by: John A. Fiske
In “Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: The Case of Divorce,” Robert H. Mnookin and Lewis Kornhauser. discussed many ways in which the law provides a framework for divorcing couples to define their own rights and responsibilities after divorce. 88 Yale Law Journal 950, April 1979. We have come a long way since that journal devoted its entire issue to conflict resolution, featuring their far reaching examination of private ordering in divorce. The concept could not have been more fitting, nor better timed.
The article helped to set the stage for the robust growth of alternative dispute resolution in many forms that we now enjoy, including our Supreme Judicial Court Uniform Rules of Dispute Resolution and the flowering of family mediation through organizations, training, literature and even an occasional Hollywood movie. But at the time they wrote, much of divorce law was in the dark. Probate and family court judges had wide discretion and little guidance, and unpredictable court results could depend on who your judge was and other seemingly capricious factors.
So where are we now? By 2017 divorce law has become far more clear and often even predictable. The single most vital contribution to this framework for helping couples discuss and define their own divorce terms are the federally required Child Support Guidelines (CSG). One can only imagine the thousands of couples whose divorces have been simplified by the CSG. In my early days of mediation about 6 months after the article appeared, I was constantly asked, “What will my child support be?” and Mr. Hem met Ms. Haw: “Well, it depends. It depends on what county you are in, or who the judge is,” etcetc. The law shed little light on the subject, and any shadows shifted or conflicted.
A glimmer of light appeared in October, 1978 when Probate and Family Court Judge Edward Ginsburg wrote an article, “Predictability and Consistency in Alimony and Child Support Orders,” in the Boston Bar Journal. He proposed a simple formula based on the income of the payor; that light helped to settle many cases. In one mediation the husband said, “I think 33% of my income is too much for me to pay my wife but I am willing as long as I know I am not the only guy in Middlesex County doing it.”
As more lights appeared, the shadows diminished.
The CSG worksheet now allows couples to consult their computer and find the answer to their question in minutes.
The parents may not agree, but they have a framework for their negotiation. For example, mediating couples can ask, “Does the CSG amount make sense for us?” and they can compare the suggested amount to their actual living expenses to make an informed decision in the light of what a court would do.
The Alimony Reform Act of 2011 sheds more light on various alimony questions, making it clear that the law allows short term alimony, proposing a simple formula for calculating the amount and even provides time limits. For example, the shadow of cohabitation is specifically illuminated: couples can choose from a menu of alternatives from revision or termination of alimony to suspension during the cohabitation period. The appellate courts have been conscientious in taking appeals to clarify various provisions in the Act. For example, in Hassey v. Hassey, 85 Mass. App. Ct. 518 (2014) the Appeals Court held that a judge cannot enter an alimony order for a fixed percentage of the payor’s income in the future because this “self-modifying” order is not supported by findings, etc. But nothing prevents couples from entering separation agreements providing for such flexible arrangements and courts from approving these agreements. In George v. George, 476 Mass. 65 (2016) the Supreme Judicial Court said temporary alimony does not affect the length of general term alimony obligations. Similarly, questions about when it is appropriate to attribute income to either party have been clarified in Emery v. Sturtevant, 88 Mass. App. Ct. 1118 (2017), thereby limiting one of the few remaining alimony and child support issues for lawyers to argue about.
Pesky question of property division have been similarly clarified by case law, such as the role of property inherited before, during or after the marriage and whether family trusts are marital property to be divided or mere expectancies which may or may not occur. Lauricella v. Lauricella, 409 Mass. 211 (1991) and Pfaffenstiehl v. Pfaffenstiehl, 475 Mass. 105 (2016).
Effects of Light
One effect of this evolving clarity is to change the question. Instead of arguing over what a court would do if the case were tried, the question is whether the court will approve the agreement the clients have reached. For clients interested in private ordering, that is the real concern. How long alimony or child support should last is already defined, and parties can agree to something different now that they can make an informed decision. In a mediation this July the husband with $80,000 of income said he thought they should make their incomes equal though his wife had no income, and she agreed. They knew that the law would only require him to pay one third of the difference in their incomes: they each knew what they were getting and they each knew what they were giving up. They felt this agreement to be fair and right, and their only question was whether the court would approve it.
It remains important for couples to know what the light of the law is, not to tell them what to do but to give them some objective criteria by which to judge their own solution. In Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury recommend four principles of negotiation ending with consideration of some objective criteria. Houghton Mifflin Company (1981) p. 84. Here the illuminating law can be of great help, not to dictate but to inform their own solution.
“’I am half sick of shadows,’ said the Lady of Shalott” in the poem by Tennyson, but her facing reality had unhappy consequences. While I am glad to see the law moving us out of the shadows, we can hope for better informed settlements of divorces and other family disputes. Parties can know the norms and make their own choices when and how to adapt to them. Lawyers can have more confidence in predicting whether negotiated and mediated agreements will be approved by the courts, and can inform clients what they are gaining and what they are giving up in reaching their own solutions. As Superior Court Justice Douglas H. Wilkins pointed out in his letter to Lawyers Weekly on July 17, 2017, new court rules provide further support for early mediation: the path to a desired result is not only illuminated but can be significantly shortened by helping lawyers, mediators and clients to discuss appropriate settlements from the very beginning of a case. Children benefit from their parents reducing conflict. We can spare the courts unnecessary litigation, and sleep better nights.
John A. Fiske is of counsel at Healy, Fiske, Richmond & Matthew, a Cambridge firm concentrating in family law and mediation since 1979.