They say time heals all wounds. But that’s just a cliché. Sometimes our minds gift us with the ability to forget, maybe selective dementia, erase the slate, ease the pain. But other times, not-so-much. And while writing about this stuff is therapeutic, it also raises those dead memories from the past. Tears the scab off the old wounds and brings the pain right back to the surface again . . .
Oh, and I still have the paperwork. . . I’m afraid to throw it away.
I don’t remember what story I was reading to her, but I loved it when she laughed. It may have been Curious George; it may have been Where the Wild Things Are. She would have me read them over and over again. It was really a special time of day for us.
We were a few months into my first divorce and a routine had solidified.
I worked the night shift so when I’d get home in the morning, I’d sleep to about three in the afternoon, get up, pick my daughter up from the Montessori school we had enrolled her in, bring her to my place to play, have dinner, and play some more. Then I’d take her back to her mom’s and read her bedtime stories until she fell asleep. I would then head off to work. Another night. Another rotation of the Moon chasing the Sun.
All her mother had to do was feed her breakfast and drop her off at school in the morning. I had her every single weekday and every weekend. I loved being a dad. And the ex seemed happy to not have her daughter in her life past breakfast.
It all was pretty smooth at first.
But then I was forbidden to read her bedtime stories anymore. It seems that the Kiddo would wake up in the middle of the night, find me missing, and then cry. Her mother didn’t like being woken up. The fact that her daughter was heartbroken to find her father missing was irrelevant. Everything to the ex was weighed in terms of how it affected her. A totally self-centered point of view.
So, I was portrayed to be the mean guy. The guy who just dropped his daughter off at mom’s door and ran. Who no longer read bedtime stories to his daughter. I cried every night I dropped her off. So did my daughter.
It was an evil and twisted thing to do, and it was only the start of using my Kiddo as a weapon.
A couple of months further down the road, I had started dating again. I asked for a couple of weekends off being a father to be an adult. I was still getting all of the weekends visitations then, and admittedly, the first time I asked for one off it was a bit sudden and possibly inconvenient for her, but then again, she didn’t seem to have anything else going on.
That’s all it took. I had to listen to her protestations. Back in competition mode again, she complained to me that she should have been the one to be in a steady relationship first, not me. Does that make any sense? No. Should that be a reason to restrict my time with my daughter? No.
But that’s exactly what she did.
It was my usual wake up time when my ex arrived on my doorstep. Trying to be sneaky. She didn’t knock or ring the bell. She just slipped a note under the door. Typewritten. No signature. She didn’t see me watching her through the window.
The letter demanded that I give up seeing my daughter completely during the week and only see her every other weekend. If I didn’t agree, then she wouldn’t allow me to see her at all.
So, I went from seeing my daughter every single day of the week and all weekends to having bedtime stories cut, to having every single day of the week cut, and every other weekend cut. All so the ex could get even with me for daring to date another women after our divorce was final. And this from the woman who cheated on me multiple times with both men and women while we were still married.
But our divorce settlement agreement says we have joint physical custody. How can this be?
While I encourage couples who divorce to have very detailed settlement agreements, with very specific terms on visitation, even with that document in hand it can be totally meaningless. If one party decides to play games, your option is to go back to court to try to have the agreement enforced. That means court costs and attorney’s fees. And that person may play these games over and over again, just to bleed the other person dry.
Many people do this, and if they do, they will find that it is not only expensive, but that judges hate seeing repeat customers. And judges have their own arsenal of weapons to penalize you with, including paying the other sides attorney’s fees. These weapons can be used against either party, or both, at the whim of the judge. It may not matter how you ended up in that courtroom, you’ll get battered one way of the other.
My settlement agreement wasn’t specific on visitation, but it wouldn’t really matter. Since the ex was getting half of my take home pay already, I couldn’t afford to hire an attorney and go back to court to try to enforce reasonable visitation. I ended up taking what I could get, which wasn’t much, and certainly wasn’t enough.
Just what did our settlement agreement say.
Our agreement says that we shall mutually exercise the joint care, custody, control, and education of our child, including sharing decision making rights, responsibility, and authority related to health, education, and welfare. It further states that we have an equal voice in all issues regarding the Kiddo. But then it says that the ex has primary physical custody subject to my reasonable visitation rights. It also qualifies my right to exercise joint care, custody, and decision making by saying that should my ex and I disagree that she has unilateral decision-making authority.
They played the legal game called “Hide the Ball.”
So basically, one sentence in the agreement gives the ex sole “legal custody.” Legal custody is the decision-making power with regard to all issues – health, education, religion, and “welfare” – whatever pretzel that term can be twisted into. This was, in fact, a hoax. A bad joke.
And to say someone has joint physical custody, but then say that the other person has “primary” physical custody is also a joke. As is the term “reasonable visitation rights.” What’s “reasonable.” By whose “reason.” The person given unilateral decision making authority for all things constituting the welfare of the child?
Not having any knowledge into how things should work, specific holidays, summer vacations, birthdays, etc., were not addressed, and I never was able to see my daughter on any of those specific days, and it was rare that I was able to have a “vacation” with her. These are the types of things that need to be outlined in specific detail so there can be no changes, no contests, no unilateral usurpation of one party’s rights.
It was a malicious deception. One that I feared would totally destroy the bond I had with my daughter. But that wasn’t the only problem.
The new woman in my life, who would end up being my second wife four years later, was also jealous of my relationship with my daughter and she would try to interfere with her and my bond as well.
I could go into more detail. How the conflicts would wax and wane over the years. Many conflicts that could have been avoided. That may be fodder for another story, multiple stories, another day.
But for now, I’ll leave you with this:
If you’re going through a divorce, hire competent legal counsel. If you don’t have the money, borrow it. It’s worth it. Average cost for a non-contested divorce in my area is about $10K. It should be cheaper, and might be if you just have an attorney draft paperwork and nobody fights about it, but that’s rare. It will cost you even more if you can’t settle and if you go to court.
If you have any concerns, let that attorney know what they are. Formulate your own settlement agreement. Don’t roll the dice with a biased judge. And your attorney, if experienced, will know all about how the judges in your area rule.
Make sure any agreement you enter covers every single detail and contingency you can think of. If you’re not sure what those details might be, do some research, consult with you counsel. Think!
If you go through a divorce, set yourself up with a war chest for future legal battles. You may need it. Document everything. Every incident that happens where things go astray. Dates, times, places, people, events. Record them or you will forget. Think of this as the war of a lifetime. For the time of life you will spend with your children.
Act protectively. Do not engage in petty behavior. Do not give the ex any ammunition to come after you in anyway. This is a battle for survival. And it’s much more important than any real or personal property.
After all, what value would you place on the heart of a child.
* All disclaimers from my prior posts to this series apply. I’ll add that it is difficult to cover every detail in such a complex situations, so if you have a question, feel free to ask away.
** Prior posts include:
Photo: I found this image of the scales of justice on the Internet in the public domain. However, I added the quote from Justice Prentis. I remember this quote, and the case, as one we studied in property law. I had made a photo of this, with a different set of scales, and hung it in my office at work. A constant reminder when I was in practice. Other attorneys in my workplace used to steal the quote for their briefs and their work all the time. It does sort of have a universal application. I think it’s appropriate for my series.
The image, without the words, was linked to the following web page for the University of Washington School of Law.
I could have added numerous pics of myself with my daughter. Proud dad that I am. However, I resisted for fear that some might think that exploitive in some fashion. And I should also respect her privacy and would not post her pic without her permission.
Link Rot: I can never guarantee the life of any hyperlink to any web page. They do deteriorate over time, can be corrupted, and I’ve even seen them hacked to where they take you to other sites. The most embarrassing of which happened one year when the local news advertised a site that was supposed to stream the Mari Gras parade live – instead the link took you to a porn site.