As so often happens, Stephen and Gail Haymes's 33-year marriage took a few twists and turns on its way down the drain. First the love faded, then the sex stopped, then they separated. For one brief moment they took up with each other again, but it didn't last.
It's a familiar tale. But one aspect of their recent divorce is so extraordinary that it will enter New York legal history. And believe it or not, it isn't even the size of the award that Mrs. Haymes is expected to receive -- $50 million.
Their case is groundbreaking because New York State courts granted her claim of "constructive abandonment" (her husband's failure to perform what's euphemistically referred to as "marital obligations"), even though the couple resumed sexual relations during their brief reconciliation. That's one for the record books: Until a New York State Appellate Court handed down its decision on July 23, any such brief rekindling would have invalidated her claim.
The relevance of Haymes v. Haymes will be clear to anyone who's been through a bad breakup: Long-term relationships rarely end with a clean split. "Absent this approach," the decision noted, "parties might well be reluctant to attempt a reconciliation if the very attempt, should it prove unsuccessful, might deprive them of otherwise valid grounds for divorce."
Lawyers warn that the ruling in this case -- the facts of which were much clearer than they are in most divorces -- may not be universally applicable. "These people have been separated for ten years, and that had to weigh heavily on the judges' minds," says divorce attorney Raoul Felder. "No one could take the case as a beacon to guide their ship."
Attorney Eleanor Alter says it might have an effect, however: She worries that this new accommodation might delay reform of New York State's outdated laws -- among the few that still pose serious obstacles to no-fault divorce.
"If the courts stretch to get people under the statute, they alleviate the push on the legislature to make divorce laws better," she says. "New York is quite retrogressive in requiring grounds at all."
Already the case has registered in one arena: Donald David, Mrs. Haymes's lawyer at Fischbein Badillo Wagner Harding, has received several inquiries from people whose circumstances resemble those of his client. "I don't know if it's usually this extreme," he says, "but it happens all the time. People have a drink and sleep with the person they are most comfortable with."