Don't Get Hung Up on Fairness

Life isn't fair is the timeless adage, and it's never been more apparent than in divorce cases. You are not going to agree on a settlement based on what you, the judge or your spouse think is "fair", explains California Judge Roderic Duncan. Take a look a

By Judge Roderic Duncan
March 19, 2009

People who spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not something is "fair" tend to have serious problems while getting divorced. Deciding what's fair and what isn't can be a tough call on the playground, in business transactions, and in many other aspects of daily life. But nowhere is it more difficult than when breaking up a marriage.

Divorce Law and Family Law

If you are going to get divorced, keep this important fact straight: Most decisions in divorces are not based on what you, your soon-to-be ex-spouse, or a judge thinks would be fair. And in divorce court, arguing about whether something is fair is usually a waste of time. Divorce court decisions are made by applying laws and past case decisions to facts that are presented at your trial.

Despite these realities, human good sometimes triumphs over the odds. As quiet as it is kept, there is a sizable slice of the people going through divorce court who genuinely want to be fair to the spouse from whom they are getting divorced.

I have been in many settlement conferences when a husband says something like: "I want Betty to have enough money to be able to go to school part-time, and I just don't think what she is asking for is enough. Let's make it $650 a month." Or a wife says: "You know, Frank, the children are going to want to see you on their birthday, so let's work out a plan that gives you some time with them on that day." When the other spouse smiles, looks across the table and says "Thanks," it's a good indication that fairness is happening.

Of course, everyone involved feels best when the judge's decision accomplishes something that seems fair. For example, if applying the law to a particular situation results in financial security for a parent who has struggled to hold the family together without moral or financial help from the other parent, the judge feels pleased making the necessary orders. And the family members will surely benefit from this legally imposed plan. But if the laws and court decisions of the state dictate a victory for a spendthrift philanderer, a judge has no choice but to follow the law and make a decision that most people would feel was unfair.

When you are agreeing on issues at the kitchen table, meeting in mediation, or taking advantage of collaborative law, agreements you and your spouse make on your own based on fairness are just fine.

Judges will normally accept any settlement you and your spouse agree upon. But if you are not represented by a lawyer, a judge might feel that what you have agreed to is so far from what the law would provide that he or she will want to talk to you personally and be sure you understand your options. And the law in most states will also limit you from agreeing to provisions that would deprive your children of their legal rights.

But if you don't settle your case out of court, remember this: What a divorce court will do with your case will often not seem fair.

Why Divorce Courts Are Sometimes Unfair

Divorce courts are normally involved in deciding issues that the divorcing parties can't resolve themselves, such as:

  • when allotting alimony or child support -- how much money each spouse should be expected to earn
  • when deciding custody matters -- where the children should spend the majority of their time, and
  • when divvying up a couple's property -- what was in one of the spouse's savings account when they married.

There often is conflicting testimony by witnesses at a divorce trial on issues such as these, but once the judge decides whom to believe, he or she must apply the law as determined by the state legislature (statutory law) and by earlier decisions of higher state courts (precedent) when making a divorce judgment. In mathematical terms, the formula sounds simple: F + L = J (facts plus law equals a judgment). In life, it's a difficult formula to apply.

Some people unfamiliar with the judicial system believe that trials are designed for judges to hear evidence and then decide what is fair. But there are two major reasons why they don't work that way: human subjectivity and the reality of the legal system.

Judges' Subjectivity

People looking at any human situation often disagree on what is fair. And, after all, judges are just people.

Contrary to the regimes in some other countries, American judges don't get any formal training on judging until after they have been appointed or elected. And even then, in many locales, the training is pretty spotty. Derek Bok, an author and former president of Harvard University, had this to say about how a person becomes a judge: "A judge is a member of the Bar who once knew a Governor."

Judges come from all political parties, many different religious or nonreligious beliefs, and very varied backgrounds. One judge I know grew up in a house with dirt floors and no plumbing. Some of them grew up in mansions and attended exclusive private schools.

Individual experience and beliefs should not control the outcome of a case. Making an individual judge's concept of fairness the basis for a ruling would be just plain unfair. However, personal history and exposure are bound to affect what every judge thinks is fair in situations that come into his or her courtroom.

I am a great admirer of a statement that a British judge, Lord Denning, made in 1981: "My root belief is that the proper role of a judge is to do justice between the parties before him. If there is any rule of law which impairs the doing of justice, then it is the province of the judge to do all he legitimately can to avoid that rule -- or even to change it -- so as to do justice in the instant case before him."

I have quoted this in several cases in which I felt I was dealing with an unfair law. But in truth, a trial judge's attempt to avoid or change a law is not often successful. The bottom line is the same as the line at the top of this article: Don't get hung up on fairness.

Courts don't -- and you shouldn't either.

Structure of the Legal System

The American justice system requires that exactly the same laws and principles must be applied to every case that comes through the courts.

The problem with this that most of the laws that control in divorce cases are made in state legislatures, where those who actually make the laws rarely see the complicated human tangles that appear in divorce courts. In too many instances, the laws just don't fit into the reality of what is happening in courts -- or in human lives.

But if we didn't have laws that all judges must apply in deciding each and every case, the judicial system would be so unpredictable that our society would be in a constant state of confusion. In fact, the positive side of this one-size-fits-all approach is that with well-known laws and precedents available, lawyers are usually able to predict what would happen at a trial and advise their clients on a reasonable settlement. And once a judge zeroes in on the facts of a particular case and decides what testimony to believe, he or she can usually find and apply the controlling law fairly easily. That wouldn't be possible if judges' decisions rested entirely on subjective views of fairness.


Judge Roderic Duncan presided over thousands of divorce cases over a period of 20 years. The Family Law Section of the California State Bar named him Judicial Officer of the Year. He now teaches family law to law students and new judges. This article has been edited and excerpted from A Judge's Guide to Divorce: Uncommon Advice from the Bench.


For more divorce and family law articles, visit http://www.divorcemag.com/articles/Divorce_Law.

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March 19, 2009
Categories:  Legal Issues

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