Divorce: Who is Protecting Women in Our Judicial System?

Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

I thought I was finally safe when the police arrested my husband for domestic violence, but little did I know that he would soon use the New York State legal system to do to me what he could no longer do with his hands. At first, I thought I was imagining the judicial abuse, but after ten years of trying to be free and speaking to countless women and politicians, I have learned that I’m not.

Wealthy men have the upper hand in a divorce. When my ex-husband and I got married, I had more assets than he did. But times were different for women then, and I gave up my career to raise our two children, including one with a disability. While it appeared that I had money (since we jointly owned a Manhattan townhouse, a home in the Hamptons, and two luxury cars), I was actually the non-monied spouse, and my access to liquid funds was limited.

Since I never had access to my finances, I couldn’t even respond to questions like what was my mortgage payment, because I had no idea. I was too busy raising the children and addressing my daughter’s disability and medical insurance claims to notice that the monthly statements had stopped coming to the house. They had slowly shifted to my husband’s office.

Hiring a New York City matrimonial attorney requires a $25,000 upfront retainer fee. A motion for legal fees with a net worth statement must be filed in order to obtain an award, which is counterintuitive, since an attorney is needed to help prepare the documents. Top attorneys frequently decline cases from non-monied spouses, since the judges won’t award their full fee.

If the non-monied spouse can somehow compile the net worth statement, lawyers review the assets and bill according to the net worth. If you complain about the fees, the attorneys quit and remind you that practicing law is not a hobby. The monied spouse, aware that the non-monied spouse has limited legal funds, brings repeated motions and appeals. While my legal fee award seemed like a lot of money, it was only about 10% of my husband’s arsenal.

Our case has had about 90 motions plus appeals. The judge refused to provide me additional monies to pay an attorney to deal with them because we are post-divorce judgment, so I am on my own. Despite having graduated from law school, I barely practiced and haven’t done so for about 25 years, so I’m not well equipped to serve as my own attorney. On the rare occasions that the judge rules for me, my ex-husband immediately files an appeal. Since I don’t have the funds for an attorney, I am forced to read and address stacks of incomprehensible legal documents.

My ex-husband and I have been in court about two or three times per month for the last three years. I work for myself and can barely earn a living, since it is impossible to work consistently and also draft the legal pleadings. I developed thyroid cancer in the exact spot where my ex had placed me in a choke restraint, and the coincidence is hard to miss.

But even cancer didn’t stop the legal workflow. Three days after the surgeon injected collagen into my immobile vocal cord following a thyroidectomy, my ex-husband sent me an email saying, “Being sick does not give you a free pass.” His goal appears to be to force me to retain an attorney to dissipate my divorce award. In court, he said on the record, “I am appealing to squeeze her to settle.” Orders and decisions are apparently mere suggestions for renegotiation. He seems to be trying to change every aspect of the Judgment of Divorce.

My ex-husband was permitted to pay my future support money from his IRA to a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO), over my objection. The funds are now subject to market fluctuations. And if I move the money, I am forced to pay the taxes for three years of support, which shifts me to a higher tax bracket and thereby reduces my support. Plus, I no longer have a reliable income to rent an apartment.

Non-monied spouses like me are prisoners of a broken judicial system with no way out. It is time to fix this system, because women like me do matter.