Fox Considers “Divorce Hotel” – Drive-Thru Or Drive-By Reality TV

On behalf of The Marks Law Firm, L.L.C. posted in Divorce on Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Now some twenty years old, reality television feels the need to continue to push the envelope in order to stir interest in fresh content. Keeping with that theme, Fox has turned its voyeuristic fascination to a reality concept where a couple check into a hotel on a Friday and leave divorced by Monday morning checkout – the pilot is already in the works. The show has its roots in an actual Divorce Hotel in the Netherlands where a staff of attorneys, tax advisors and mediators handle divorces in 48 hours.

So, would you watch “Divorce Hotel” or boycott your local Fox station? At a time when most people seem to want more privacy in an all-too-exposed Internet era, do we really want this most personal and painful of life experiences treated as reality show fare?

One can appreciate why reality television show producers would find divorce fertile ground. First, more than half of all marriages end in divorce, with hundreds of thousands of new filings every year around the country. Second, divorce has instant emotional appeal – intrigue, turmoil, villains, shocking turns, spouses behaving badly. Third, most people seem to lack a clear understanding of the “nuts and bolts” of the divorce process, despite the enormous number of process participants annually. Fourth, the “Real Housewives” series have included spouses who choose to end their marriage, and ratings tend to soar with these plot twists. Fifth, at least since “L.A. Law” premiered on television nearly thirty years ago, audiences have found divorce a form of must-see excitement because it presents a glamorous yet cautionary tale, a cross between a soap opera and Shakespearean tragedy. Finally, divorce strikes at the heart of a continuing fear and mystery of modern society – why do marriages end, and often in such a bitter fashion? Millions watch “American Idol” secretly dreaming they could be next; Fox anticipates millions would watch “Divorce Hotel” as some type of schadenfreude, taking pride in the relative health of their own relationships while looking for clues of the future demise of those relationships.

Even if it makes compelling television, could “Divorce Hotel” possibly be legal? That question remains murky. Some states allow for relatively quick divorces, but certain procedural safeguards must be followed. One could look to mediation and collaborative law as a guide, where couples sign certain agreements committing to the process and full disclosure, and to work out all the details so that the end product is completed before even opening the court file. Ostensibly, “Divorce Hotel” would follow this format (no court drama here), with some family court commissioner or judge available to sign off on the agreement.

But this potentially quick process has many pitfalls that might (or should) sink the show. First, no court, and no mediator, could reach an appropriate outcome with regard to the custody of children in two days; indeed, it would seem morally repugnant to dispatch with the welfare of the children in such a fashion. As a result, “Divorce Hotel” likely would not cover spouses with children. But even if left to issues of division of property and spousal support, and even limiting the net worth of the couple to a relatively modest amount, the issue of full and fair disclosure seems questionable. Even if the parties compile all of their documents in advance, no party would have the time or the resources to verify the accuracy of the disclosure, which would make it far too easy to fraudulently conceal assets. The law requires more safeguards for a prenuptial agreement than what “Divorce Hotel” would seem to require of its participants. And lawyers have ethical obligations that cannot be removed entirely by waiver – an attorney cannot agree to participate in a process where he or she knows she cannot provide complete and competent representation, even if the client agrees to waive the right to complain or sue after the fact and upon discovery of errors made by the attorney. If a lawyer objectively sees that he or she cannot possibly discharge appropriate legal advice and counsel and representation in a compressed period of time, the lawyer must decline to participate, just as a doctor could not uphold his or her oath by agreeing to perform an eight hour surgery in one hour just for the sake of live television constraints, even if the patient waives an right to sue afterward. And what of the judges? They have a sworn duty to process a divorce only after assuring all conditions for fairness and full disclosure and consultation with counsel have been met. How can that possibly take place in a span of minutes on a television show? It does seem that the drive for expediency created by and for the novelty of reality television has pushed the law beyond what ethics and due process demand.

And yet…in certain uncontested divorces with minimal assets, it seems that a quick resolution through collaboration and mediation could work. But those cases hardly seem ripe for dramatic television appeal. But who thought “People’s Court” or “Judge Judy” handling the most mundane of disputes would draw millions of viewers?

We love to watch legal drama unfold on our television screen because it is the intersection of real life issues and our own need to wrestle with the right outcomes. We watch to look inside of ourselves, if even at a superficial level. But turning real life into a scripted drama seems rather dangerous in this context, and a very slippery slope. Where does education end and entertainment begin? When do the participants become pawns of producers?

We all could benefit from a true picture of what divorce involves, from the initial filing through to the ending judgment, to see how much work the lawyers put in to researching the facts and the law in each case, to dealing with conflicting emotions and varying expectations of clients, to the delicacy of negotiation and compromise. But that simply cannot take place in real time in a weekend. As a documentary after-the-fact? Perhaps. But not to the point where audience members text in their preferred outcomes in real time.

Television may have a role to play in shedding light on the difficult process of divorce, but “Divorce Hotel” likely will offer only a blinding glare.

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