Todd Walton: Community Property

Long Way from Home

From TODD WALTON
Under The Table Books
Mendocino

“Ah, yes, divorce…from the Latin word meaning to rip out a man’s genitals through his wallet.” Robin Williams The advertisement caught my attention because it was not one of the usual ads that play during every baseball game for the entire 162-game season. I listen to Giants games on a small silver radio that accompanies me to the garden for day games and stands nearby while I do dishes during night games. The ads rarely vary and the sponsors repeat their ads dozens of times per game: Chevron with Techron, Budweiser, Speedy Oil Change, Wells Fargo, Ford Motors, Bay Alarm, Dignity Health.

But this was an advertisement for a law firm, and not the law firm that advertises during games to attract people who need help dealing with the IRS. No, this was an advertisement for a law firm specializing in divorce, and the gist of the ad was: Do you own a business? Want a divorce? We specialize in divorces for men with businesses who don’t want to lose their businesses or business assets as a result of divorce. With offices in Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Santa Clara, our success rate is second to none. Call us today to protect your business and personal property! I was thinning baby carrots when I heard this ad, my little radio dangling from a branch of an apple tree, the Giants in another tight game with the Dodgers, and I thought to myself Did I just hear what I think I just heard? An ad for a law firm proclaiming they help men, specifically men, defeat the community property laws that are supposed to govern divorce proceedings in California? Yes, I did.

I suspect a programming error caused that ad to be aired during the game because I had never heard it before and haven’t heard it since. But what a remarkable proclamation, not remarkable because there is such a law firm, but remarkable because they publicly and proudly admit to specializing in helping men get the best of their wives, right here in the progressive gender-liberated city state of San Francisco.

“He taught me housekeeping, so when I divorce I keep the house.” Zsa Zsa Gabor

Perhaps you know women, as I do, who were married to wealthy men who accrued that wealth during those marriages, yet gave little or nothing to their wives in divorce. True, these women were instrumental in their husbands’ successes, raised their children, did most of the housework and shopping and cooking, provided sex and companionship, and had part or full-time jobs outside the home to pay the bills while their hubbies built up their businesses or established medical practices or completed their MBAs or cooked up lucrative hedge funds, but in the end the women got nothing and their husbands kept everything. And if you are such a woman, I imagine you sometimes wonder how things would be today if you hadn’t been robbed by your ex-husband and his attorney.

I worked in a Palo Alto day care center in the 1970’s in which twenty-three of our twenty-five little kids lived with their single mothers. The center was created to provide childcare for single mothers with full-time jobs, and nearly all our mothers had put their ex-husbands through college or medical school or law school or graduate school or years of starting up a business, only to be discarded when those husbands started earning big bucks and decided to purchase spanking new wives.

Some of our single moms were nurses, some were secretaries, some were sales clerks, and some worked two jobs to pay the rent and feed and clothe their child or children. Very few of our mothers had gotten more than pittances in their divorce settlements, though I knew that should not be the case, theoretically, in California.

After hearing the umpteenth story of one of our struggling mothers slaving as a secretary to put her husband through college and law school while also raising their two kids, only to have her husband divorce her and marry a shiny new trophy wife within a year of landing his high-paying job with a big law firm, I asked my mother, an attorney, “How can this be? I thought California was a community property state and wealth accrued during marriage is, by law, the joint property of husband and wife.”

“Rich people are supposed to pay higher taxes, too,” my mother replied drolly, “but their accountants and lawyers have no trouble getting around that. In contested divorces where facts are easily disputed, the best lawyers usually win. And if one of the contestants has a good lawyer and the other contestant has nolawyer, and the one with the lawyer is merciless, then there’s really no contest.”

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill

When my first marriage ended in divorce in 1994, I gave my ex-wife the house I had owned outright for several years before we got married, though California divorce law said I did not have to give her anything. Even my most open-minded friends thought I was crazy to give away my only possession of any monetary value, a large California Bungalow built in 1910 on a big lot in a good neighborhood and appraised at 400,000 dollars. But after months of anguishing about how to get on with my life, I felt in my bones that giving my ex-wife the house was exactly what I needed to do.

Some years after my divorce, during a rough passage when I had no money, I experienced a moment’s regret about giving away the house, but my regret vanished when I recalled how deeply relieved I was to be free forever of that collection of rooms in a place I no longer wanted to be, and how glad my former partner was to accept my gift and install her new husband therein.
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(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2014)
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