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Legal Pad: We All Have Civic Duty

By M.J. Goodwin

Being a lawyer has its perks.  I think one of the best of them is the “war stories.”  Two of the best places to hear “war stories” are in Family Court and Criminal Court.  Both places are filled with emotionally charged cases and interesting, flawed characters worthy of a spot in a Shakespearian play, both comedies and tragedies.  Some of these “war stories” make it to the daily news.  Most do not. 

I  heard about a couple who hated each other so much that the wife took all the light bulbs out of the house when she vacated.  The husband returned home to total darkness.  I have heard lurid tales of adultery, some with pictures!  I have represented criminals who called the police on themselves while reporting that the neighborhood drug dealer ripped them off.  Guess who went to jail?

I've heard (and told) my share of these stories over the years.  I hope this column will be a chance to share some of the better ones, with names and other facts changed to protect the guilty, of course.  I certainly want the reader to be entertained.  But I also think this column is an important venue to teach every day people about what goes on in Court.  I continue to be amazed at how little many otherwise well educated people actually know about what goes on in Court.

So today's “story” is about a woman we'll call Daphne.  Daphne has been married for 25 years.  She put her own career on hold to support her husband as a stay at home wife and mother.  I do not say that she “did not work” because that would not be true.  She worked very hard as a wife and mother.  She and her husband, John, are well liked in the community, active in their church and have a pretty good lifestyle, even during the recession.  Daphne showed up in my office for an emergency appointment after a particularly difficult evening:  her 16 year old daughter revealed that John, the child's father, has been molesting her for three years.  Daphne is understandably devastated.  She wants to call the police and have her husband arrested.  She also wants to file for divorce.  The first goal is easy.  We make the appropriate phone calls and John is arrested and confesses immediately.  The second goal, believe it or not, is more difficult. 

Daphne has no legal grounds for divorce.

This reality is unbelievable to most people, including me.  In South Carolina, there are a limited number of ways, also know as grounds, to file for divorce.  They are:  adultery, physical (not mental) abuse, habitual abuse of drugs and/or alcohol and abandonment.  There is also the “no fault” ground of irreconcilable differences.  However, to use that one, the parties have to have been separated for more than one year.  Daphne's only recourse is to file for an Order of Separate Maintenance and wait a year to get a divorce. 

The good news is that Daphne has a 25 year marriage and clearly it's an alimony case, if her husband can make bond, get of jail and go back to work.  The bad news is that he might not be able to make bond and even if he does, his employer may not want him back because of the charges against him. 

Daphne clearly has no choice but to report the abuse.  Failure to do so could result in her losing her children to the foster care system.  But the legal system affords her few options beyond that.  How will she pay the mortgage?  How will she buy groceries?  Who will want to hire a 46 year old divorcee with no real world work experience in this economic climate?

All these are questions that face the Family Court every day.  All these problems have only limited legal remedies.  Fortunately, Daphne has had a good outcome in her case.  Her husband did make bond and was allowed to return to work.  He is paying alimony and child support.  Despite this,  their standard of living has declined dramatically.   It is just a cold hard fact that two households cost more than one.  Their daughter is in counseling.  Criminal charges are still pending.  So the battle is far from over….and the “war stories” will continue.

So what can the average person do about these injustices?  Laws are enacted by our State Legislature.  If you have an idea about how to improve things, I believe it is your civic duty to talk to your elected officials about changing the laws.  I firmly believe that a credible case of child abuse should be a ground for divorce.  Daphne should not have to remain married to John for a whole year and file for divorce on irreconcilable differences grounds.  But for now, that is all she can do.

**Disclaimer:  M. J. Goodwin, Attorney at Law, LLC, is located at 113 North Main Street, Anderson, SC 29621.  864-375-0909.  The information here is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice for any given situation.  Only clients who have hired M. J. Goodwin, Attorney at Law, LLC, are receiving actual legal advice that pertains to their particular situation.**

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