Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Falling off the world, &c.

My brother Kelly, a physician and anesthesiologist, recently moved in quite precipitous fashion from Utah to New Zealand.  His motivation in doing so was simple: to escape from a court order awarding alimony -- a lot of it -- to his ex-wife Kit, from whom he's been divorced now for about five years after about 33 years of marriage.  When I was practicing law (1989-1992), the firm I worked for handled quite a few domestic-relations cases; on several occasions I witnessed a phenomenon that I called "falling off the world," which entailed a man's leaving a lucrative career, and taking some relatively menial job, simply not to have to pay much, if any, support to his ex-wife.  I never would have guessed that a much more literal example of the phenomenon -- involving geography, not a drastic career change -- would occur in my immediate family, but indeed it has.  Kelly's present wife Michelle is planning to join Kelly in New Zealand shortly, along with (she hopes) her three kids; Kelly's youngest son Casey will probably join them this fall.

I've only gotten details of the court case from Kelly, and while I'm mindful that there are two sides to every story, I'm naturally inclined to view things from my brother's perspective.  Divorce law in the mid-1980s, when I was in law school, was trending toward "remedial" alimony, which had the intent of granting an ex-spouse only the time and means necessary to get a college degree (or otherwise to prepare him- or herself for gainful employment).  That was in contrast to the traditional obligation of support that lasted indefinitely while the ex-spouse remained single, but which ended as a matter of course if/when the ex-spouse remarried.

Well, the court order that Kit's lawyer obtained for her (after Kelly supposedly defaulted on responding to her divorce petition) set the notion of "remedial" alimony completely on its ear.  Not only did it purport to grant to Kit one-half of Kelly's earnings in perpetuity -- no mention of her going back to school or even earning her own living, despite her heavy, long-standing involvement in network marketing -- it also provided that, should she remarry, Kelly would still be obligated to make up any difference between her new husband's earnings and what Kelly would otherwise have to pay her.  (Kit did indeed remarry, although she's since had the marriage annulled -- which seems perfect inasmuch as it allows her to pretend it never happened.)

There is no question that Kit was entitled to something from Kelly; after all, she provided encouragement and moral support for him to get through medical school and residency, and she quit college to stay at home to raise their six children.  Nonetheless, the divorce decree essentially made Kelly a slave to Kit's will -- despite the judge's later finding, after an evidentiary hearing, that Kit had purposely understated her personal income and assets in her original court filings -- and shouldn't a person be free at some point to live his own life and move on from the past?  Evidently Kelly did not accede to all of the court's orders, and Kit filed repeated motions for enforcement, even having the sheriff serve at least one writ of execution to seize property from Kelly's house (scaring Michelle and her kids half out of their wits).  The last straw for Kelly, however, was a motion to place his medical practice in receivership, with Kit herself as the administrator having sole discretion to decide how much pay he would get.  I'm not too sure that any man, facing a similar situation (and an unsympathetic judge who might just grant such an outlandish motion) and having the ability to do so, wouldn't emigrate to a different country.

What options does Kit have now, aside from being content with having forced Kelly to leave the country?  A divorce decree from America is almost certainly not going to be enforceable in the courts of New Zealand, nor will a criminal contempt-of-court citation form the basis for extradition (even assuming the two countries have a pertinent treaty).  It's possible that an arrest warrant could be issued that would prevent Kelly from returning to the U.S., but I think Kelly already factored that into his decision to leave.  I think it's more likely that Kit will seek (further) retribution through LDS church channels, hoping to have Kelly excommunicated for failure to comply with "the law" and for leaving her "destitute."  (Kelly told me that before he left, Kit's stake president called him up and more or less threatened him with that very thing.) 

Kelly's experiences point up two things for me.  First, one should take real care in choosing a spouse and not marry anyone in whose eyes it is definitially impossible to measure up.  (Kelly has told me that if he'd waited even six months longer after his church mission to become serious about a girl, he never would have married Kit.  That may be an exaggeration, but I do believe it's true that Kit, who's never lacked for self-regard -- in contrast with her almost-complete lack of self-awareness -- and has a talent for projecting an aura of great spirituality, fit a certain idealized image that Kelly had of himself coming off his mission and returning to BYU.  In retrospect I can see the match was weird from the get-go.)  And, second, the more money a couple has, the more likely it is that a divorce will be anything but amicable.  Lots of disgruntled people would like to get revenge against an unfaithful or abusive "ex," but in most divorce cases there is no mechanism for doing that; obviously, no court will grant a literal "pound of flesh."  Money and property, however, can provide great leverage, and it's no wonder that billionaires' divorces tend to drag on for years, even decades.  (Was Kelly abusive or unfaithful to Kit?  At least one of our siblings claims to "know" he was both, although he has denied it in conversations with me.)