Thursday, February 14, 2008

-- Divorce court in America, on Valentine's Day

Valentines Day is a fine day for divorce, don't you think?

I went with a friend of mine going through this sad process to a local courthouse and the people-watching alone was fascinating. I felt like I was from another planet observing the behavior of an unusual and perplexing species. The courthouse always feels like a bus station or DMV; lots of riff raff aimlessly milling about.

We were in the divorce waiting area listening to some woman in the hall screaming about her husband's infidelity in grossly explicit terms when I noticed the magazine collection: Modern Bride, Wedding, World Bride, Bridal Guide, and Wedding Cakes.Bridal magazines in divorce court? Either this is someone's idea of a bad joke or they're serving an audience of people who are only getting divorced to marry someone else.

I didn't realize this, but you don't need a lawyer if the divorce is simple and agreed to by both parties. The person filing (the plaintiff) is really the only one who has to show up (with a "witness").

We got called into the courtroom with a slew of others and listened to the litany of questions from the judge as he reviewed the paperwork:

"You said you were married on x date, is that true?"
"You said you were separated on x date, is that true?"
"Have you been separated since then with no marital relations or cohabitation?" (in Maryland, it's at least a year.)
"Did you have any children as a result of this marriage?"
"Is there any chance of you getting back together?"

Then the witness is called to back up the story: "They testified that they were separated on x date, have you been to their house since then? Have you noticed any evidence of them still living together?" "Do you think there is a reasonable chance of them getting back together?" "Is there any reason I should not grant this divorce?"

The actual hearing in front of the judge takes only 10 minutes. Then you get a paper acknowledging the divorce and can leave.

A woman in front of us changed her mind about the alimony issue. When the judge asked "You checked off the box indicating you do not want alimony, is that true?" The woman said, "No, I do want to seek alimony." The judge said, "Ok, but you'll have to file paperwork to this effect, and give him enough time to file an objection if he wishes." and granted a new hearing date for the alimony issue.

The guy looked annoyed at this sudden turn of events.

The judge glanced over their paperwork and said, "You've only been married a year. You may not be entitled to alimony but you can ask. You know, he can also ask you for alimony."

The guy brightened up a little at that fact.

Then we got the paperwork and left and had some lunch. In actuality the whole process of a civil divorce is very surreal and sad, as it's a formal admission in front of society that a relationship you really wanted did not work. (Well hopefully you wanted it, but I wasn't so sure this was true for everyone else.)

Every new day is a start of the rest of our lives. We take the building blocks of our past and create a future from all that we've learned, all that's shaped us to date, and hopefully carve out a fulfilling path along the way. We mourn what we've lost or left behind. And we forge ahead, always learning. There shouldn't be any shame in a failed relationship.

Two beautiful quotes from Maya Angelou:

"You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better."

"I speak to the black experience, but I am always talking about the human condition— about what we can endure, dream, fail at, and still survive."

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