Most of what I know about divorce I learned after I graduated from law school.
My two most influential "teachers" of divorce law were a young boy and a wise Judge.
Let me explain...
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 and I were sitting in the family room of her house, the house that she had received in her divorce.
She told me about her parents' nasty divorce that happened when she was 15 years old.
I remember how pained she looked while telling me. The pain from half-her-lifetime-ago seemed so real and so 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 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, 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 their father's 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 Family Court.
Shortly after beginning my clerkship, the judge and I were having a discussion.
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 36 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 (now my wife of 32 years) and her kids (my stepson went from 2-1/2 to age 39 in the blink-of-an-eye, & my step-daughter is now 42), I learned about the challenges that divorce creates.
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 the children being watched carefully at the beach?
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 35 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.
I can help you, too.
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 1986 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.
And finally...my labor of love is my NJ Divorce Edge educational program.
In my spare time (lol!) I write about divorce topics in an effort to help educate people who are considering getting a divorce.
My course is constantly being updated.
What???? You haven't checked it out yet? Come on...take a look...it's free and it's really going to help you.
You don't even need to use your full name. All I need is a first name and your email address and you'll immediately receive my article called "Introduction To The NJ Divorce Process."
This article will help you the minute you start reading it.
Until next time,