There are divorces, and then there are divorces. We asked five lawyers to tell us a story about their most memorable cases. They didn’t disappoint:
Lose a Mobile Home, Punch a Pastor
By Keith Nelson, ONDA Family Law
I’ve never met anyone who went to law school to be a divorce lawyer. I’ve been doing this for 33 years. Family law is all I’ve done. I’ve accomplished a lot and had some very fulfilling experiences in this field. When I was a baby lawyer, though, I was at a law firm where they really throw you to the lions. I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I didn’t see the value of what they were doing. But I do now. They knew when I was getting sworn in, and they threw me a case. They gave me the files, and they told me when and where to go meet the client. Now, obviously it wasn’t a big case at the firm, but it was a real case.
My first client was a 73-year-old woman divorcing her 75-year-old husband. It was their third or fourth marriage each, so they hadn’t been together but a few years. The biggest item in dispute was their mobile home in Hutchins, Texas. A lot of cases, there are a lot of assets and a lot of ways to divide those up. But with this case, I was either going to win or lose. Either I was going to win the mobile home for my client, or the other lawyer was going to win it for his.
The case was in front of Judge Frances Harris, well-known for being very serious about adultery issues. A lot of judges don’t really care about that, but if either spouse had committed adultery, Harris would make them pay for it in some way. I learned that the husband had had an affair. I knew he would lie about it on the stand—and he did. But I also knew they had gone through counseling with a preacher at church. So I called the pastor and got him to admit that the husband had talked about the adultery during the counseling sessions.
At the end of the trial, the judge announced that my client won the mobile home. So I was very excited, very happy. I’d just won my first case. I wanted to go back and say thank you to the judge. She’s a Baylor lawyer, too. Baylor lawyers are a little bit of a cult where we think we’re better than other lawyers, even though we aren’t.
So I’m back there talking to her, and I haven’t been back there 30 seconds when I hear my client screaming my name out in the hallway. “Keith! Keeeith!” I was trying to play it cool with the judge and pretend I didn’t hear it. But my client kept screaming. Finally Judge Harris says to me, “Keith, do you think you need to go see your client?”
I go running out and turn the corner in the Old Red Courthouse just in time to see the opposing counsel in the case, who is all of 5-foot-3, rearing back to punch the pastor, who is like 6-foot-3. This lawyer is one of those crazy, eccentric lawyers of more than 30 years. He wore sandals to court. He was brilliant. He probably had an IQ around 160. But he didn’t care about the rules of procedure. All he cared about was intimidation and winning. As I come around the corner, he sees me and doesn’t hit the preacher—who of course would have knocked him into next Tuesday.
I asked them what happened and the pastor says something like, “He said something to me that were fighting words.” The pastor said he’d gone over to the lawyer after the case to shake his hand like a good Christian. No hard feelings, that sort of thing. And this attorney said he wouldn’t shake his hand. He was just crazy that way. He was angry he lost.
But the preacher asked him if he wanted to step into the hallway and the lawyer said, “Sure.” So they were both standing there, about to fight.
Eventually both men went their separate ways. When it was finally over, I went back to see the judge. I explained what had happened with the opposing counsel and the handshake and the fight. This was my first case, and it just seemed crazy. Judge Harris, who is still working as a mediator in Dallas and surrounding counties, just looked at me, smiled, and said, “Welcome to family law in Dallas.”
Blame the Quadriplegic
by Carson Epes Steinbauer, Carson Steinbauer Family Law
I represented a doctor’s wife several years ago in a divorce that should have just involved valuing marital assets, including the husband’s medical practice, and negotiating a division of those assets. However, the case became a lot more complicated.
While the divorce was pending, my client had a serious car wreck and was rendered a quadriplegic. She spent many months undergoing multiple surgeries, rehab, and so on, which delayed the divorce. Under Texas law, the parties have to be married 10 years for a spouse to qualify for alimony. We knew the case was getting close to the deadline when the wife could seek court-ordered alimony in addition to her share of the community estate. Since she was now disabled, she could also seek to make the alimony permanent.
The other side asked for a trial date before the 10-year anniversary, and then, when that failed, they argued that the date of filing for divorce was the cutoff date. We won on that issue because they were obviously still married when the wife was seeking alimony. There is now case law that establishes this, but there wasn’t back then. Also, they attempted to argue that her disability was self-induced. That’s not quite the same thing as intentional, but it implies that she bore responsibility for her condition.
When the case finally went to a jury, we brought in experts to testify about my client’s disability, as well as her lifespan and medical expenses. To me, it was obvious that the jury sympathized with her. Ultimately, the husband didn’t even present his side of the case. He ended up settling for a lot more than what he originally offered her and more than she would have otherwise received in a pure division of community assets.
The settlement provided funds to care for her for the rest of her life and gave her a decent quality of life. This shows how a case can turn rabidly contentious because one party didn’t want to reward the other for something he had convinced himself was self-induced. A little compassion and understanding could have saved the husband a lot of money in legal fees.
Hire a Killer
by Ike Vanden Eykel, KoonsFuller
One of the craziest cases I worked on was a few decades back now. It made big news at the time, but I’m not sure anyone remembers it now. It was a divorce case involving a Highland Park couple and lots of money. I represented the wife. There were two little kids and an ongoing custody dispute. I was on vacation in Wisconsin one day when I got a call from the FBI and I had to fly back. They had my client come into the office on a Saturday morning. There are guys sitting there with pistols strapped to their ankles and my client has no clue what’s going on. They explained to her that her husband had hired someone to have her killed. She was pretty shocked, obviously.
The husband in the case wouldn’t actually pay the hit man. He’d pay the private detective to hire someone else to do it. He figured he could stand there in court or talking to the police and say, “I have no idea who this is. I’ve never seen this guy before in my life.” Because he really wouldn’t have. It would have been completely separated, through this other person.
So the police needed the husband to believe that the wife was dead, so they could get him paying the private detective for what he thinks is a finished job. The police asked my client to fake her own death and to completely disappear. They announced that they had found her car somewhere in Oklahoma, with blood on the seat but no body.
She had a few days at my lake house in East Texas. That’s where the FBI decided would be the safest. We parked her out there, had the FBI set it all up. They had undercover agents in fishing boats out in the bay, watching the house so they wouldn’t be intrusive.
It worked. The husband was convinced his wife had been killed and made the payment. He spent 10 years in federal prison for attempted murder.
Then the entire thing was turned into one of those made-for-TV movies. It was called Dead Before Dawn.
Record Him Doing It
by Marie Briner, Atkins O’Toole & Briner
I represented a man whose wife suspected he was cheating on her. So she took all of his very nice suits and threw them in the outdoor sauna. Well, if he wasn’t stepping out before, he did after this stunt. A divorce ensued.
The wife did not handle it well. She became even more upset and started following the girl he began dating during the divorce. The wife vandalized the girl’s car, which we were able to figure out based on TollTags and video surveillance.
The wife’s actions escalated from there. At one point, she peeked through the window at the girl’s home and videotaped her husband and the woman being romantic. Nothing would stop the wife. She even called CPS and accused my client of abusing their daughter—completely unfounded allegations.
Here’s the best part. It turns out, the reason she was doing all of this—following them and vandalizing a car and videotaping them and making accusations—was in an effort to win the husband back. Can you believe it didn’t work?
Claim the Fifth Cat Is Yours
by Ken Raggio, Raggio & Raggio
All lawyers strive to help their clients achieve their goals. Some participate in landmark appellate cases or testify before the Legislature about passing new laws. But I am probably the only lawyer who has ever called a cat psychologist to testify in a family court hearing.
Both the husband and the wife in this case were professionals. They had no children. But they did own five purebred Siamese cats. My client, the wife, had already taken a prestigious job in another state and had moved all five cats with her. The husband filed pleadings and asked the family court judge to order the wife to return one of the cats, the one named Grinder. You see, the other four cats had names like Blanche and Madeline and other names you’d expect in purebred cats. The husband said the fact that Grinder’s name was totally out of the convention of the names of all the other cats proved that Grinder was supposed to be his. Grinder wasn’t a sissy cat like the rest, and he deserved to be with a man like him.
Prior to the divorce, the parties had traveled extensively, and all five cats had boarded on many occasions with a high-end boutique cat boarding facility, owned and operated by a man named Furman. Furman knew all the cats well, so I called him as a witness. Furman testified that he observed and knew how cats behave and how they respond to various stimuli, and this qualified him as a cat psychologist. Furman then testified as an expert that it would be detrimental to Grinder to be separated from the rest of his cat family. The judge awarded the wife the temporary, exclusive possession of Grinder, as well as the other four cats. I still don’t know why the TV stations and the New York Times didn’t cover this case extensively.
In any event, the couple eventually settled their entire divorce case many months later without a trial. They both signed an agreed decree of divorce. I took it to the judge, who by that time had conducted and heard and ruled on hundreds of cases since the cat situation had been before him. The judge’s only question as he signed the agreed divorce was: “Who got custody of Grinder?” That hearing months before had left an impression on even the judge.
Calling a cat psychologist to testify was probably the pinnacle of my career, a highlight that I’m sure any lawyer in town would like to have on his or her résumé—just like arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Anything to keep the cat family together.