Stranger Than Fiction: Selected Divorce Chronicles (Volume 1)
This blog post is the first entry in a new series titled “Stranger Than Fiction: Selected Divorce Chronicles.” In this series, which I intend to update on a weekly basis (at least until I run out of good stories), I’ll share some of the most interesting and memorable stories from my 10+ years of practicing family law.
Of course, as a divorce lawyer, I hear all kinds of horrific stories from clients. These stories center upon such issues as cheating spouses, spouses who secretly incur thousands of dollars in secret marital credit card debt, and spouses with secret drug, alcohol, and gambling addictions which wreak havoc on marital finances. Even worse, some people endure horrific emotional and physical abuse from their spouses, and, in the worst cases, children bear the brunt of abuse from one of their parents. In my mind, it’s never appropriate to make light of truly horrific situations, and the stories in this series attempt to steer clear of tragic topics. (In fact, this series will not touch on physical and emotional abuse of any sort because I simply don’t feel comfortable asking my clients who have endured it to share their experiences with the world just so I can write a blog.)
Instead, this post and those to follow like it are meant to provide a bit of comic relief to those of you who are either going through your own divorces or simply trying to make it through the workday by relaying some of the most shocking, scandalous, and simply absurd situation I’ve seen over my years as a divorce lawyer. Whether you find these true stories relatable, humorous, terrifying, or sad, I hope you will agree that they’re worth the read.
The names of the individuals mentioned in each of the stories in this series have been changed, including those of the lawyers involved (except my own name). I have also eliminated details which might enable readers to determine the true identities of those individuals. Before publishing this story, I contacted “Thomas”, asked him to review the final draft, and obtained his express written permission to post the story on my blog, having fully informed him of various considerations of importance (e.g., effect of publication on attorney-client privilege) prior to obtaining his permission.
Thomas and his BDSM Dungeon
Thomas was referred to me several years ago for a divorce. At that time, I had been practicing family law for only a few years, and had not come across anything but run-of-the-mill cases.
When Thomas came to me and shared his story, he was mild-mannered and quiet. He explained that he and his wife had no children, that they had been together for less than 3 years, and that they had no major marital assets to divide. When I asked about the causes for the breakdown of the marriage, Thomas simply told me that “It took me a while to discover how crazy she was.” “Fair enough,” I thought (having heard that explanation many times before and many times since), and we proceeded on with the case.
Given the length of the marriage, the absence of children, and the minimal assets at stake, both sides agreed to mediate the case early on and attempt to settle it quickly, before the clients incurred unnecessary attorneys’ fees. In advance of mediation, I had my client prepare a Domestic Relations Financial Affidavit (or “DRFA” - a form which provides a thorough snapshot of each party’s financial situation), as well as an inventory of the property he wished to take with him the property he wished to keep after the divorce. While Thomas sent his DRFA a few days prior to mediation, he told me he needed more time to finish the inventory list, and would provide it on the day of our mediation.
We arrived at mediation a few days later, and felt thoroughly prepared, with everything I needed to efficiently settle the case ready to go. It was supposed to be an easy case, and I felt like a well-oiled machine. Then, things took an unexpected turn when I asked Thomas if he had brought the inventory list I had asked him to prepare.
As soon as I asked for the inventory list, Thomas gingerly pulled from his backpack a 2-inch binder, overflowing with seemingly well-organized sections of paper and accompanied by a cover sheet titled as follows:
THOMAS’S INVENTORY LIST: CONFIDENTIAL
Not Subject to Negotiation under Any Circumstances (You B*tch)*
*This word was not censored on his actual cover sheet.
Considering the dividers, post-it notes marking important pages, and overall appearance of the binder, it appeared as though my client had taken hours to prepare it. So, despite perceiving that mild-mannered Thomas was very nervous, I grabbed the binder and opened it … almost immediately, my jaw dropped. (Really, it dropped – that’s not just an expression.)
Thomas’s “inventory list” was a very thorough compilation of color photographs of his extensive collection of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism) toys, props, and tools. For those of you who are not familiar with BDSM, I suggest you check out the following introductory article on the subject so that I don’t have to detour into an explanation: https://www.bustle.com/articles/153940-a-beginners-guide-to-bdsm-toys.
Specifically, the binder contained 100+ full-page color photos of the various props and toys owned by Thomas and his wife, additional photos of Thomas and his wife engaging in BDSM, and even more photos of the BDSM “dungeon” in the parties’ home which appeared to be an absolutely deluxe dream dungeon for anyone with a penchant for dungeons and/or BDSM.
As I flipped through the binder (I really don’t recall what I was thinking), Thomas reached over and put his hand on top of mine. Then he said, “Kimberly, she can have the house, she can have both cars, she can have the pets … I just want everything in this binder, including everything in the dungeon and all of these photos. I’ll give her a disc with copies of the photos, but that’s all. I invested most of my money in this equipment before we were married, and I introduced her to BDSM, so it should be mine, right?”
My response was a little scattered as I fluctuated between scolding Thomas for failing to mention an issue so important to him sooner and asking the main question flooding my thoughts at that time, which was “how much can this stuff possibly be worth?” As soon as that question left my lips, however, Thomas instructed me to flip to the final divider in the binder, where he told me I would find a breakdown of the purchase price and current value of each BDSM item in the household, as well as supporting receipts for most of them.
When I flipped to the page in question, my jaw dropped yet again. Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t at all well-versed in the realm of BDSM (no judgment – it’s just not my thing, and this was well before Fifty Shades of Grey), but what I saw shocked me to more core … so much, in fact, that to this very day I remember the total estimated value of Thomas’s BDSM collection down to the exact dollar: Two Hundred, Fourteen Thousand, Seven Hundred Dollars ($214,700). Also, as Thomas pointed out, that number excluded the costs associated with constructing the BDSM dungeon in the house.
As I flipped through Thomas’s receipts, it appeared that his numbers were accurate enough to proceed with mediation in reliance on them. So, we got to work trying to settle the case. When mediation commenced, my opening statement – which I clearly had not prepared more than 10 minutes in advance of making it - was straightforward, something to the effect of: “This is a simple case. The parties have minimal assets, and my client is willing to offer the house, along with all of the furnishings in it including the BDSM dungeon, in exchange for all of the BDSM equipment which has been utilized by both parties during the marriage. All such equipment, including that which is currently in the dungeon, was purchased by my client prior to the marriage, so he justifiably wants to keep it all.”
Opposing counsel’s jaw dropped and my client’s wife’s jaw dropped. For the former, it was probably because this was the first he had heard of the role of BDSM in this case. As far as the wife was concerned, she clearly had no intention of leaving without any of the BDSM equipment, even if he was offering her pretty much everything else the parties owned.
Very soon, I learned that the wife’s position was as follows: although Thomas had introduced her to the world of BDSM, she had made it more enjoyable for him, so she deserved some mementos of their time together. Additionally, she disputed that all of the equipment had been purchased prior to the marriage. In fact, she claimed, she had given many of the most valuable things to him as gifts, and also argued that items he had purchased while he was dating her should be split evenly between them. Her main argument, however, was that he had told her time after time that he had experienced the best BDSM moments of his life with her, and that, as such, he owed her a 50/50 split of all BDSM-related assets.
Mediation basically broke down from there. Thomas was unwilling to budge and the opposing lawyer and I agreed that we weren’t fully prepared to value these various pieces of equipment adequately, especially if we were going to trial and needed reliable valuations. (Importantly, despite Thomas’s receipts, we lacked receipts for everything, and some of the items were antiques. Plus, we’re not talking about items that cost $50 - $100 … this stuff is not cheap. Some of it costs more than my first car.) We concluded mediation without a settlement pretty quickly, and I set out to find an expert in BDSM who could properly value the antique BDSM items like the “bondage yoke” which the parties estimated to be 100+ years old, various chastity belts, and my personal favorite, the “human pony harness.”
Ultimately, the case went to trial. Both sides presented testimony from our own BDSM experts as to the value of the equipment in question. The law on the subject was otherwise pretty straightforward (i.e. premarital property of either party goes to that party, although gifts can get a little more complicated; marital property should be equitably divided). Even though the BDSM discussions took up about 90% of the trial, I felt confident that Thomas would get the lion’s share of the equipment based on the state of the law.
At the end of the case, the very conservative judge verbally pronounced his ruling, and then things really got interesting. In dividing up the BDSM equipment, he announced that he would first list all of the items to be awarded to the wife, and then list all of the things to be awarded to Thomas. Thomas ultimately came out like a bandit, and while the wife did get the human pony harness, she got only a few other things from the extensive collection.
When the wife heard the judge’s ruling, she basically lost her mind. Before her lawyer could stop her, she stood up and began to explain to the judge (no…yell to the judge) that his division of the BDSM items could never work. For example, she explained that the human pony harness had been purchased with a riding crop and (something else neither Thomas nor I can remember), and, that, as such, those items were a set that had to remain together. Then Thomas (God bless him) chimed in and said “Judge, you gave me the muzzle gag and you gave my wife the padlock that goes with it, and really those should go together too, your honor.” (At least Thomas went with the respectful approach and invoked “your honor” a few times rather than berating the poor judge like his wife did.)
Of course, the judge was exasperated. He threw his hands up and instructed the lawyers to prepare letter briefs to the court detailing which items our clients should get and notating which of them could not be separated. Both lawyers complied, but the judge didn’t change his ruling at all – given the fact that he had spent hours upon hours hearing testimony about the division of BDSM equipment during a divorce trial, I’m not sure I blame him. All that matters is that, even though he did not get every single thing he wanted, Thomas came out feeling like a winner … a winner with quite the impressive collection of BDSM equipment to show off to his next romantic conquest.
Interestingly, as I sent Thomas this story for his review and approval, he reminded me that he spent more than $20,000.00 fighting about his BDSM equipment in that divorce case. When I asked him if was worth it, he said: “Are you kidding? Hell, yes. If you meet my new girlfriend, you’ll understand – she’s so hot, and there’s no way she would be with me right now if it weren’t for all the BDSM stuff I’ve got in my new dungeon.” Then, in sweet, wonderful Thomas fashion, he added: “Kimberly, you need to let us make you dinner one night so you can come check it out – if you’re lucky, I might let you have a souvenir.”
Thomas, if you’re reading, thanks for the offer … I’m going to take a rain check for now, but you keep doing you, bud!