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Trouble In Splitsville

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You don't need to press too hard to get divorce lawyers to admit they love their backstage access to the rich and famous. "It was a big kick for me to go up to the top of the world," Stanford Lotwin says, remembering the day Donald Trump hired him. "Matrimonial practice is stressful, but it's never boring. Socially, it opens tremendous doors. You become so close to your clients that they invite you to their homes, on their boats. I have flown with Donald on his 727."

"I live like my clients," George Raft- style tough guy Bob Cohen says flatly, offering a peek at his pride -- and his Sulka cuff links.

You have to press a little harder to get anyone in this self-made bunch to admit to ambivalence about what they do for a living. "There's nothing to be proud of here," says Felder, stroking his beard in a gesture perfected in countless client interviews. "Some of it is healing, helping. But a certain part of it is parasitic. Sadly, there will always be a place for me."

It's morning in Justice Marylin G. Diamond's court. Rows of benches in the back of the room fill with lawyers and litigants. It's easy to spot the splitting couples as they bounce away from each other like magnetic Scottie dogs, their attorneys shuttling between them like jittery iron filings.

One prosperous pair catches my eye as they studiously avoid each other's. J. is fiftyish, swarthy, with a full head of gray hair. He wears designer sunglasses, a blue polo shirt, khakis, and brown suede shoes, and keeps sneaking peeks at his wife, L., a drawn but attractive blonde who wears her khakis with a beige tweed jacket and two-tone ballet slippers. They've been in court about an hour when they're called into Diamond's robing room; when they emerge fifteen minutes later, she is smiling and he is glumly reading a letter, muttering "Bullshit!" under his breath.

Forty minutes pass as lawyers shuttle between J., in the courtroom, and L., in the hall. Finally, all huddle as the lawyers argue and the clients affect to ignore each other. When L. heads out into the hallway again, I approach her, and, after assuring her I won't use her name ("I'm not Patricia Duff," she pleads), ask what's going on. As she begins to explain -- they're arguing about money, of course -- her husband bears down on us. "This is what he does, he follows me," she says. Then her voice drops to a pleading whisper: "Act like you're in love with me?"

Thirty years ago, in the divorce dark ages, the only ground for divorce in New York was adultery, and marital property belonged to whichever spouse had his name on the title. Stress his. The most a wife could expect was lifetime alimony, unless her husband's lawyer's private detective photographed her in flagrante, in which case she was lucky if she ended up with much else besides the kids.

Divorce began changing in the late sixties as innovations like no-fault splits and equitable-distribution laws made it no longer a matter of who did what but of who got what. The old and new styles of divorce-lawyering began to blend when California's Marvin Mitchelson, whose invention of palimony made him a celebrity, stumbled in a sex, drug, and tax-evasion scandal, and New York's Raoul Felder took his place, both literally -- he picked off client Robin Givens, who was divorcing Mike Tyson -- and in the larger sense, becoming the world's most famous divorce lawyer.

Felder often jokes that the romance went out of divorce when New York belatedly caught up with the rest of the country and instituted its Equitable Distribution Act, which replaced permanent alimony for wives with temporary maintenance for the lower-earning spouse and a gender-neutral distribution of marital assets. Equitable distribution, though better than what it replaced, was far from perfect. For one thing, it left the most crucial matters in contested divorces -- custody and money -- up to the discretion of judges.

Nowadays, lawyers have to play constant catch-up as new, intangible assets are added to the marital-property pot. In 1985, in O'Brien v. O'Brien -- a case in which a teacher stood by her man through medical school, only to be dumped after he'd gotten his license and left her for another woman -- New York's Court of Appeals established that professional licenses could be marital property. "Nobody felt sorry for Dr. O'Brien," says David Aronson of the top divorce-law boutique Sheresky, Aronson and Mayefsky, "but the court didn't say, 'This only applies to pricks.' "

In 1987, academic degrees were granted the same status. Then, in 1988, a judge ruled that actress Marisa Berenson's "celebrity status" was a marital asset. Ironically, although Berenson's ex-husband, pit-bull trial lawyer Richard Golub, established that principle, he was denied a share of her assets because he submitted no appraisal of their worth, while Berenson got 10 percent of the increase in value of his legal practice during their marriage.

With all those new laws, marital litigation was bound to get more creative. Men began demanding support, assets, and celebrity value from spouses like TV star Joan Lunden, designer Mary McFadden, and model Ashley Richardson. "The law is gender-neutral, but when a guy is seeking alimony, his lawyer still has to prove he's not a slug," smirks a female attorney. Still, in 1991, opera singer Frederica von Stade was forced to fork over a share of her earnings to her husband of seventeen years. And in 1993, financier-felon Ivan Boesky sought $1 million annually from his wife, Seema, and won $180,000 in temporary support.


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