properties as they did. If you lived to be 100 and lost three games of blackjack every day, you would not accumulate as much debt as they did. For every penny they earned, they spent two; by the time they filed for divorce, the properties were all headed into foreclosure, there were hundreds of thousands of dollars in secured and unsecured debt, their heath was failing, and their relationships with their children were suffering.
As a lot of businessmen do, our villain put all the debt in his wife’s name and she fell for it—signing one document after another and mortgaging her future. Then again, who knew that one day they would divorce?
By the time we began the trial in this matter, the business had closed, and the focus turned not so much to dividing the accumulated profits of this lovefest, but to dividing the debt. There were boats to be sold, summer cottages to be appraised and sold, child support to be paid, and perhaps maintenance to be paid to the wife. Chances for a settlement were less than zero, as there was such a level of distrust between the combatants that they adopted polar opposite positions, no matter how clear it was that one of the parties could not have been correct.
Conservatively, I would estimate that over $300,000 in attorneys’ fees and experts’ fees were tallied by the parties. But that did not concern them. Now, if they would actually pay their bills, I’d be on vacation on a tropical island somewhere.
What concerned them was being able to yell and scream and curse each other and dissipate the little they had left, both in money and in dignity. The man had gone through two attorneys before the trial ever began and there really was no one to knock some sense into him regarding the need to put certain financial matters behind him and move on. At one point, in a moment of exasperation, I turned to both of them and asked, “Suppose it is true that the other party is taking you to the woodshed for $40,000. Is it really worth it to fight for the next six months over it? Wouldn’t you feel so much better knowing that you are free?” “Not one dime,” they said; not one undeserved dime should go to the other.
And so I knew we were headed for quite a long trial.
But miracles happen. During one of the recesses (recess was always my favorite class), we took out pen and paper and devised a formula that would pay off all the debt, provide for monthly child support payments, compensate the attorneys, pay back taxes, save a boat and a house, and allow both parties to walk away with some shekels in their pockets.
The prospect of settlement was conveyed to the judge and we asked her to give us a few more minutes to place the agreement in writing, thus obviating the need to continue the trial. We were even able to agree on the division of the personal items in the home. She’d get the lamp and he’d cuddle up with the stuffed moose head. She’d get the turkey baster, the grill would adorn his backyard. It was all so wonderful. But then, out of nowhere . . .
“I get the carpet!” he screamed. She screamed louder, “Over my dead body!” “It could be arranged!” he shouted back. And there you have it. No agreement on anything. Back to square one. No agreement on child support. No agreement on the division of the assets or the debt. It was as if those prior negotiations had never taken place. All the progress was lost over one stinkin’ carpet. And so, with a rap of the gavel, we were back on trial. Back to the horror stories of he did this and she did that. Back to the horror stories of she stole this and he stole that. None of it matters or will matter anymore when they will be even more destitute.
It did not matter to them, because proving that your ex is a loser is more important than being a winner. It did not matter to them, because who needs dignity when you can have money? It did not matter to them, because gaining the judge’s approval is more important than gaining your child’s respect. It did not matter, and does not matter, if hate fuels you and if you can live without love.
I find it strange, as I peruse the filing cabinets in my office. Personal-injury cases and divorce cases. Personal-injury cases where the litigant is harmed by another and usually recovers by the time litigation concludes. And then I gaze at the other files, the divorce actions where there is much pain, a lot of it self-inflicted, and people seemingly not getting better as the case winds its way through the court system.
In a quandary as what to give your children for Chanukah this year? I am going to give my kids love and a sense of dignity, self-respect, and self-worth—as many doses as I can—so that, with G-d’s help, they will be in the best possible position to one day recognize insanity when it stares them in the face. v
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.