Many people in difficult marriages that find their way into family court firmly believe that part of the mission of divorce is to rule on all of the disputes that caused the marriage to break up, to declare a winner in every personal spat over the years. Some clients meet their lawyers bringing a large binder of every damning note or text or email or picture and exclaiming, “See what ___ did to me!”
It will come as a shock to quite a few people that divorce has little to do with what caused the divorce and everything to do with helping two people move forward in their lives with a fair winding down of the marriage.
In Missouri, a judge in the family court is guided only by what the Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act allows that judge, or orders that judge, to do when someone files for divorce. A judge must determine (a) if the marriage is irretrievably broken, and if so, (b) divide the marital property in an equitable manner, (c) decide whether spousal support is warranted, (d) if children are involved, decide an appropriate custody award and amount of child support. That is it. Nothing about resolving all the issues that brought the parties to court in the first place.
But what about misconduct? Doesn’t that matter?
Not to the degree that most people believe. In today’s world, divorce has become too common for judges to punish a spouse for choosing to leave, even if that spouse had an affair during the marriage, or if one spouse feels the other spouse was not a good parent. Misconduct in the marriage generally affect one thing – money, or more specifically whether the judge will make an unequal distribution of marital property or award one spouse maintenance. It takes some truly shocking behavior to move the family court to move into the unequal distribution category, and it usually involves either domestic abuse or secretly spending a large sum of marital funds on an affair. As for the custody issue, differences in style or presence will not cause a court to give one party sole custody; it would take a showing of real harm to the children to move away from joint custody under the current form of the custody statute.
So, the personal drama that led to divorce falls mostly into the irrelevant category as far as the legal issues involved. But when clients focus continually on the drama, and make that case to a judge, it usually makes the judge less sympathetic to the complaining client because the purpose of the divorce is hearing is not on the little drama but the big issues of custody, property division and support.
Television has made courtroom dramas seem the norm, but family court does not look like those television shows – much more boring and it takes longer. If you want the quickest and best resolution of your case, leave the drama for television and focus with your lawyer on what the court has the legal responsibility to decide.
If you have questions about divorce, contact us – we can help.