In the crazy overload of last week, Kim Kardashian dumped the news that her 72-day marriage to NBA player Kris Humphries is officially over, after 536 days of divorce negotiations. The Kardashian clan’s predilection for nuptial fails (mom, stepdad, and late dad count eight marriages among them; Kim herself is 0 for 2) isn’t exactly the modern American norm. The Centers for Disease Control reports that the divorce rate remains nearly a third lower than its 1981 peak. Still, Americans' chances of winding up in splitsville are pretty high—73 percent of third marriages, 53 percent of married smokers, and 32 percent of all wedded Oklahomans wind up divorced. Somewhere in America, a married couple still calls it quits every 13 seconds.
Enter lawyers. Twenty of the nation's top divorce attorneys are members of the “Roundtable,” so-called in a nod to the chivalric order of King Arthur's court, and to the Monty Python song ("It's a busy life in Camelot/ I have to push the pram-a-lot.") Among them are five former chairs of American Bar Association Family Law Section, including the lawyer who represented actress NeNe Leakes during the divorce that played out over two seasons of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. (Leakes and her former husband are now remarrying.) Once a year the Roundtablers meet to brief each other on the ever evolving weirdness of their field. This time, I sat at their feet and absorbed their collective wisdom. Here are the best tips I gleaned.
WHERE TO DO IT
When it comes to divorce, there is such a thing as a geographic cure. Yes, states have residency requirements for filing, but they can be finessed. So:
- If you want child support, try California instead of neighboring Nevada. You're likely to score 10 times as much.
- If you want spousal support, skip Texas. Real life J.R. Ewings don't like paying alimony any more than they like paying taxes.
- If you are the wealthy spouse and you want to keep your assets away from the one you no longer love, run, don't walk, from Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin, in which the rule is assets accumulated during the marriage are split 50–50. The other 41 states divide property based on the principal of equitable distribution. In other words, judges assess the split for fairness.
- If you’re the poor spouse, reverse the advice in the last paragraph.
- If you cheated, do NOT file for divorce in Georgia. It is the only state that allows a jury to decide alimony, child support, and distribution of assets. Slatternly women and sinful men are not beloved by Bible belt jurors.
- If you want privacy, New York is your haven. It’s the state in which only litigants and their attorneys have access to papers filed with the courts. (That's likely why Katie Holmes filed for divorce from Tom Cruise in NYC.)
WHEN TO DO IT
- If you are very young, spare yourself the cost of a wedding ($26,989 on average, says Brides magazine). Fully 36.6 percent of brides and 38.8 percent of grooms who marry between the ages of 20 and 24 divorce. Skip your more doomed starter marriage, grow up a bit, and go straight to the more sensible second try.
- If you are a bit older and have children from a previous marriage, get a prenuptial agreement that protects money and assets for your kids. They probably won't like your new spouse anyway, but knowing you looked out for them might help.
- If you have a midlife crisis and tank your current marriage by having a steamy, illicit affair, don't marry your lover. Hot sex cools to tepid as soon as it is no longer illicit. More than 75 percent of people who marry a partner they met via an affair divorce.
WHO TO DO IT WITH
Currently, nine states allow gay marriage, 38 states and the federal government ban it, and the Supreme Court is mulling. The legal patchwork poses challenges for same-sex couples—and also their children and their creditors.
Imagine a same-sex couple marries in Washington state, where gay marriage is recognized and the rule for splitting assets and debt is 50–50, and then moves and buys a home in Colorado, where gay marriage is not recognized, but civil unions are, and the legal standard for dividing "marital" assets in divorce is whatever a judge defines as fair. In Colorado, the couple splits up. The higher earning spouse took out the mortgage alone, but the title to the home is in both spouses' names. Now the lower earning spouse wants to sell and won't pay her share of maintenance costs. What happens? ... A legal nightmare.
The upshot is this: If you are in a same-sex relationship and contemplating marriage, be very sure you are in it for the long haul. Don’t count on the Supreme Court to bail you out this summer when its rulings on same-sex marriage come down: Plenty of litigation to sort out the details is sure to follow.
WHO TO TAKE WITH YOU
If you have a pet you think of as your baby, sorry, but courts consider Fido and Fifi “property." That said, judges have four-legged family members, too. Recently courts have begun to award custody, visitation, and support payments for a pet. To bolster your argument for custody:
- Prove the pet is yours. Wield those ASPCA adoption papers like a weapon. You brought the cute puppy into the marriage, you get to take the shedding dog out.
- Prove you need the pet. In one case, a husband bought a golden retriever, but the wife claimed the animal helped her recover from alcoholism. She'd been sober for seven years. She got the dog.
- Prove the pet needs you. You have a bigger yard, more chew toys, more friends at the dog run. You work at home. You and the pooch spoon together every night in bed.
- Just as with children, joint custody and financial support are options. A Canadian court ordered a man to pay his ex-wife $200 a month for the care of Crunchy, their St. Bernard. If Crunchy had been a human child, the support would have been $691, the judge said.
- If you want to make absolutely sure you get to keep the dog, 46 states have rules for establishing pet trusts. Choose a guardian and be generous.
VERY BOTTOM LINE
When divorcing: Don't lie, you'll get caught. Don't be a jerk: Everyone will hate you and eventually you will hate yourself. And as much as you can't stop ruminating on the past, remember this: Divorce is about the future.
Jurisprudence thanks lawyers Randall Kessler, Linda Ravdin, Gregg Hermann, and Mitchell Karpf.