Divorce: ‘I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy’

Divorce: ‘I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy’

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He met her in 1998 at a party in Houston, Minn. She was in the kitchen, discussing her 35-pound cat.

They talked for hours. He was drawn to her eyes, her smile, the easy way she kept the conversation going.

"We found out that our parents' names were the same. We were finding out all these coincidences," said "Scott," a 40-year-old La Crosse man whose real name is not being used in this story to protect the family's privacy.

"We thought this had to be a sign."

He proposed three weeks later under a starry Texas sky. They married in March 1999.

It wasn't all bliss. Their type-A, type-B personalities didn't mesh. Neither realized their hectic and opposite schedules would clash, giving them little time together.

"I don't think we knew each other when we got married," Scott said. "We didn't have the tools to communicate well."

It was her affair with a married man from Scott's Bible study class that ultimately collapsed the relationship, he said.

"Emotionally we were distant, and it opened up the window for him," Scott said. "The stars aligned for them."

The marriage counselor told her she needed to give up the other man. She couldn't.

"I woke her up at 2 in the morning and said, 'We make better friends and parents than husband and wife. I have to let you go,' " Scott said.

They filed a joint petition to dissolve their marriage in June 2007.

Their divorce was a best-case scenario: Civil, with equal division of assets and custody of their two young sons. Their divorce was granted in November.

"It's so painful to go through," Scott said. "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

End of the road

Sometimes marriage ends long before the "'til death to us part'" clause of the vow takes effect. Last year, 323 La Crosse County couples terminated their marriage. More than 40 couples already have in 2008.

"It's an incredible, for most people, emotional event, and it's also an economic negotiation that's very, very important. And to have those two things happening at once is pretty overwhelming for people, even if they're the one that wants the divorce," said Sabina Bosshard, a La Crosse family law attorney.

The only legal basis for divorce in Wisconsin is if the marriage is "irretrievably broken," which means no chance for reconciliation, according to the State Bar of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is a no-fault state - neither spouse has to prove the other did something wrong to file for divorce.

The divorce process begins when spouses separately or jointly file a petition. To file in La Crosse County, one spouse must have lived in the state at least six months and in the county at least 30 days.

The initial filing fee is $185 if the couple does not have children, $225 if they do.

A temporary hearing will be set before La Crosse County Family Court Commissioner Gloria Doyle within seven to 10 days on any matters that need to be decided during the divorce process, such as child custody, spousal support and who will live in the house.

Doyle estimated about 50 percent of couples request the hearing.

Wisconsin has a 120-day waiting period before a divorce can be granted.

"The goal during the waiting period is to come up with a marital settlement agreement that would resolve all the issues on a permanent basis," Doyle said.

The agreement details post-divorce arrangements, including spousal support, asset and property division, and child custody and support, according to the state bar.

If the couple has children, they are required to attend a three-hour class on co-parenting after the divorce.

Children between age 6 and 18 will attend a separate three-hour class to learn more about the divorce process and reassure them they aren't to blame, Doyle said.

If the marital settlement agreement is reached, a default hearing will be held before Doyle and the divorce finalized.

The length of the process depends on the complexity of the case and how quickly an agreement can be reached, Doyle said.

"It can be 121 days to three years," she said.

A majority of the divorces filed in La Crosse County are resolved as a default divorce, Doyle said. Once granted, neither spouse can remarry for at least six months.

If spouses fail to reach an agreement, the divorce becomes contested and set for trial in front of one of the county's five circuit judges.

"It's not a ruling on can they or can't they get divorced. It's they're going to get divorced, but they can't agree on division of property, or maintenance, or child support or child placement, or all of them," Doyle said.

Disputes most often revolve around money, including property, debt, spousal support and allocation of assets, said La Crosse County Circuit Judge Dale Pasell.

The trials can last 30 minutes to several days, depending on the complexity of the case and the number of issues, he said.

The number of contested divorces, Pasell said, is a "distinct minority" of the total number finalized. Spouses, too, often are able to work out an agreement as the trial date approaches, he said.

"I think it's for the better that people work out a lot of these issues among themselves because, generally speaking, if they come to court and they have to have a judge resolve them, no one leaves happy," Pasell said. "People are generally far happier if they resolve the issues themselves."


DIVORCE: The legal termination of a marriage.

LEGAL SEPARATION: A legal separation is granted when the marriage relationship is broken. Spouses who reconcile after a separation can apply to have the separation revoked.

ANNULMENT: An annulment dissolves a marriage that was invalid from the beginning, for such reasons as a spouse was too young, or induced to marry by fraud or force.

SOURCE: State Bar of Wisconsin

Legal separation

A legal separation does not end a marriage, but spouses are separated and cannot remarry.

Spouses most frequently opt for a legal separation when they have religious objections to a divorce, Doyle said.

The steps for legal separations mirror those for a divorce and includes division of property, assets and child custody, she said.

Spouses in a legal separation are free to reconcile, or the action can convert to a divorce at any time if both agree, or a year after the date the separation was granted if one spouse wants the divorce.

Doyle said she finalizes about five legal separations annually.

"It's fairly common for someone to start it as a legal separation and then one or the other spouse converts it to a divorce during the dependency of the action," she said.


Court officials and lawyers recommend spouses hire an attorney for divorces, especially if it is contested.

"The law is a set of rules, and it's just like any board game or home improvement project. If you don't know the rules and if you don't like to read the directions, you're not going to be able to get through the process on your own," Doyle said.

Attorneys also have a special kind of expertise that can help spouses navigate the court system, Doyle said.

"Someone who is experienced in advocating positions and who understands the nuances of the law will have a greater likelihood of succeeding in obtaining the results they want than someone who has no experiences in that," Bosshard said.

Representation isn't cheap. Attorney fees can range from $2,000 to $100,000, depending on the complexity of the case, Bosshard said.

Bosshard recommends most involved in divorce proceedings at least consult with an attorney and decide later if they want to hire counsel based on the issues of the divorce and complexity of the case.

A spouse proceeding without counsel at least should have an attorney look over the marital settlement agreement as a precaution. A short consultation with an attorney could cost between $100 and $250, Bosshard said.

"The cost is very small compared to the consequences if you fail to do that," she said. "We often get people who do their own divorces and then they come back a year or two later and they regret it."

For a guide to self-representation in divorce and separation proceedings, click here.

Recovery program promises help

Second Chapter wants to help those who go through divorce recover and rebuild.

The community-based Christian divorce support program guides former spouses through such areas as how to handle the intense emotions of a divorce, identifying what went wrong in the marriage and post-divorce parenting.

"But more than that, it offers participants the tools to get through many of the most difficult issues of divorce," said program director Sandy Fancher.

The 14-week program is open to anyone struggling with divorce or separation.

The 2½-hour weekly sessions follows chapters from "The Complete Divorce Recovery Handbook" by the Rev. John Splinter, followed by small group discussions with trained facilitators. The discussions are confidential, Fancher said.

"We have hearts that help those in need," she said.

Sessions also can feature guest speakers, such as therapists and mediators.

Participants still can join the session that began in mid-March. The next full session will start in early October.

The program costs $50, including materials.

Scholarships are available. For more information on Second Chapter, call (608) 386-6962 or visit www.secondchapter.com.

Program alumni are eligible to join a social group that meets on the first and third Fridays of each month.

Anne Jungen can be reached at (608) 791-8224 or ajungen@lacrossetribune.com.


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