By Esther Mann, LCSW

Dear Esther,

I’ve been married for over 20 years, and in truth it was a bad marriage from the start. Based on some of your other columns that I’ve read, it seems that this is the time when couples start asking themselves whether it’s time to call it quits. The children are out of the house, and the spouses may have very little in common–or, frankly, can’t stand each other at all.

In our home, divorce is now our favorite topic–if we are even speaking to one another. My husband is being as nasty as possible, making all sorts of horrible threats to me. Though he’s always made a good living, he threatens that I’ll never see a dime of “his” money, and that I’ll wind up homeless. I know this shouldn’t be true. But during my most fearful moments, I actually worry about such a thing happening. I know little to nothing about finances. I’ve never worked, never paid bills, never asked too many questions about what we have or where we have it.

I’ve always been the naive, old-fashioned wife who did the traditional duties and assumed I’d always be taken care of. So I never prepared for such a moment. And I am feeling terrified and clueless. I know that I need to speak to an attorney and figure out what to do, what my rights are, and how to move forward. Obviously, I don’t have money to pay for an attorney. I don’t have my own stash of money; I never thought to accumulate one.

I’ve made a few calls to organizations, but no one has a referral for me of an attorney who will work with me pro bono. One organization told me that if I lived in Brooklyn, they could refer someone to me, but since I live in Nassau County, they don’t know of any divorce attorneys who will consult with me without charging. I feel trapped and horrified.

Throughout my marriage, I’ve done volunteer work. Aside from the usual shul and PTA events that I worked on, I would visit sick people in hospitals, drive for Bikur Cholim, cook a meal for a sick friend. I love helping others. Since my husband always made a good living and supported us, I never felt I had to work and instead used my free time to help others. It was my pleasure to do so. Now I find myself in the opposite situation. Like anyone with a healthy dose of self-esteem, it’s hard for me to realize that now I need to be on the receiving end. However, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the giving end!

The reason I’m writing to you is twofold. First, I want to warn women to be smarter than me. Whether you consider yourself to be in a great marriage or a terrible one, don’t be stupid like me. Learn how to take care of yourself independently–just in case. Be aware of your bills, where the family money is, how to write a check, etc. Try to stash away some money so that you don’t someday find yourself absolutely broke.

But the second reason I’m writing to you is so that people reading this can do something about this terrible situation that exists for many women like me. There should be some pro bono divorce attorneys to turn to. If you know of someone I can call, or if people reading this column know of attorneys who believe that they should give back and help out women who have nowhere to turn, please pass along that information. I’m desperate for such a person.

Believe it or not, there are times that it feels almost like a matter of life and death. If I don’t get legal help–which I can’t afford–I will be stripped of everything. My husband has told me he will be hiring a “shark” of an attorney to make sure that I’m left penniless and out on the street.

I anxiously await some resources of compassionate lawyers who are willing to talk to me.

Desperate

 

Dear Desperate,

I certainly can understand your fear, your regrets, and your frustrations. You are in a precarious place right now and it does sound as though you will have to depend on the kindness of others to help you get through this tumultuous time in your life as you get back on your feet.

To address the two points of your letter, I agree wholeheartedly that women should heed your advice regarding becoming financially savvy–and savvy in all ways. Whether due to a cruel divorce, a death, or a sudden unexpected blow, life is unpredictable; women should feel competent in all areas that relate to standing on their own two feet. Being prepared for the worst possible scenario is never a wasted effort. So thank you for sharing your words of wisdom based on your own regrets and current understanding of what you should have been mindful of.

Regarding your frustration over not being able to find a kindhearted divorce attorney who is willing to help you pro bono, I agree that such people should exist but unfortunately I am not aware of any. That is not to say that they don’t exist. I therefore encourage anyone who has a name to share to please do so. I also encourage divorce attorneys out there to consider taking on a few cases pro bono as a way of giving back. There is an enormous need for such generosity.

Your story is not unique. So many women are suddenly facing divorce head-on, but unfortunately find themselves with no financial means to pay for an attorney. True, legal-aid services do exist. But when facing off with, as you say, a “shark” attorney, I wonder whether those lawyers are up for the challenge.

In the interim, I do wish that all kind deeds found a way of coming around and that life was all about quid pro quo. You did many generous acts for others, and now that you need help, it would be lovely to know that your payback is knocking at your door. Sadly, it doesn’t always work that way. But I do encourage you to take advantage of the many organizations and services that our community offers. Whether it’s through your shul, through individuals, or through the various well-established or new groups, there is probably help out there for you.

Here’s hoping that I get responses from our readers specifically about pro bono divorce attorneys or other legal options available to you. Clearly, you have identified a need; let’s hope that our generous community will respond as they usually do to the pain and suffering of others less fortunate.

I wish you all the best.

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

 

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