Skip to main content

It's a Mad, Mad World: Uncomfortable Praise for the Evolution of Divorce Law in the United States

Mad Men Season 3 Episode Photos
Mad Men Season 3 Episode Photos Photo Gallery
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Episode 13
One of television's most popular shows, Mad Men (season five premieres on March 25 on AMC), is set in the early to mid 1960s New York, and features the troubled marriage and eventual divorce of two of its main characters. The show has earned praise for its efforts to remain historically accurate, and as such, gives divorce practitioners a chance to view the dissolution of a marriage as if it were in a time capsule.

The show's main character, Don Draper, is a professionally successful advertising executive with a lifestyle which includes a serious drinking problem and many extra-marital affairs. His wife, Betty, had been a model, but stopped working to care for their children after their oldest was born. After discovering one of Don's affairs, and finding out that he was actually living under someone else's name, and that he had previously been divorced in California, she went to her father's estate attorney to ask about her options regarding a divorce. The following is the dialogue between Betty and the attorney, fictionally set in 1963 (from the season finale of Season 3):

Attorney: "What do you want to do? Do you want a divorce? In New York State you need to prove adultery. Can you?"
Betty: "Maybe."
Attorney: "I mean prove it in a court of law. That's hard to do, unless he wants out, but you're not going to get anything. You won't even be able to buy [your brother] out of [your father's] house, so you'll have to sell it. And, he can take the children. That's my legal advice. You want the rest of it? Are you afraid of him?"
Betty: "No."
Attorney: "Is he a good provider?"
Betty: "Well, he is but that's not the point. It's a lie so big, Milton. I feel like I've been in some dream since I found out. Just saying it out loud to you is ... the first time I'm realizing it's true."
Attorney: "You have three small children together. At least, go home. Give it a try. That's what I'd tell my own daughter."

At the time of this fictional dialogue, No-Fault divorce had not yet become available in most states. New York became the last state to allow for No-Fault divorce in 2010. Massachusetts, by contrast, has had No-Fault divorce for over thirty years.

No-Fault divorce makes proving a wrong, such as adultery, unnecessary in a divorce proceeding. Since No-Fault divorce became common, divorce cases have shifted their focus from what a husband or wife has done wrong to accepting that individuals should have the ability to exit a marriage if they feel that it has irretrievably broken down, and figuring out how to sever some of the ties that bind a couple.

Other than the procedural requirement that something fault-based be proven in court, the two points that the attorney makes that are diametrically opposed to modern divorce law is the idea that Betty would not get anything, and that Don would get the kids. Modern divorce law is designed to (it doesn't always work out this way, but it is designed to) minimize the transition for any children in the midst of a divorce. Judges like to keep children in as stable position as possible. The idea of having three young children taken away from their stay-at-home mother to reside primarily with their father and his long hours and drinking problem, without much evidence that the children would be better off with him than with their mother, is unlikely in a modern divorce. Further, the revolution (and evolution) of alimony, property division, and child support within the context of a modern divorce would make it very unlikely that Betty would be left without many assets or support from Don to continue their upper middle class lifestyle.

Lastly, and this might be more the issue of a Hollywood script than a historically accurate portrayal of how attorneys spoke to potential clients about divorce fifty years ago, it is inappropriate for an attorney to try and convince a potential client to either obtain or refrain from obtaining a divorce. That is a personal decision that should be made only by the individual.

What is considered "fair" is fluid. Views on politics, ethics, gender relations, and many more issues vary over the course of time, and vary among different cultures within the same time. From this divorce practitioner's viewpoint, the modern divorce is generally "fair" given what that term carries in early twenty-first century Massachusetts, at least far more than what it was fifty years ago.


Comments

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

What is the purpose of the Divorce Nisi waiting period?

In Massachusetts the statutory waiting period after a Judgment of Divorce and before the divorce becomes final (or absolute) is called the Nisi period. After a divorce case settles or goes to trial, a Judgment of Divorce Nisi will issue and it will become Absolute after a further ninety (90) days. This waiting period serves the purpose of allowing parties to change their mind before the divorce becomes final. If the Judgment of Divorce Nisi has issued but not become final yet, and you and your spouse decide you don't want to get divorced, then you can file a Motion to Dismiss and the Judgment will be undone. Although many of my clients who are getting divorced think the idea of getting back together with their ex sounds crazy, I have had cases where this happened. In addition to offering a grace period to change your mind, the Nisi period has three other legal effects: 1. The most obvious effect of the waiting period is that you cannot remarry during the Nisi period, be

Does a Criminal Record affect Child Custody?

If one of the parents in a custody case has a criminal record, the types of crimes on their record could have an effect on their chances of obtaining custody. In custody cases the issue is always going to come down to whether or not the best interests of the child might be affected. In the most extreme case, in which one parent has been convicted of first degree murder of the other parent, the law specifically prohibits visitation with the children until they are of a suitable age to assent. Similarly, but to a less serious degree, in making custody and visitation determinations the court will consider crimes that would cause one to question the fitness of a parent. These types of crimes would obviously include any violent crime convictions which could call into question whether the children would be in danger around a parent who has shown themselves to resort to violence when faced with conflict. In addition, drug and alcohol abuse offenses would call into question a parent&#

The Questions that Lawyers and Mediators aren't asking but should: Let's talk about Pronouns

I recently had the opportunity to train with two of the most prominent mediators in Massachusetts: John Fiske and Diane Neumann . Each time they run a training, John and Diane share what they think is the most important question for a client to answer to have an effective mediation. John says that he thought the most important question is "What do I want?" But then he will tell you, with a knowing smile, that Diane disagreed with him and she would say that the most important question for a client to answer is "Who am I?" I agree with Diane. The best lawyers and mediators ask their clients not just about what they want, but also deep questions about the clients' identity, goals, and values in order to help the clients resolve conflict in the most effective way possible. Despite knowing this, we often fail to ask clients the simplest questions when we first meet them or have them fill out an intake. We fail to give them an opportunity to answer the question “W