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Trouble In Splitsville

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That attitude infuriates Duff. "You're the problem," she says, "even if they're slipshod" or "intimidated," or they "sit on your case," or "don't answer your calls," or "don't explain things," or "default," or "just quit," she says. "All that has happened to me. There is zero accountability."

Patricia Duff's attempt to establish household parity with Ronald Perelman is being watched carefully by divorce buffs. Duff, a multimillionaire herself, is testing the limits of a law that takes a curious view of Manhattan reality. It considers a high-income couple to be one that earns more than $80,000 annually. And it says children should not suffer from divorce -- should not, in other words, be faced with a choice between Christmas at a mother's mean little ski house at Mt. Snow and a father's sumptuous chalet in Vail.

Duff's demands for such things as a $19,500 antique desk for her daughter -- which she admits were drawn up hastily and not carefully reviewed -- are quite controversial. Feminist divorce lawyer Harriet Newman Cohen, an unabashed supporter of all the various legal mechanisms -- from equitable distribution to enhanced earnings -- invented to protect women in divorce, thinks Duff should get all she's after, including "very, very substantial child support," "the nannies that she needs, her traveling, her clothing," and "a townhouse" -- "and she certainly ought to have a chauffeur-driven car as well. I think that she's entitled to it."

Others have their doubts. Some divorce professionals consider Duff's demands an attempt to win disguised maintenance. Others just think she's gone too far. "When is enough enough?" asks Lotwin. For now, the law doesn't say.

The system is simply not set up to deal with someone with the will and the funds to prolong a divorce. "Rich people have the capacity to manipulate it in ways others do not," says Beslow. And according to Duff, that's her husband. "I wanted a very simple, elegant agreement, and he kept adding things and adding things, pages of detail that made me uncomfortable," she says. "It's typical corporate litigation: Bury your opponent in paper and problems and issues. And I can't stop it. When you have somebody who wants to settle scores and has the resources to do so, this system invites, encourages, and rewards it."

The world knows about how rich Ron Perelman is, since Revlon is a public company; but the most complex issue in most divorces is to figure out just how many marital assets there are to divide. Divorce lawyers say they never help clients hide money but add that others do; trusts-and-estates lawyers protect assets for a living. "You worry about offshore accounts, and you look for paper trails," says Lotwin. "You look at how they lived and what they spent, not the tax return." Often, when the moneyed spouse has hidden assets, the other party either knows about or has benefited from them. It's another compelling incentive to settle when both spouses are parties to tax fraud. Says Bronstein, "Most would rather see their wife and children get their money than the government."

Bronstein once saw a couple he'd helped divorce walking hand-in-hand down 57th Street three years later. The husband, he surmised, had protected his assets -- whether from the government or from creditors, Bronstein wasn't certain -- by bestowing them on his wife in a sham divorce. It was a rare happy ending in the annals of Splitsville.

The ending of a divorce, however, is often the beginning of another mess, one in which divorce lawyers have a personal stake. "We get stiffed an enormous amount," says Eleanor Alter, "even when we win. For every client who says they were worked by a lawyer, lawyers have ten clients who haven't paid. We're a one-shot deal. They don't need you again."

"They'll say 'I used so-and-so,' " says Felder. "It's not a casual use of the word."

At a recent birthday party for a wealthy East Sider, Bob Cohen looked around the room and observed that he'd played a role in the lives of half the guests. When he got to his table, he discovered that the woman who'd been seated next to him had broken into tears when she'd seen that her dinner partner was to be the man who represented her husband in their divorce. Another woman volunteered for the hot seat; he'd represented her husband, too, but the wounds were not so fresh. "At a table for ten," Cohen boasted, with just a touch of rue in his voice, "I'd done five divorces."

Divorce lawyers are jackals, outsiders. They know too much about us, and little of it is pleasant. They help us in our times of greatest need, but they also prey on our misfortunes. And they know this. "My friends joke, 'Is business good?" Cohen says. "We do a dirty business, but we change people's lives for the better."

"We're a collection of caring, bright do-gooders who want everyone to love us," says Norman Sheresky. "But we're also voyeurs and mischievous thieves who take advantage of the unsuspecting and make money because our clients are angry, hurt, and greedy."

Felder, as always, is blunter. "On one level, it's sleazy," he says, twisting his face sourly at the very thought of the work that's made him rich and famous. "On another, I'm not robbing supermarkets."


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