opinion | Joan Wickersham

Family court — where lives unbind

Child custody. Alimony. Divorce. No one expects to end up here.


My friend Shirley used to work in a snack stand on the ground floor of the local courthouse. “So many sad stories,” she would say, of her conversations with people who stopped to buy a cup of coffee, or a cookie for a child. Listening to Shirley over the years made me curious about family court, where private lives intersect with public process.

So on a recent morning I went to the courthouse. The lobby was crowded: people in business suits, people in shorts, people of all races and ages, hunched over papers with their lawyers, or standing silently alone, or rocking screaming babies. I took a seat on a bench in one of the courtrooms.

9:35. A man and woman in their 50s, accompanied by lawyers, stand before the judge. The courtroom is quiet except for the judge’s questions and the couple’s murmured answers. Have you read the agreement? Yes. Did you understand it? Yes. Did you sign it of your own free will? Yes. Have you made full disclosure of all your assets? Yes. Do you agree that the marriage is irretrievably broken? Yes.


“Then,” says the judge, “given that the marriage is irretrievably broken, an order of divorce will be entered today.”

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The just-divorced couple walks out of the room without looking at each other.

9:42. Another couple — young, casually elegant, professional-looking — stands before the judge. They’re hammering out the final details of their divorce agreement: Of the $237,000 in their joint checking account, roughly $13,000 is in dispute. The judge suggests that the amount isn’t worth fighting over and that the couple should just figure it out, rather than incur more legal fees. He sends them out to the lobby to talk.

10:00. A single mother. A quick litany of questions and answers. The judge asks her to state her child’s name, whether the child always lives with her, whether the father’s name is on the birth certificate. “And I understand you’re seeking sole custody?”



“You’re all set.”

10:06. A woman wishing to establish that her ex-husband has defaulted on child support payments. “We’re not sure if he is still employed,” the lawyer says, “so we don’t know if she still has health insurance for herself or her children.”

The man has not paid in the past six months. The woman is owed $2,256.

“He has defaulted,” the judge declares.

10:31. Next case. The parties converge from opposite sides of the courtroom. They’ve been divorced for seven years, and are haggling over how recent changes to Massachusetts alimony laws should affect their financial arrangement. For the next hour the man and woman stand silently while the lawyers argue. “Grossly unfair.” “Hostile and aggressive.” “Fifty-five dollars a week for housecleaning. Ten dollars for dog grooming.” “According to page seven of the divorce agreement . . .’’ “According to section 49 of the statute . . .”


Listening, I find myself wondering about this couple. Thinking about all couples. How things begin with first meetings, falling in love, wedding plans: such high hopes. No one enters into a marriage expecting to end up here, standing before a judge answering questions that ironically echo and also undo a wedding ceremony, questions designed not to bind but to unbind. A wedding ceremony is a transitional moment. But marriage isn’t just a transition or a moment, and nothing makes that point like watching while a judge pronounces that a marriage is over, and adjudicates the painful ongoing aftermath — custody, child support, alimony — of other dissolved marriages. I wonder, only half facetiously, whether in between shopping for wedding gowns and flowers, all engaged couples should spend a morning in family court.

11:54. The young couple with the joint bank account is again standing before the judge, having reached an agreement. The judge asks whether the marriage is irretrievably broken. Both answer yes. They have read the agreement, understood it, signed it freely. A decree of divorce will be entered today.

11:59. They linger for a moment outside the courthouse. She slips out of her platform sandals, puts on flip-flops. He takes off his suit jacket. “I’d offer you a ride, but —”

“That’s OK.”

They say goodbye and head off in opposite directions.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her new book of fiction, “The News From Spain,’’ will be published in the fall.