What do Titanic, Hamilton, and Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story have in common? We all know the outcome and yet can’t stop ourselves from watching them again and again. What do I say every time I see Titanic? “You do smell ice.” Hamilton “don’t duel, it never ends well!” and for Betty “don’t shoot!”

While you would think that since divorce cases take up my day, they would not take up my nights also. Yet, I could not wait each week for Amanda Peet’s amazing performance as Betty Broderick. If you did not follow this recent series, it did an excellent job showing you the background of this couple.

Betty met her future husband (Dan) as he was heading off to medical school and married before he graduated. After graduation from medical school, Dan decided to go to law school (obviously a complete masochist!). Betty supported them, including giving birth to their first two children. After years of financial struggle and tremendous sacrifice on Betty’s part, Dan eventually hits it big as a medical malpractice lawyer. Within a few years, he leaves Betty for a much younger woman.

The legal and emotional fallout of this family still fascinates, some 30 years after the tragic events.

There are many laws in effect at this time (at least in New York) that would have helped Betty financially and emotionally.

Automatic Orders – When a divorce is started, certain provisions kick in that create an instantaneous “stop”. In summary:

• Neither party shall sell, transfer, encumber, conceal, assign, remove or in any way dispose of any property
• Neither party shall transfer, encumber, assign, remove, withdraw or in any way dispose of any retirement account
• Neither party shall incur unreasonable debts
• Neither party shall cause the other party or the children of the marriage to be removed from any existing medical coverage
• Neither party shall change the beneficiaries of any insurance policies

Once Dan started the divorce action, he continued to invest family money (badly) and then came back and [successfully] argued that there were less funds to distribute with Betty because he had lost the money.

Temporary Spousal and Child Support – Once an action is started, the lower income spouse can seek child and spousal support which are determined based upon a formula, while still leaving judges discretion for a higher or lower amount.

For Betty, Dan “paid” her money in his discretion, both the amount and the frequency. When he was unhappy with her actions (and sometimes for good reason), he could unilaterally withhold money or fine her, which was accepted by the judge on the case.

Had their assets been frozen Betty would have received significantly more money. If she could count on support, it could not be used as a method of control.

Stay tuned for further discussion of 1989 v. 2020.

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