It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are two sides to every divorce. But only after reading Gerald Nissenbaum's gossip-filled exposé, Love Sex and Money: Revenge and Ruin in the World of High-Stakes Divorce, did I realize there might be another universally acknowledged truth: There are two sides to every book written by a divorce lawyer.
Not that divorce lawyers are all that prolific as authors. Beyond threatening letters and weighty briefs, they mostly write how-to books. Can it be that attorney Nissenbaum, one of Boston's priciest family lawyers, is the first to write a full-blown exposé (aided by well-known novelist and journalist John Sedgwick), with names and details changed to protect attorney-client privilege? As the book's subtitle makes clear, Love, Sex and Money is intended to blow open the door to Nissenbaum's boutique law firm office, and give us a ringside seat at some of the most dramatic, hilarious, heartbreaking -- and lucrative -- of the 8,000 break-ups in his forty-year-old business.
And what's not to like for the reader in search of a soothing dose of schadenfreude, the pleasure one takes in the suffering of others?
Beyond the guilty pleasures of witnessing rich people squandering their money, hiding it from the IRS and their spouses, lying under oath, faking tears on the stand, kidnapping their own children, robbing their spouses blind, fighting over -- for instance -- who will get a treasured human skull when two medical students divorce, and, now and then, committing some good old-fashioned adultery -- husbands and wives both -- beyond all of those tawdry pleasures, Nissenbaum is surprisingly candid in discussing money, his own and his clients'. In every sense, it's his bread and butter. It's what divorce is all about, unless it's about custody, but even that is often (but not always) about money.
Nissenbaum's clients are the ultra-rich, he explains, "because only the rich can pay what I charge: $700 an hour, which is tops for this kind of work in Boston and in most places around the country." His clients must also have $5 million in assets, and many have another zero or two after the 5. They have so much money, he says, that they "don't mind my fees and expenses." One case -- with a twenty-four-day trial -- earned him $2 million. "One case went on for seventeen years," he writes. "My fee? A cool and hard-earned million. For a client who left happy."
If the hard luck of rich folks in extremis is your thing, the fast-paced, sometimes sexually explicit case histories in Sex, Love and Money will take your mind off your troubles and make you glad, once and for all, that you don't have $5 million in bank -- because, that way, you know your spouse won't ever hire Nissenbaum to divorce you.
As entertaining and illuminating as it is to be a fly on Nissenbaum's wall -- to see how his practice and his mind work, how his often crazed clients fight for the their lives, their children, and their fortunes -- there are political dimensions to this story that Nissenbaum refrains from exploring.
When he does take a stand on some of them, he reveals that he's from the oldest of the old schools in Massachusetts, whose 1950s-era divorce laws (Dad works; Mom bakes cookies) are both archaic and litigation-heavy. They are widely considered the most out-of-date in the country. Lifetime alimony is awarded to nearly every lower-earning spouse who can come to court with an attorney, even if the lower earner is a 40-year-old medical doctor or has received millions in marital assets. And alimony payers (96 percent are men) have no legal right to retire and have their payments lowered, much less ended. The state Supreme Court just reaffirmed this draconian case law in a ruling that shook up even the legal establishment.
The laws in this allegedly progressive state are so extreme in their lack of guidelines and unpredictability that the legislature has convened a task force to reform current alimony laws. Many divorce lawyers know that change is coming and are advertising on-line, hoping to bring new business their way. An organization called Mass Alimony Reform has been the prime mover in this effort.
I should say here that I met Nissenbaum once in 2008, when we appeared together on a TV news show in Boston, talking about an op-ed I wrote for the Boston Globe, exposing another feature of current law that keeps many people from marrying in Massachusetts. (I know co-author John Sedgwick slightly too, as a fellow writer in the Boston area, where I live part-time.) When a woman marries a divorced man with alimony obligations there, a judge can force the new wife to contribute, directly or indirectly, to the ex-wife's support, even as the ex-wife is not required to work.
Perhaps when the alimony laws are updated, enlightenment may seep into other aspects of this Dickensian family law, including the need to litigate every change in family circumstance. In the meantime, lifetime legal bills for middle-class people easily plunder savings, home equity, and retirement accounts. Because so many aspects of the law -- beyond child support -- are imprecise and based on case law rather than statute, litigation offers incentives for lower-earners, usually women.
It's the possibility of "winning," regardless of financial or emotional cost -- with husbands often forced to pay legal fees -- that creates so many acrimonious divorces. In states where alimony guidelines are clear and predictable, where alimony is limited by statute, and where shared parenting is the norm, there is much less to fight about. Divorces don't go on for years, and the outcomes are not driven by the biases of lawyers and judges. It's trial lawyers and bar associations that usually impede efforts to reform these laws.
Nissenbaum's world view, as I read it in Sex, Love and Money, is that there should no presumption of shared parenting, no move from the big family house once Dad leaves, no acknowledgment that divorce changes resources, and -- perhaps the most shocking statement in the entire book -- that a dad who worked hard before the divorce, while Mom was the primary parent, should expect to see his children "only on alternate weekends." "This may be hard on the father," he asserts, "but it would be harder on the children to do otherwise, if they are to maintain as much as possible the life they knew." What exactly is being maintained when children see their father every fourteen days? This too is a shocker:
Say what? Let Nissenbaum help you decipher the meaning here by visiting his website and studying neatly presented decades of case law that favor the mother and wife in custody, visitation, alimony, and the division of assets.
"I don't agree with the idea that men routinely get screwed in divorce, although a lot of men think so these days. [See above.] Not if you look at it from the kids' point of view, which should be the only one that counts. Kids have an interest in keeping things even between the parents, even if that means one parent paying a lot of child support to the other."
But if that sounds too much like homework, sing a song that was written by Iris Tanner, a cabaret singer who dated a few too many divorced men in Massachusetts. It's called "Don't Get Married in Massachusetts (If You're Male)." This first verse goes like this:
Matrimony may be great/But there's a certain state/Where's a wedding's bad for your financial health/Where if a marriage doesn't work/The man will always be the jerk/And lucky ladies gather in the wealth.
Lucky ladies and divorce lawyers. World without end. Amen.
- Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, including the bestseller Almost, and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. She's the editor of the new anthology: Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives.