[12 September 2013]
Refreshing, honest, smart, accessible—all words that could be used to describe Margaret Klaw’s Keeping It Civil: The Case of the Pre-Nup and the Porsche & Other True Accounts from the Files of a Family Lawyer.
Using her 25-year career as a base, Klaw gives us heart wrenching, heartwarming, and occasionally humorous stories about the modern day family. The book tackles traditional family court matters, such as prenuptial agreements, divorce, and estate laws. It also looks at the worst of the worst—a domestic violence case that escalates into murder with seemingly little warning. Klaw describes it as the lowest point of her career.
Much of the book is about the wider ramifications of these cases—both the routine and the brow-crinkling I-can’t believe-someone-would-actually-do-this cases. Not surprisingly, money often seems to make people do crazy things. Klaw talks about a client who had no idea what her husband earned; he even went so far as to “cover up the page [of their joint tax returns] so she couldn’t see anything but the signature lines”, and another husband who would mark household expenditures with “approved” or “denied”. Klaw notes that the easiest clients understand “that divorce is, at its essence, an economic transaction that needs to be negotiated just like any other deal”, but she also wonders how marriage and divorce would be different if Americans talked more openly about finances.
Changes in family law compose another important part of the book, and one such case is detailed in the chapter “Sperm Donor v Father”. In this chapter, Klaw describes the challenges of creating a contract to protect the interests of a same-sex couple who wants to have a child using sperm donated by a family member. It’s complicated, and this chapter is full of what ifs and whereases.
What if the biological father eventually wants custody? What if the biological mother eventually wants support from the biological father? What if one of the biological mothers dies? What if the insemination causes an injury? The questions go on and on, and Klaw tries to create a document that covers all possible contingencies, even though she knows it may be for naught. Because, as Klaw admits, “the truth is that it’s not clear to what extent courts will allow adults to contract away rights that essentially belong to a child. Children are not property, and courts have an affirmative obligation to act in their best interest.”
Another modern twist to family law: same-sex divorce. Klaw describes a potential client, a woman who went to Vermont to be married (where same-sex marriage is legal) and then returned to her home state of Pennsylvania, which does not recognize same sex marriage (Pennsylvania still has a version of DOMA on the books although it is currently being challenged). When the marriage failed, she couldn’t get divorced in Pennsylvania because the state didn’t recognize the marriage to begin with. Nor could she return to Vermont—evidently it’s easy to get married in Vermont, but one must be a resident to get divorced. Klaw’s conclusion: “Gay people are fighting so hard for marriage equality, and now, when some of those marriages don’t work out (what a surprise; they’re no different than straight people!), they also need to fight for the right to divorce”.
And, like every recent book dealing with family and the workplace, we have a chapter on “Working Women”. This chapter, in part, examines a composite divorce case that illustrates what happens to a woman who quits her job when she and her husband start a family and compares it to the options a woman has who decides to keep working, even part time, after starting a family.
This is clearly personal to Klaw who doesn’t just discuss women, children, and work in relation to her cases—she also talks about it in terms of her own law practice and life. She notes that, because hers is a small practice dealing in family law (as opposed to a large firm handling, say, mergers): “At a very basic level, for me to give one of my employees more time to spend with her family, I have to spend less time with mine”.
You don’t have to be pre-law, contemplating divorce, trying to write a pre-nup, or fighting for custody to read, enjoy, or learn from Klaw’s Keeping it Civil. Klaw, who is also a blogger, knows how to tell a story; each is told well and perfectly paced. But perhaps more importantly, Klaw’s Keeping it Civil isn’t just about family court—it’s about family—mothers, fathers, children, spouses, partners—even pets.
Keeping It Civil is also about how we define, or perhaps stereotype, family members—what is expected of a “good” father, mother, husband or wife? Is a mother a “bad” mother if she sends her children off to school wearing mismatched socks or if she feeds her children pizza for dinner or if she has multiple tattoos? Courts may try to decide these issues but often it is the court of public opinion that carries the most weight.