THE LITTLE BOY, THE JUDGE, & ME
IT WAS AUGUST OF 1986...
He was only 2-1/2 years old.
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 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 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 woman who is divorced with two kids. 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 tends to happen in the real world.
Through my interactions with my girlfriend and her kids, I learned about the challenges that divorce can create in the real world with people who have to figure out a way to move forward with their lives through some pretty 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.
Through the last three decades, I've lived with a wife and step-children who come from a divorced home.
The little 2-1/2 year old boy and his 6 year old sister are now a 35 year old man and a 39 year old woman.
We made it! It wasn't always easy...step-families can be pretty complex...but we made it.
But there were a lot of challenges along the way.
HOW MY BACKGROUND HELPS ME TO HELP MY CLIENTS
"Living divorce" both professionally and personally for the last 32 years has taught me some things that a lot of people don't know: divorce in the real world is "broken."
The system is imperfect.
Judges aren't always right.
Judges aren't always fully trained.
When one party disobeys a court order, the other party can sometimes have a hard time enforcing it through the courts.
Knowing these things gives me an opportunity to use my knowledge about the differences between the way that divorce is SUPPOSED to work and the way that divorce often ACTUALLY works in reality to benefit 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 'NJ Divorce Course,' as found at the top of this website.
This course is my own way of explaining divorce-related issues to people who are contemplating getting a divorce.
The views expressed in my 'NJ Divorce Course' are all my own.
I hope that they help you navigate through this difficult time.
ADDITIONAL BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION ABOUT ME
In 1987 at the end of my clerkship with Judge Graves, I began practicing divorce law.
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, first in Shrewsbury and since 2003 here 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.