Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Dirty Dozen Years of Divorce…And It Isn’t Over.

The case of In re Marriage of Mathis provides a cautionary tale to anyone who would advise their attorney to “fight at all costs” or “never give in”. No doubt there are situations where a battle is necessary and a judge is needed for a final decision at a trial. But many times the length of time it takes to get to that point defeats the purpose and many divorce litigants and quite frankly their attorneys fail to factor this into the equation.

Take the case of Ken and Terri Mathis recently decided by the Illinois Supreme Court. In that case the people have substantial assets but have been fighting over those assets since November 2000. Note that I do not use the past tense when describing their case because IT IS STILL GOING ON!
The legal points are mostly for the lawyers reading this. But basically, divorcing spouses have the option of splitting the case into two parts, first the grounds (or reasons) for divorce and then the property division and other issues – it is called bifurcation. So say you wanted to get remarried but it would take a long time to get the whole divorce done. You might try to split the divorce up into a grounds trial first and then hold off on all the other issues. A trial on the grounds would enter a judgment for dissolution and allow you to get remarried without all the other issues being decided. The problem comes in when the trial on the grounds is long before the date for trial on all the other issues. In most divorces there is no bifurcated or split trial and since property values are set at or near the date of trial, this does not come up very often. But what happens in a bifurcated trial if the value of property, businesses or investments greatly increase or decrease in between the grounds trial and the trial on remaining issues? Should the court use the grounds date or the date the court actually gets around to the other issues to value the assets? In Mathis the Illinois Supreme Court said in a bifurcated proceeding, the date of valuation is on or near the date the court enters judgment for dissolution on grounds.

The point for non-lawyers is that look what happens when there is a “battle royale”. No doubt both husband and wife carry much of the blame here but the entire Mathis family has already been raked over the coals of litigation for well over a decade and been through two appeals. As if that were not bad enough, what happens at the end of the Supreme Court case? Mr. and Mrs. Mathis are sent back to the original judge for…wait for it…a new trial! I have no idea of the full value of their marital property but unless we are talking Bill Gates type wealth, no one could convince that it was worth it – except maybe for their lawyers if they have been paid.
Full Case Opinion dated December 28, 2012: