Thursday, June 23, 2011

Divorce Michigan Style

Welcome to Michigan, where we have a government by the businesses, for the businesses, and all the laws will favor the business owners - even if that means leaving a partner in marriage destitute should divorce enter the picture. Check out this next bit of legislation that has been put on the fast-track in Lansing, written by and for some of the biggest money in the state, and where the first quick hearing on the bills didn't give the opposition any time to present a case. Sound familiar?

Under current Michigan law, any appreciation in the value of one spouse's business is treated as marital property if it occurs during the marriage, and each partner is entitled to half if the marriage breaks up. If a spouse's $1-million business grows into a $50-million business over the course of a 25-year marriage, for example, the divorcing partner would be entitled to half the $49-million increase.

But two bills introduced last month by state Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, would tip the scales in favor of the working spouse, making it harder for the stay-at-home partner to claim a share in the family business and limiting a judge's discretion to award business assets to her or him.

Diana Raimi, a veteran divorce lawyer and property law expert assigned to analyze the legislation for the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said she was amazed when lobbyists described the initiative as an effort to codify and clarify Michigan's marital property laws.

"It reads like a special-interest, targeted remedy for one person trying to head off a particular set of difficulties in court," Raimi said Wednesday afternoon. Together, she added, the bills proposed by Walsh "amount to the most anti-family piece of legislation I've seen in my 33 years of practice."

While the knife can cut both ways, and the number of women business owners in Michigan has been growing, they still are a minority in the upper ranks and lag behind men when it comes to owning businesses that make over a million a year. If this was written for one person, it sounds like someone is trying to force the wife to stay, or severely punish her if she goes. This is definitely a law that favors the wealthy who look at life in terms of their "property"; whether that be the money or the family, it usually doesn't matter. People who crave power enough go to lengths like this rarely discern between the two.

It's usually all about control. And in the classic style of those who need that control (and what is rapidly becoming the standard Republican fall-back position for everything that has happened lately), if you don't like it, you're the problem here. You just don't want "change".

Richard McClellan, a veteran elections law lawyer best known for work on behalf of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and his political ties to former Gov. John Engler, said Wednesday that he encouraged Walsh to introduce the bills earlier this year after being approached by "a group of lawyers and others" whom he declined to identify.

"I represent nobody who is getting a divorce," McClellan said. But he hedged when I asked him whether the legislation he's lobbying for was designed to enhance the legal position of a specific party or parties.

"Obviously, either the lawyer or their clients have an interest in getting the law changed," McClellan said.

"But I think it's good public policy," he added. He said that most of the opposition to the bill had come from what he called "missionaries for the family who don't want any change."

This will get another hearing, and family lawyers have hopes that it can be stopped, but the track record so far this year has been to ignore the opposition and serve the few at the expense of the many. Hard to see how this would be any different, but you never know. This may cross the line with a lot of legislators.

Walsh promises that all the interested parties will get a chance to be heard -- and most of those I spoke to Wednesday said they expected the legislation to wither under closer scrutiny.

"This may benefit some wealthy litigants, and somebody has paid a lot of people a lot of money to get it done," said Denise Alexander, the immediate past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers Michigan chapter. "But it's a lot of money spent on something that would negatively impact families in every legislator's district.

"It's amazing," she added, "that that some people think they can buy legislation and get away with it."

We don't call it "buying legislation" - we call it "relentless positive action". Didn't you get the memo?