When I was young, I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up.
Either that or a rock star.
But, I was a lousy guitarist and my singing...well, I wasn't going to make it as a rock star.
It was the late 1960's and early 1970's. Everything was changing.
The Vietnam War.
The breakup of the Beatles.
The sexual revolution.
And in this new world, my friends' parents--people who had seemed so grounded, whose family life seemed so stable to me during my childhood-- started getting divorced.
Ouch. Painful stuff that I didn't understand.
"Mom" I remember saying. "Why is Mrs. Farber so angry at Mr. Farber?"
"She's angry because Mr. Farber divorced her," my mother tried to explain to me when I was 8 years old.
"Divorce? What's that? You mean his parents live in different houses now? Why would they want to do that?" I asked my mother.
She told me that she didn't know why.
"Hello Mrs. Covelli!" I said to Billy Covelli's mother when I was 14 and I met her for the first time in Billy's basement while playing my guitar with my first band.
"Steven, I am NOT Mrs. Covelli, I am Mrs. Steinberg!" she yelled at me down the basement stairs.
All right, all right "Ms. Steinberg" I thought to myself. Calm down lady. What the hell did I do to cause you to lose it on me like that?
I was stunned. "Let's go!" Billy yelled. "Jumping Jack Flash! Key of B flat!"
But I felt humiliated by his mother screaming at me. I didn't feel like playing Rolling Stones classic hits any more.
And then when I was 17, my best friend Mark's parents, people I had known my entire life, people in whose home I had practically grown up, got divorced.
I had heard that Mark's father came home one night wearing someone else's pants, and that Mark's mother found that to be...well, unacceptable.
What the hell was happening? It was nothing less than a revolution. A divorce revolution.
I was disoriented by what was happening to my friends and their families.
I felt awful for them. I wanted to help somehow, to be able to do or say something to help ease their pain.
Yet I felt helpless. What could I do? What could I say?
LEARNING HOW TO BE A DIVORCE LAWYER
During law school, I enrolled in and successfully completed every divorce-related course offered.
Yet most of what I know about divorce I learned after I graduated law school.
My two most influential "teachers" of divorce law were a 2-1/2 year old boy and a New Jersey Divorce Court judge.
Let me explain...
IT WAS AUGUST OF 1986...
He was only 2-1/2 years old (he's 36 now and doing great. Anyway....)
He looked confused that warm summer night when I first met him and his 6 year old sister.
My then-girlfriend (now wife) and I were sitting in the family room of her house, the house that she had received in her divorce.
She had told me about her parents nasty divorce that happened when she was 15, some 14 years earlier. I remember how pained she looked while telling me. The pain from half her lifetime ago still seemed so real and present.
She herself had been divorced for a year and a half.We had known each other for about 2 months, and I was about to meet her kids for the very first time.
Her ex-husband, a builder, pulled into the driveway of the house that HE had built with his own two hands.
How weird I felt dating a divorced woman my age (then 29) who had two children with another man, sitting in the house that HE had built, next to HIS ex-wife, and with HIS kids about to enter the house, while he sat outside in his car.
THE LITTLE BOY'S BLANK LOOK
The little boy and his sister got out of the car, walked up the sidewalk, and through the front door of the house and into the foyer.
As I was introduced to the children, the little boy just looked up at the ceiling, then at the wallpaper to his right, and then at the stairs to the left, as if he was seeing this place--his home since birth-- for the first time.
He did not look at his mother, nor did he look at me.
He was experiencing a culture shock, going from Mom's home with one set of how-things-were-done to Dad's home with a different way of doing things, and then back again to Mom's, all within 48 hours.
The look on his face was just confusion, as if to say 'who am I, what exactly happened, and how do I fit in to all of this?'
My heart broke for him, but I didn't know how to comfort him.
Welcome, Steve Kaplan, to the real world of divorce.
ONE MONTH LATER (SEPTEMBER 1986)...
I was a recent law school graduate. I thought that I "knew it all."
In reality, I knew little about the way that divorce really worked (or, for that matter, "didn't work".)
But I got really lucky. I had applied for a one year "Judicial Clerkship" with a great divorce court judge, not thinking that I had much of a chance of landing that highly competitive position.
Anyway, I began my judicial clerkship with Judge Ronald B. Graves in the NJ divorce court.
Shortly after beginning my clerkship, the judge and I were having a discussion and I said to him, "You know, Judge, this year is sort of like high school biology for me."
"What do you mean?" His Honor asked me.
I said, "Well, in high school biology, we had lectures on certain days, and lab on other days.
In the lectures, we learned the theory of biology, but it was in the lab that we really learned what biology was all about in the real world, in life.
The judge responded by saying, "And how does that relate to your role as my law clerk?"
"Well," I continued, "I am dating a divorced woman with two kids who comes from a divorced home herself.
When I work with Your Honor during the week, I am learning theory, just liked I did in high school biology lectures.
But when I go to my girlfriend's house on the weekend, and I see how a divorced mother and father interact with each other, how the children behave, and how that split family functions, that's like the biology lab... that's the real world.
DIVORCE THEORY vs. DIVORCE IN THE REAL WORLD
It was true. Those 2 overlapping experiences from 33 years ago were crucial in helping me understand the differences between the theory of divorce law, and what actually tends to happen in the real world.
Through my interactions with my then-girlfriend and her kids, I learned about the challenges that divorce creates in the real world for divorced families who now have to figure out a way to move forward with their lives through some tough issues.
Naturally, not only was the divorce traumatic for my girlfriend's two young children, but my girlfriend herself had some of the normal fears that so many divorced parents have, like:
- Was the father's house safe enough?
- Did the father drive the children after drinking alcohol?
- Was the father teaching the children the same values that she was trying to instill?
- Were they being watched carefully at the beach?
Several years later, I became a step-dad when my girlfriend and I married. The little boy was our ring bearer ("ring buryer", he called it. Oh God, he was cute in his little wedding tux.) The little girl was gorgeous in her little white wedding dress; she was a crucial part of the wedding party.
"OK, genius," I thought to myself after the honeymoon. "You are a divorce law specialist. People pay you a lot of money to help them with some of life's most challenging issues.
How are you going to help these two spectacular children, who have already gone through the divorce of their parents, thrive in a step-family environment?"
The obvious answer jumped right out at me: "I don't have a clue," I told myself.
I located the Stepfamily Foundation of America. I joined. I got their literature and I read it all.
There were some good ideas there, but it sounded like more theory.
Damn, I already had enough theory...I was searching for real world answers.
I knew that I didn't have all of the answers. Hell, I was still struggling to figure out what most of the questions were.
Back then this was uncharted territory. There were few rules.
This was really hard.
For example, on father's day, do I take the kids to the pharmacy to buy their biological father a card?
Can I be my stepson's cub scout leader or is that stepping on the toes of his father?
When his father calls on the phone, can I talk to him about the kids or is that my wife's role exclusively?
Can they call my parents "Grandma" and "Grandpa" without being offensive to their dad?
And on and on...
And then add to the mix a wonderful new baby...the half-sister of my step-children.
Enter the role of a family therapist. Or two. Or more than two over the decades...this stuff can be really tough to figure out.
The bottom line as I write this on August 29, 2019, is that through the last three decades, I've lived with my wife and two step-children who came from a divorced home, as well as our child.
The little 2-1/2 year old boy and his 6 year old sister are now a 36 year old man (a building professional, like his biological dad was) and a 40 year old woman (a real estate professional.) Our "baby" is now out of college and working, too.
HOW MY BACKGROUND HELPS ME TO HELP MY CLIENTS
You CAN make it through your divorce and on to a happier life.
But I'll tell you that for me, "living divorce" both professionally and personally for the last 32 years has taught me something that a lot of people don't know: the process of getting a divorce in the real world is "broken."
The system is imperfect.
Judges aren't always fully trained.
And even those judges who are well-trained aren't always right.
There are some divorce lawyers who are also not well-trained, and a few who are less-than-ethical.
When one party disobeys a court order, the other party can sometimes have a hard time enforcing it through the courts.
My point is that knowing how divorce is supposed to work versus how divorce actually works in the real world lets me use my extensive professional and personal experiences with divorce for the benefit of my clients.
MY EFFORTS TO EDUCATE MY CLIENTS ABOUT DIVORCE
I believe in the old saying, "Knowledge Is Power."
Years ago I decided to teach my clients what I have learned about the way that divorce really tends to be experienced in the real world so as to empower them with their divorces.
Currently I do this by inviting my clients to participate in my New Jersey Divorce Course. I'm inviting you, too, to take advantage of this program.
This course is my own way of explaining divorce-related issues to people who are contemplating getting a divorce.
Additionally, you are also invited to sign up to receive my Daily Dose of Divorce emails, also at no cost. These emails will bring you the latest thinking on key divorce issues, such as child custody, alimony, property division, as well as insights into the NJ divorce judges and many other topics.
I hope that they help you navigate through this difficult time.
ADDITIONAL BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION ABOUT ME
I received my Eagle Scout award at age 16 in 1973. Working toward the Eagle rank was one of the most significant things that I have ever done. It was all about integrity, hard work, and helping other people. Good stuff.
I paid for both college and law school by playing guitar with a band.
I graduated Rutgers College in 1980 with a degree in Economics, a minor in English, and a concentration in Computer Science. All of this has been extremely useful to me as a divorce lawyer.
The Economics study helps me when we negotiate the financial parts of my cases, the English training helps me argue persuasively both in writing and orally to the Court, and the computer training helped me become one of the more computer-literate divorce lawyers in the area.
I believe that all of these skills are critical to being an effective divorce lawyer.
I graduated from Brooklyn Law School in1983.
During law school I was certified as a Mediator. This was before divorce mediation became popular. I was mediating cases from the beginning.
I practiced law in my own general practice in Manhattan until 1987 when I returned to New Jersey. I found an opportunity to learn how to be a great divorce lawyer by working in divorce court as a judge's law clerk.
In 1987 at the end of my clerkship with Judge Graves, I began practicing exclusively divorce law. This is what I have done ever since.
I was hired by one of the larger Monmouth County law firms.
I worked my way up over the next 9 years, from the newest associate attorney in the divorce department ultimately to the Co-Chairman of the firm's Divorce department.
After 10 years with this firm, in 1997 I started my own Divorce Law practice which is in Colts Neck right by "Delicious Orchards."
I was named a divorce "SuperLawyer" by NJ Monthly Magazine for 5 consecutive years, was on Monmouth County's Divorce "Early Settlement Panel" for over 20 years, and was Chairman of the Early Settlement Panel for 3 years.
I also spent decades as a member of the Monmouth County Bar Association's Family Law Committee, beginning in 1987, and because of my technical knowledge, several years ago I gave a Continuing Legal Education seminar on "Computers in the Law Office" to the Family Law Committee.
I have lived in Monmouth County since 1987 and enjoy some of the great things that Monmouth County has to offer, including boating, the beach, our dogs and visits to the barn to watch my daughter and my wife ride horses.