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The Real Cost of Divorce… and it's not all about money

The emotional and economic strain that divorce puts on everyone involved is huge. Here, men and women who have ridden the roller coaster share their stories

illustration by matt collins

Fairfield County, toy box of the hedge fund manager and the Wall Street banker, is also, not coincidentally, headquarters of the nightmare divorce. “I mean, O.J. Simpson went through two trials and had two verdicts in a shorter period of time than I have in one divorce case,” Gary C. Wendt, then-head of GE Capital in Stamford, said a decade ago. That famous divorce, in which his ex-wife, Lorna J. Wendt, sought half of his $100 million worth as an equal partner in their marriage, was, however bitter the combatants, an almost civil affair.

Not so the 2007 case of Nancy and Peter Tauck, the Westport luxury travel entrepreneur. Their divorce trial alone lasted eighty-six days (no expert could name a longer one) with more than 100 witnesses called at a cost of $13 million in lawyers’ fees — a quarter of Tauck’s net worth. Nancy accused Peter of rape, child sexual abuse and downloading child pornography, all “false and spurious” charges, according to Judge Holly Abery-Wetstone. Peter, for his part, accused Nancy of being an unfit mother — a not uncommon custody gambit that, at least in this case, appeared to be true. For starters her tenuous recovery from alcoholism relapsed seriously during the trial. Was Peter eminently fitter? Though the judge gave him sole custody of the four children, she ordered him to attend AA meetings and hire a full-time nanny.

This case generated headlines for its scope, tawdriness and War of the Roses hostility. But many other divorce cases in Fairfield County are hellish in their own uncommemorated way.

One day in 2004, a nice-looking woman with white hair and a flowing skirt appeared at Liz Flavin’s door in Fairfield. Liz’s elegant house on Merwins Lane, called Sunnycroft, rested upon seven acres of lawn and pasture where a flock of sheep grazed — the sort of house that causes passersby to imagine the people within living lives of prosperous tranquility. When the nice-looking woman served the divorce papers, Liz followed her outside and sank to the ground in shock. The woman mentioned the well-known lawyer her husband had hired and said, “Look, you’d better get yourself a good one.”

Liz’s marriage had never been very happy, but at least the family was intact. She persuaded her husband to reconcile. It didn’t work. Still the process appeared to be civil as the couple headed toward separation. Liz says her husband, a venture capitalist, offered up the $25,000 retainer for her lawyer and agreed that she would serve the papers this time around. As it happened, Liz was served one night while bathing the kids. Minutes later her husband’s best friend stopped in to see him bearing celebratory bottles of wine, and the tone of things deteriorated from there.

Liz’s attorney hired a forensic accountant to get to the bottom of her husband’s complicated financial picture. That picture seemed to turn darker and darker over time. One day while exiting the driveway Liz noticed a foreclosure sign in front of her house. “That’s how I found out he wasn’t making the mortgage.” She moved with her three children to a nearby house and then, after the support payments stopped coming reliably, to a “show house” — one that’s on the market and rented at a bargain rate. In June a judge allowed Liz’s ex-husband to reduce his family support payments from $10,000 a month (which Liz says he hadn’t paid for a year) to $1,200, and excused him from paying for the kids’ health insurance. In July the husband claimed he lacked money to pay even the $1,200. The day
I met Liz, she had applied for HUSKY, Connecticut’s low-cost insurance program.

Liz’s stats up to now are as follows: five years elapsed, three lawyers hired, more than $500,000 spent. Though her divorce became final in 2006, Liz is still going to court, acting as her own attorney, to get compliance issues sorted out. She doesn’t expect her ex-husband to resume paying family support regularly, though, she asserts, “the courts never held him accountable anyway.”

Liz is moving on to the extent possible, her grace and dignity intact. She got a job with a clothing company and makes jewelry on the side. “I’m not going to be a victim,” she says. “If anything, I’m stronger now for having gone through all that I’ve gone through. But it’s very hard to extricate yourself from this system. I walk into that courthouse and feel sadly at home.”

Liz’s troubles struck me as abnormal verging on bizarre. I found it disconcerting, then, to so easily stumble upon women and men whose breakup nightmares equaled hers. Of a dozen people who told me about their recent divorce cases in Fairfield County, I encountered only one who spent less than $100,000 in legal fees. Most had gone through at least two lawyers. Some were dealing with ex-spouses determined to create “a living hell” (as one woman’s ex promised) by shirking financial obligations — and succeeding at it. Most had kids in therapy.

Is the system out of whack as it functions in Fairfield County? Divorce lawyers tend to think not. “In my experience, divorce horror stories are the exception, not the rule,” says Tom Colin, expressing a representative view. Most divorcing couples reach an amicable settlement, maintains Colin, a well-regarded Greenwich lawyer whose clients include supermodel Stephanie Seymour, now embroiled in a less-than-amicable divorce from Peter Brant, the polo-playing publisher and newsprint tycoon. “Yet, for obvious reasons, I do not expect those couples to go around town boasting about how their divorce was so wonderful,” he says. “On the other hand, in those cases with a high level of conflict, the process may not be as effective, but do you revamp the whole system for the exceptions? I don’t think so.”

Perhaps the question is, Are those who are battle- scarred by divorce all that exceptional? It doesn’t appear so in Fairfield County; and for these people the process is “frustrating” and “hideous,” leaving them feeling “helpless,” “fleeced” and “very much on [their] own.” The many problems they describe overwhelm a reporter’s attempts at condensation, but here are their most serious charges, taken one at a time:

Fairfield County's lucrative “divorce industry” (including forensic accountants, private detectives and guardians ad litem) profits according to a separating couple's level of bitterness and mistrust,and attorneys frequently stoke the acrimony rather than calm it.

Without lawyers involved, one can (theoretically) get divorced for about $500. The Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund says attorneys’ fees for a divorce “start at $750 to $1,500 and increase.” From the Fairfield County vantage point, that info (from an otherwise helpful group) is laughably out of tune. Lisa Nkonoki, a self-described life coach who shepherds rich and poor through tricky divorce issues, estimates that legal fees average roughly $20,000 per person in Connecticut, but more than $100,000 per person in Fairfield County, often reaching $500,000.

Why so much more here? Wealth complicates the process: Assets have to be untangled in order to be negotiated and divided, and that takes time and money. Also, wealthy communities attract high-priced lawyers. (I found one who is said to bill $800 per hour. More commonly the fee is $450 to $650, but first you have to plunk down a retainer of around $20,000.)

But one suspicion I kept running across holds that some lawyers look at the financial affidavit — the one that details family assets — and calculate how much money they can wring from a client. A Greenwich woman who, with her husband, spent over a million dollars getting divorced, called the “industry” “a total scam.” The woman’s attorney put her estranged husband on the witness stand for nearly two months for no reason she could discern. (At night she and her husband would exchange e-mails wondering at the absurdity of the process.) Finally the bewildered woman asked her attorney, “What is our strategy here? The longer we go on, the less money there is to care for me and the children.” His reply: “You need to keep the faith.” She hired a second lawyer to interrupt the proceedings and craft a settlement. In the end, she tells me, “The legal fees totaled thirty percent of our net worth. I had to sell the house.”

Lisa says the best-known divorce lawyers are not necessarily the best; sometimes they’re just the greediest. “These high-powered attorneys can be the biggest problem. They hold you hostage,” dragging things out, seeking more fees. Lisa says most women she sees in Fairfield County are on their third or fourth lawyer, watching helplessly as their finances dwindle.

In one unusual case, a Greenwich divorce lawyer billed his male client a $300,000 “success bonus” during sensitive mediations. Fearing the mediations would fall apart if the attorney jumped ship, the client paid up. Later the attorney was ordered to return the money, but he continued to defend the success bonus on the grounds that he saved the client millions.

Complicating the “gouging lawyer” view is the fact that clients themselves sometimes are to blame for high costs. They can prove so uncompromising in their determination to punish a spouse or to “win” — whatever a win might constitute — that the process is driven past the point of common sense. Anthony Piazza, a Stamford lawyer who also does mediation, said that while the process isn’t perfect, most nightmare divorces are “a function of how long people want to fight.” He added, “Courts are the long way. Mediation is the short way — and you get to the same spot.”

Litigating a divorce can hardly help but be adversarial. Michael Becker, a Westport lawyer and accountant who does full-time divorce mediation, says the system’s very structure, in which spouses line up against each other and a judge makes the call, creates a sense of winners and losers. “If you have two people in an adversarial system,” he says, “they begin to behave like adversaries.”

Connecticut is one of forty-one states that use “equitable distribution” rather than “community property” laws, meaning property belongs to the spouse who earned it. If a couple can’t agree on asset division, a judge decides what’s fair, which isn’t the same as what’s equal. Lorna Wendt, for example, ended up with roughly 20 percent of her husband’s worth, plus alimony. And though ours is a “no-fault” state, fault may figure in a judge’s decisions on custody, support payments and property division.

In mediation spouses reach an agreement themselves rather than have a judge impose one on them — and, not surprisingly, the compliance rate is much higher. “When a judge tells you what to do, you have less equity in that decision,” Becker says. “It’s not yours. You don’t own it.”

Breadwinners (usually male) enjoy a huge advantage in the process, especially if they're well-off; non-bread-winners too often are left trying to extract their asset share or support payments from ex-spouses at considerable legal cost, long after the divorce is over.

A common scenario in Fairfield County has a marriage’s balance of power tilted heavily toward the businessman husband. Lisa Nkonoki has seen situations where the husband comes home from work and announces that he wants a divorce, and next thing the wife knows, her credit cards have been cut off. Besides the trauma of being cast aside, she may feel the shame of social ostricism
(the club membership almost invariably goes to him) and financial deprivation, however briefly. “She can’t go to the hairdresser, for example, because her credit cards don’t work, and she may not have her own bank account. Meanwhile he’s buying diamond rings for his girlfriend.”

Once the divorce gets under way, women may face a costly discovery process. What’s her husband’s income? What about his property holdings, bank accounts, his stock options and other “soft” assets? Wealthy breadwinners have been known to hide assets or transfer them into complex financial instruments. A Greenwich woman tells me she spent $100,000 on a forensic accountant who did a poor job, missing the fact that her husband’s earnings were actually three times the amount declared in his financial affidavit. “The court makes the assumption that the affidavits are truthful — they take it on faith,” she says. Because of her husband’s trickery, she adds, “I have spent more time in court post-divorce than I spent getting a divorce.”

A mother of two from Greenwich who suffered through many years of marriage to a chronic drinker and philanderer, was awarded 30 percent of the man’s income, but has received less than $700 over two years. The ex-husband apparently makes no money. “Saying they don’t work is another thing they all do — one of the oldest tricks in the book,” the woman says. Somehow, the man rented a ritzy apartment suite in a nearby town.

A divorced Westport man offers a counterpoint. He feels that the balance in marriage nowadays, financial and otherwise, is often equal. “We always hear about the guy who doesn’t pay child support, the guy who runs off with his secretary,” he says. “I know a lot of guys who are trying to do it all, to be superdads.”

Most family court judges fail to enforce court orders. When one party violates them, or is dishonest in depositions or financial affidavits, judges levy no punishment.

Many women say the legal system’s promise of protection is a sham: Judges permit well-off breadwinners (and their attorneys) to drag out cases to the detriment of non-breadwinners, who, having comparatively little money to work with, are forced to settle for far less than they should. Also, judges haphazardly enforce court orders, from the “automatic” ones prohibiting spouses from raiding assets during the process to the decrees that spell out final terms, such as property division, custody, child support and alimony.

“Trying to get these orders enforced is emotionally debilitating and financially draining,” remarks a Greenwich woman, who has alerted state legislators to the problem. “I’ve spent $50,000 trying to get my former husband to comply with what’s written in black and white.” Among other things, she’d like to see clearly prescribed penalties for the “recalcitrant or dishonest party.” As things stand now, she says, “It’s in my former husband’s interest not to comply, and in his lawyer’s interest to advise him not to comply.”

A mother of two from Darien was divorced from a shark-like Wall Street banker in 2007, but post-divorce money issues continue to plague her. She says months pass before an issue gets on the docket, and once it does get on, the opposing lawyer simply asks for a delay. A new problem arises and the cycle repeats itself. “Meanwhile, my ex-husband was paying no child support or alimony for months and months.”

As for her high-priced lawyer? A blunder in the divorce agreement he fashioned, she claims, allowed her ex-husband to legally avoid paying child support and alimony despite having millions in the bank. This absurd situation came about a couple of years ago, when the man was fired from Morgan Stanley. “Child support and alimony were based on his income, so I got zero,” the woman says, and the husband seemed well pleased. “He treated us like the next big deal: Crush the opponent for the biggest profit. Win at any cost.”

A divorced father of two from Newtown thinks the courts — so mindful of keeping the case-flow moving — are simply ill-equipped to deal with foot-dragging, noncompliance and deception. This man’s ex-wife fell a year behind on mortgage payments of the family home — her responsibility though the house was still in his name. The judge threw his hands up: “What do you want me to do? I don’t have a magic wand.”

The ex-wife’s attorneys prolonged festering crises with pointless obfuscating, says the man, who represented himself. “When information is properly presented, judges make good decisions,” he observes. “But when parties play games, trying to pull one over with false or misleading information, the judge has to filter through.”

Judge Lynda Munro, Connecticut’s Chief Administrative Judge for Family Matters, who hears some of the state’s most contentious divorce cases, would probably agree. Concerning willful noncompliance, she says, “Judges will deal with these matters appropriately if they are brought to their attention.” (Indeed, the banker ex-husband of one woman I spoke to spent a brief time in jail.) Judge Munro suggested, however, that deception can be hard to prove.

Men say that court orders sometimes prove impossible to fulfill.

Not all men in Fairfield County are fixated on money and power. Neal Brodsky, a certified marriage mentor in Wilton, often hears complaints from average workingmen suddenly trying to support two households on the same income with which they supported one. Brodsky himself struggled under the two-household burden after divorcing in 1995. “This is all the more reason, from an economic standpoint, not to spend precious resources in the divorce process if at all possible.”

A man who spent at least $100,000 on his divorce and supports a second household told me that non-earning divorced spouses seem to
expect nothing to change. “You’re supporting two households. Everything’s going to be a little less. Nothing changes? It does change. Your life changes.”

There have been advances in Connecticut’s divorce process. Just five years ago our system was known for its rather Jarndycean pace; now, thanks to a new management system, about 90 percent of the 30,000 cases on the books at a given time are dispatched within a year, according to Judge Munro. An obligatory parenting class for divorcing couples has been helpful too, said Anthony Piazza, the Stamford lawyer. A still-needed improvement, he added, would have the same judge oversee a case from beginning to end, rather than a rotation of judges unfamiliar with the issues and personalities. But the divorce-weary quoted in this story favor sweeping legal reform, including such measures as fee caps for attorneys and independent boards to oversee lawyers and judges. (Attempts at reform have been mostly in vain. One victory: Former Greenwich lawmaker Dolly Powers spearheaded a 2002 bill ordering divorced parents to pay for children’s higher education until age twenty-two.)

“So many men say they get the short end of the stick, and so many women say they’re mistreated in the system,” says Michael Becker, neatly summing up. “From what I hear, nobody seems very happy.”

One observation I heard again and again is that Fairfield County, in divorce as in everything else, is a world apart. The reason seems to boil down to money — never a simple matter to begin with. In marriages where money equals power, the one with the power is loath to give it up and the one without is loath to be trod upon. In the end, if you’re lucky, your divorce will look something like Libby Mitchell’s. She and her ex-husband split their assets down the middle, hammered out a parenting plan, and won praise from a judge for working so well together, given divorce’s inevitable grief and messiness. Even so, the process lasted eighteen months and the thirty-one page divorce decree (spelling out division of assets and so forth) cost Libby alone $60,000 in legal bills. In our affluent towns, few divorcing couples fare half as well as Libby and her ex-husband did — but how well was that, really? “Even when it’s good it’s bad,” Libby remarks. “I think we should all just go to Mexico. It’s cheaper and they have good tequila.”