Let's say you're finally through with the jerk. You've had enough of his oh-so-sincere lies, his hairsplitting excuses, his worthless, blubbering promises that it'll never happen again. Enough of putting on a smile and pretending not to notice while the whole world wonders why you're sticking with him. It's done. You've made a decision. You want a divorce.
"If you're living around here, you'll need to find grounds," says Evanston attorney David Carlson, who's presenting a divorce workshop for women Tuesday at the YWCA Evanston/North Shore. When a marriage breaks up, the state of Illinois wants to blame someone. That means you might have to put it on record that the spouse to be shed is a cheater, abuser, habitual drunk, drug addict, or has forgotten to come home for a couple of years. The only near-faultless option in Illinois is something called "irreconcilable differences," which allows you to claim there's been a breakdown in the marriage without having to explain that it happened while your husband was having his pecker licked by an intern.
If the hubby decides to fight the divorce, you may have to wait out a two-year separation, Carlson says. This isn't as hard as it sounds, since separation can actually occur while you're living under the same roof--as long as you're not sharing dinners in front of the fireplace, making plans for your next joint trip to Club Med, or sleeping with him. If your contact is limited to job-related public appearances--like state dinners--and you really can't stand to be in the same room, you're separated in the eyes of the court. If you haven't killed each other after two years of this, you'll qualify for a split. On the other hand, if he agrees to the divorce, the two years of torture can be reduced to a mere six months.
If he's already gone on TV and confessed to an "inappropriate relationship," why not file on grounds of adultery? This, it seems, gets us into one of those gray areas of the law. Open and notorious adultery is actually illegal in Illinois, Carlson says. If, say, the slimeball went to a popular nightspot where he'd be sure to be recognized and posed for a picture with someone on his knee who is definitely not you (but looks a lot like the bouffant Barbie), that could be proof of adultery and also (yes!) a crime against the state. But the law has more tolerance for slimeballs who understand the virtue of sneaking around. In a case where everything seems to have been done in the privacy of his office, and he never even stopped taking phone calls, we'd have to take a careful look at what he's fessed up to. We could make a case for mental cruelty, for sure, and heterosexual genital intercourse would be a shoo-in. But beyond that, who's to say where a friendly gesture ends and carnal knowledge begins? Extramarital oral sex may or may not constitute adultery under Illinois law. "My opinion would be that it does," says Carlson (we didn't give him time to research it), "but I think it's an open issue that the courts would have to decide."
As for assets, don't assume you'll get more of them just because the spouse is a lying tomcat. In 1977 the Illinois legislature decided not to let that kind of bad behavior influence the stuff that really counts, like the division of money and property. (Unless he's kinky in front of the kids, the extramarital hanky-panky won't affect custody or visitation.) What counts in deciding who gets the goodies, Carlson says, is the contributions each spouse made in acquiring them, the dissipation of the assets by either spouse, the length of the marriage, the economic circumstances of each spouse after the divorce, prior obligations (as from previous marriages), and any prenuptial agreement that might have been signed. If the husband stands to earn more than the wife in the future, she can generally get either a 50-50 split of the assets plus maintenance (the current name for alimony), or more of the property with either no maintenance or reduced maintenance for a limited period of time.
Disgruntled husbands will have to find Carlson on their own, but wives who've had enough will get a chance to pick his brain when he and Skokie attorney Lynn Cohen appear at "Ask a Lawyer," a workshop sponsored by the Lilac Tree, a one-stop referral, counseling, and support organization for women going through divorce. The workshop will be held from 6:45 to 9 Tuesday at the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, Church and Ridge, Evanston. The Lilac Tree is supported in part by the attorneys on its roster, but there's no obligation to use its referral service. Admission for this workshop is $25. Call 847-328-0313 for more information or to register.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Carlson photo by J.B. Spector.