How to deal with my brother's divorce?
May 23, 2006 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Help me get through my brother's divorce.

First, I want to say that this is going to be a very condensed version of a very long story.

My brother married a woman that would be my nemesis were we in a comic book. They were pregnant when they married, and my beautiful nephew was soon born. Their marriage was never solid to begin with; it soon became even weaker. She began to rack up debt, grow distant, and become unfaithful. She also never took proper care of their son.

They separated, and the arrangement from that point until now has basically been that my family keeps the nephew during the week, and my sister-in-law keeps him on the weekends. Barring scheduling conflicts and her regular breakdowns, this is how things have gone for almost two years.

Now they have finally gotten their funds together for a divorce. My sister-in-law is seeking custody of the child, as well as asking for child support from my brother. Given her drastically lacking mothering skills and complete disregard for my nephew's best interest, my brother is obviously seeking the same. There is also the matter of marriage debt to consider.

I will be present for the divorce trial in two weeks. Though we seem to have a pretty strong case against her, I am still terrified at the thought of my nephew falling into the dangerous hands of his mother.

So here are my questions for you MeFites:

What can I do to better deal with the anxiety from this situation?

What do you wish you knew at your/your relative's divorce trial that you did not know?

Are there surprises at this court date I may not be expecting?

And finally, how can I possibly deal with the situation should my sister-in-law actually manage to get custody?

Thank you in advance.
posted by starbaby to Human Relations (23 answers total)
I hate to semi-derail in the first comment, but one thing you might consider doing is trying to divorce yourself from your brother's life a little bit. You seem to be making his problems your problems, which is not the recipe for a happy life.

For example, it's not "we" who has a strong case against her, it's "him."
posted by BackwardsCity at 9:22 AM on May 23, 2006

Maybe just mind your business? Not to be a snarkface, but divorce is incredibly personal. I mean, if your not sleeping between them, you may want to just provide support, you know?
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 9:27 AM on May 23, 2006

Response by poster: I understand what you mean, and I'll explain why I feel this way.

When I mentioned that "my family keeps the nephew during the week," this is because we all live together. My parents, myself, my brother, my boyfriend, and my nephew. Since he doesn't have a mother figure during the week, my mother and I try to be positive female role models for him. If my sister-in-law does get custody, we will all lose him.

Hopefully that clears up why I view this [and will continue to view this] as a group effort.
posted by starbaby at 9:27 AM on May 23, 2006

While it's understandable that you view this as a group effort, and as an aunt you are doing exactly the right thing when your nephew is in your care, the courts will not see this as a group issue. The divorce process is between your brother and his ex. Your job as family is to pick up the pieces/fallout as best you can. For your sanity, you need to emotionally divest yourself of the divorce process since you have no control of it and no say. It's almost like being a foster parent (or in your case aunt). The nuclear family issues are just not your business, even though it's normal to wish they were.
posted by dness2 at 9:37 AM on May 23, 2006

No doubt you love your nephew a lot. It sounds like you (& maybe your whole nuclear family) have a lot more invested in the outcome of this than is reasonable. The child is your brother's and his soon-to-be ex-wife's, as much as you might see yourself as an important part of his son's daily life. As hard as it may seem, you've got to step back. Whole families getting involved in the divorce/custody thing is a recipe for disaster no matter how it ends.

However the court decides, your nephew be placed with one of his parents. Ultimately the court is going to decide who is more fit for that role. I think your role in this is just to support him through this horrible process but don't add to the agitation by adding to the balance that "our whole family will lose him." Some of this is out of his control too.
posted by contessa at 9:38 AM on May 23, 2006

I see what you are saying and it all makes sense. I have a little advice, not so much for you specifically though.

I have been involved in a similar situations from many different angles throughout my life. The best thing you can do, for the child, is to not be too combative with the mother, even if she is being combative.

Not to say you shouldn't fight for what you think it right. However, the bottom line is that she is the child's mother. Short of abject neglect or abuse, she, in conjunction with your brother have the last word on how your nephew should be raised. If she made mistakes in the past for the sake of the child you will have to let her get past them.

Do not draw lines in the sand and pretend that you are not putting the child in the middle.
posted by milarepa at 9:42 AM on May 23, 2006

Don't be surprised if the court hearing gets a continuance, or many continuances.

Learn to meditate. Whenever you feel yourself getting really wound up, remind yourself that you're not losing the child forever, at the worst your family will be seeing him less (during your brother's visitation times).

You and your mother can still be a positive female role model regardless of how much you see your nephew. I've found from experience that kids intiutively seek out what they need from other available adults.
posted by xena at 9:50 AM on May 23, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you milarepa and xena. This is what I am looking for! Information about the actual courtroom experience and how we can all handle this situation emotionally.

And for those of you that are telling me to back up, I'm asking some of these questions on behalf of my brother. What should he know going into this that his lawyer may not think to tell him? Is there anything you wish you had done during your divorce that you didn't? Anything you wish you had done for a loved one during their divorce, but didn't?

posted by starbaby at 10:02 AM on May 23, 2006

I am not a lawyer and even if I were, I do not know anything about your jurisdiction, but I will say that it is quite likely that the mother will get custody. That is certainly the case in the vast majority of divorces I have seen here in GA, unless the mother doen't want custody. If you still want to be involved in your nephew's life you will have to go through her, and that is why being nice is crucial. If she really is as slack as you portray her, then she should be glad to let you care for your nephew fairly often so she won't have to. All of this applies to your brother as well; judges are impressed when divorcing parents play nice. If someone needs to be a jerk to the soon-to-be ex, let it be the lawyer; thats what lawyers are for.
posted by TedW at 10:26 AM on May 23, 2006

The focus must be on what's best for your nephew, and not on the Mom being Bad. She's his Mom, and he should be taught to respect and love her, because it's good for him, He will come to his own conclusions about her in good time.

Your brother should be able to show that he has promoted a good relationship between nephew and Mom, and has clear plans to continue doing so. Solid scheduling for time together, phone calls, sharing reports from school, day care, etc. Nephew should have pictures of Mom in his room.

Your brother can show that he has a stable, loving, healthy environment for your nephew, and has clear plans and capabilities to keep it that way.

Does Mom currently pay child support? If Mom has been unwilling to pay support, buy clothes, pay for health care, have appropriate toys at her home, that may be useful.

Your brother could lose custody. It happens. Custody can always be changed. Keep the focus on ways to help your nephew be happy and healthy, and not on his Mom. If nothing else, judges sense this, and it may influence them. Or at least that's what a respected therapist has assured me.
posted by theora55 at 10:28 AM on May 23, 2006

Ah, my mistake. I wish you the best.
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 10:35 AM on May 23, 2006

What TedW said. I won't tell you to distance yourself from the divorce, since it doesn't sound like that's going to happen (and I'm not sure I'd be capable of it under those circumstances), but I will tell you to distance yourself from your Cruella De Vil portrait of your sister-in-law. You have to realize that it's completely impossible for you to be objective; I'm not saying she's any better than you think she is, just that you can't know whether she is or not, and as TedW so cogently points out, it may well be of vital importance to you to be on as good terms as possible with her. So I suggest you shove your bad thoughts about her into a mental closet and try to see her simply as the Party of the Second Part, assume that she's going to have custody, and come to terms with that as efficiently as you can. If your brother manages to get custody, great, but if he doesn't, far better for him to have you giving rational advice and serving as a go-between than hollering "fuck that bitch!" in perfect harmony with him. Not easy advice to take, I know, but I think you'll be glad if you do.
posted by languagehat at 10:36 AM on May 23, 2006

Response by poster: "Does Mom currently pay child support?"

No, there isn't child support to be paid because there is no divorce yet.

" is quite likely that the mother will get custody..."

Ah, yes. While I disagree wholeheartedly with the way things work, I understand this is an issue. Fortunately for us, this is about the only good thing she has going for her in this situation.

I realise she may get custody; while this thought kills me and I will definitely have to come to terms with it if the time comes, I have no idea how to do that.

Befriending her is not even an option because our hatred of each other goes back so long [almost ten years] that even were I to try to befriend her, she would never buy it. Even if it were innocent and heart-felt. The best situation that can come to pass between the two of us is pretending the other does not exist.
posted by starbaby at 10:49 AM on May 23, 2006

Take the high road. Try to keep your head clear from anger and resentment towards your sister-in-law while this is giong on. Find some way to relieve the stress bottled up that will inevitably occur with taking the high road, preferably something that feels very productive.
/was supportive to a friend in a similar-ish situation to you
posted by desuetude at 10:52 AM on May 23, 2006

Courts most often award custody to mothers. This document (I'm not clear on their sources or validity) claims that they do so 72% of the time. This is probably a remnant of old values that may not make sense anymore, but it is a fact. It may be more or less in your brother's state.

So, first off, I'd make sure that you don't do things to further alienate your sister in law, as, regardless of how you feel about her, she may indeed be granted custody of your nephew, and as custodial parent, she can do all kinds of things to facilitate or inhibit the contact you have with him. You obviously dislike her and how she treats your family, but...I'd suggest you find ways to look beyond all that and try to see her as a human being, and maybe even as a concerned mother, if for no other reason than to try to have a link with her and your nephew, should she get custody. You don't have to befriend her - but you *do* need to try to ally with her for the best interests of your nephew.

Your brother should make sure that he has the best attorney he can afford, though even that may not affect the ultimate outcome. Your user page puts you in Arkansas, I believe. I found this little research document that discusses the practice of appointing attorneys ad litem (to represent the best interests of the children). I don't know how this practice affects custody decision outcomes, but it may be something to look into, or ask your brother's attorney about.

The administrative office of the Arkansas judiciary has a website with some links that may help inform you about what's about to happen.

Finally, a friend found this book useful after her divorce in which joint custody was awarded.
posted by jasper411 at 10:54 AM on May 23, 2006

No, there isn't child support to be paid because there is no divorce yet.

This isn't necessarily how things work. First, plenty of responsible parents pay child support totally absent a court order or by mutual agreement upon separation. Second, the first hearing for a custody case, at least in South Carolina, is not usually the divorce hearing--it's a temporary ruling, designed to place the child until the final custody determination and divorce. As of the temporary ruling, however, child support is likely to be required. It depends on your local family courts, but most of my friends' custody and divorce battles here have taken several years in the courts, start to finish, unless they come to a mutual agreement. It's unlikely, from my experience, that your brother and sister-in-law will actually have gotten divorced in a couple weeks, rather than having been given a second court date possibly months away, assigned a guardian ad litem, ordered to undergo whatever psychiatric assessments and drug testing are required by their allegations against each other, and given rigorous and specific visitation schedules.

There is some preference to mothers in many states, particularly in the South, but there's also a preference to not disrupting the child's life or routine, particularly if they first have a temporary ruling or judgment. If the child has been living with your brother, sleeping most of his nights at your family's home, that may also be considered by the judge.

IANAL--these are my own experiences, and my friends', in the family court in South Carolina regarding custody and divorce proceedings.
posted by Cricket at 11:05 AM on May 23, 2006

ok, i'm not too sure on what your divorce's current status is--your comment about child support didn't make sense to me--if you are going to court for the first time in two weeks, you are in for a boatload of heartbreak.

the case will be continued ... and continued ... and continued. the court isn't going to want to make the decision of custody until it feels that the two parties can't agree on a custody arrangement.

if you testify, keep your mouth shut. answer the question and then keep silent. if you testify about your brother's ex, concentrate on the actual acts you see, and try to keep any suppositions or embellishments out of your testimony.

and if you lose--don't give up. i 'won' my custody case in a seperate court action nine months after the divorce was finalized. it took only three months before my ex messed up enough to have the court see things my way.
posted by lester at 11:12 AM on May 23, 2006

Back to your original questions, starbaby: this doesn't correspond directly to your situation, but it may prepare you a little bit mentally.

My father and his second wife divorced a couple of years ago (after I'd grown up and moved out), and there was no love lost between her and me. They didn't have any kids together, but there was the question of assets. He had quite a bit more than she did, but they had signed a pre-nup, kept their accounts separate, and were married for less than 10 years (which I think is significant in CA law, but I'm not interested in looking up how).

BE PREPARED for the fact that what you know to be true and obvious is not so to the court.

BE PREPARED for emotionally disorienting shenanigans: My father's ex-wife found a rottweiler of a lawyer who caused him a lot of grief and eventually badgered him into giving up far more than was reasonable.

I tried to keep out of my father's affairs, and I wasn't even in the state during the proceedings, and it still weighed heavily on me. Be supportive of your brother, but more importantly for yourself, be careful.
posted by kittyprecious at 11:26 AM on May 23, 2006

starbaby, first I just wanted to let you know that I completely understand your concerns, and don't think it's inappropriate of you to be worried sick about the possibility of having your nephew removed from your house.

Second, although I'm a lawyer, I'm not a family lawyer. I don't have much to add on the substance of the law. I can only tell you that the legal system is an extremely blunt tool -- by necessity it tends to rely on things like historical stereotypes ("the child's best interest is to be with its mother"), or gross proxies ("a severed ring finger is worth $8,000 in a workers' comp case"). In short, although the stated goal is to determine "the best interest of the child," the reality often falls far short. If that happens, don't take it as a personal rebuke against your brother, you, or your family; just understand that it's an imperfect system -- maybe the best possible, but imperfect nonetheless.
posted by pardonyou? at 11:34 AM on May 23, 2006

My sympathies to your situation. I went through a messy divorce and custody. It took 2 years for the final determination. It may take a very long time for your brother as well.

In Tennessee, no parent got "custody". We had to negoitate who had the primary decision making capability on a number of domains and to negoitate custody schedules. The courts are moving away from giving complete custody to one parent.

I think the fact that your family has been taking care of him during the week for 2 years could be significant. Weekdays for the main custodial figure and weekends for the less-custodial parent is a common arrangement. The judge will want to know how the mom feels about this arrangement. Do you have any written documentation that indicates that she is happy with the arrangement or that she has been offered the chance to take care of him during the week and declined? I didn’t see the age of the child. If the child is younger, the judge will be somewhat less likely to change the living situation.

All these common-sense guidelines can go out the window and, as mentioned before, the courts can be blind and stubborn. Documentation can help. There is a good chance that a guardian ad litem will be appointed to investigate the situation and report to the judge. This is a good thing for your brother. Provide the GAL with documentation. Who has been taking the child to the pediatrician? Who has been buying shoes and clothes? Does the child spend any time at day care? Get a letter from the day care director indicating that the child is happy, and the family is always involved, etc. Do you take the child on play dates? Document that you are enhancing the psychosocial development of the child. Type out the schedule of play dates. Get letters. Get a letter from the pediatrician saying that the child has always been in good health and received prompt medical attention. DON’T advertise the existence of these letters to the other side. Be very aware that anything you tell ANYBODY is vulnerable. Don’t give out information that may make your brother vulnerable because she may use it. Family battles get very dirty and mean. I trusted someone and it was used against me in custody. I still remember the incredible shock of hearing my words used against me. Don’t tell anything you don’t want used against your brother in court. Even frustrated venting about the sister in law, if read in court by a lawyer, can make your side sound problematic.

Make charts, graphs, and tables. Give the lawyer or the GAL what they need to make the right decision. Know that they may ignore the realms of documentation you produce and make their own decision. Know that you will survive it.

It’s a marathon of anxiety and pain. I wish you the best.
posted by aliksd at 12:04 PM on May 23, 2006

Just to give my response some context: A few years ago, my brother's marriage imploded in a spectacular way. His crazy ex was always a pretty crappy mother but when Nephew was about two, she went totally off the rails. Our parents were able to step in and offer the kind of child-care and support you and your family are providing for your nephew. My brother now has sole custody; Crazy Ex is allowed visitation, but only under supervision. Every other weekend, Nephew stays with his maternal grandparents (who are reasonably sane); Crazy Ex may or may not show up. She's supposed to pay child support; she never has and my brother has never made an issue of this.

My brother's request for custody was strengthened by Crazy Ex's documented craziness (arrests for meth posession and DUI, totaled cars, attempted kidnapping -- and more!) which doesn't apply in your case. But based on his experience, this is what I'd suggest:

* Continuity weighs heavily with the court, so it's good that your nephew spends so much time with his father and your family already. This, combined with other relevant differences (such as work hours) will help make the best case for joint custody, at least. Talk to your brother's lawyer about what documentation you need.

* In NY (where I live) and Texas (home of Nephew, et al.), the parent who moves out of the family home can be held to have abandoned the child, which counts against custody. Again, talk to the lawyer.

* Find a good child therapist for your nephew. It will make a huge, huge difference to him, having a neutral place to vent and rage. If money's an issue, look for training programs at nearby colleges and universities. His pediatrician should have some recommendations, too.

* As others have said -- swallow your hatred and learn to deal with her neutrally, if not amicably. Most of Nephew's visitation arrangements are made with the other set of grandparents, which reduces one source of conflict. Is there any chance of setting up such a buffer in your situation?

* Do not ever -- ever -- slag your nephew's mother in his presence or hearing. He'll have lots of questions; answer as truthfully and neutrally as possible without burdening him with more info than he needs. Do not let yourself, or your nephew, get caught in the middle between your brother and his ex. Again, a good child or family therapist will help you here.

I wish you all well. It can be easier to deal with all this as an extended family, as long as everyone can keep from spinning into psychodrama. Just keep the focus on what's best for your nephew -- not what's fair or right in some abstract sense.
posted by vetiver at 12:10 PM on May 23, 2006

Seconding what many have said, only real new piece of info to add is that having multiple responsible adults available within the household may work well on your behalf.
posted by edgeways at 12:31 PM on May 23, 2006

Though we seem to have a pretty strong case against her, I am still terrified at the thought of my nephew falling into the dangerous hands of his mother.

Well, in life we're constantly confronted with the possibility of unpleasant things happening despite what we might desire, sometimes despite everything we do to try to prevent them. I say this not to be glib, but because it cuts to the core of what I think is one of the most important and least developed skills we acquire in life: acceptance.

Odds are good the majority of people reading this get in a car every day to go to work or accomplish other tasks. There's a possibility of having a car accident, but we do it anyway. Most of us don't spend any time dreading that result happening. If we are concerned about the danger we just do what we can to make ourselves safe by wearing our seat belts, following the law and avoiding known problem spots... and we go about our business.

You need to work on developing that skill in other areas, including this one. You and your family have done what you can to insure the best outcome. If you made any bad choices in the past, you did so with good intentions or the best knowledge you could have had at the time and there's nothing to be done about it now.

Accept that much of life is like floating down a river in a canoe. You can condition yourself to be in good shape to paddle, you can try to familiarize yourself with the route, you can be vigilant and watch the path ahead. To some extent, however, you're at the mercy of the waters and your control over your route is not complete. Maybe you help reinforce this to yourself with religion, meditation, booze or pills, but the sooner you accept the things you can't change - because of bad luck or failure, both of which we all get rations - the better off you'll be.
posted by phearlez at 1:28 PM on May 24, 2006

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