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The divorce from hell, the battle for alimony and emptied pockets

CLEARWATER -- Terry Power's face tightened as he listened to his wife's attorney tick off their assets on the final day of his divorce trial. He sat in a leather chair at a glass-covered table inside a paneled judicial chamber and he thought not for the first time that her voice annoyed him.

He let his gaze drift briefly to the right beyond the judge, to the view of spindly palm trees swaying slightly in front of the glistening Intracoastal Waterway. How stunning it was out there. How stifling in here.

The Jet Ski . . . his wife's attorney said.

"Sold to pay attorney fees," Terry interjected.

The IRA account?

"Distributed to pay property taxes on the marital property."

The Raymond James investment account?

"Gone."

Terry's wife, Murielle, petite with blond highlights, stared at him as if he were an insect, then looked down at her hands. After five years in divorce court, they were like old prizefighters in their respective corners.

In February 2008, when Murielle Marie Helene Fournier vs. Terrance Paul Power was but a single document inside a purple file at the Pinellas County Courthouse, when Terry had his own business and made $250,000 a year, he thought of divorce court as a place where grievances were smoothed over and order restored. Now as he represented himself in his own divorce trial because he couldn't afford an attorney, his case having grown to 28 volumes and costing about $400,000 (much of it still unpaid), he viewed the system of marital justice as a journey down the rabbit hole.

The gold coins?

"I have no idea."

The hutch?

"Sold."

He'd met her in 1988 at a life insurance company where they worked. She was attractive and French, a gourmet cook. They had two children and she quit work to raise them. He'd started his own business managing pensions. They lived lavishly, taking their daughter around the world to compete as an ice skater. They vacationed in Switzerland, Tahiti, France.

They fell out of love for a variety of reasons. She thought he was too controlling and disliked his large gun collection; he thought she spent too much and drank too much. They disagreed over how to raise the kids. They argued. They stopped talking. In 2008, they filed for divorce.

Terry and Murielle's divorce was one of 79,859 filed in Florida that year. In a so-called no-fault state, in which there's no need to prove infidelity or abuse, divorce should be relatively simple to accomplish. Couples with no money or no issues often file their own divorces. Those that need a little help can enter mediation with the help of attorneys. But couples who can't even agree on who gets the toaster enter a process that feeds off antagonism.

This is where Terry, 55, and Murielle, 50, had landed. Watching them in the courtroom on the final day of their divorce trial, I was struck by how entrenched and bitter they had become. It was as if they couldn't remember how not to fight, how not to hate each other. Their case was extreme: Just 5 to 10 percent of all cases are decided by a judge. But the judicial system that they had turned to in hopes of resolving their problems had done nothing but make a bad situation worse.

As their divorce trial concluded, Murielle's attorney finally got around to alimony, the issue that had bogged down the case from the start. Terry had delivered his first of six alimony offers to Murielle a month after the divorce was filed: $5,400 a month until he retired, plus $50,000 cash and half the contents of their million-dollar home, which was underwater. The last letter, delivered to her attorney the month before the trial, offered her zero.

"Frankly I don't give a crap if she settles or not," he had written. "I'd rather see her waste even more money. Like she made me do for these past four years."

Now Murielle's attorney suggested a different amount: "She's 50 years old and she doesn't have many skills, Judge . . . $6,500 a month should keep her in a decent place."

Terry rolled his eyes.

 

VOL. I DISCOVERY

TERRY WALKED UP to me in the bustling fourth-floor corridor of the Pinellas County Courthouse in Clearwater. It was July 9, 2009, his 20th wedding anniversary, a date he'd stopped celebrating years before. He had a round face and a full, graying mustache and he wore his receding hair combed way back, kind of like Alec Baldwin.

Terry had invited me to his hearing by email a few days before. "I think your readers would find it very interesting as to what the 'real world' of divorce law is," he had written.

His case was then only 18 months old. But he was so frustrated that he didn't care who knew. Murielle's seventh request for documents — bank statements, credit card statements, investments, cash accounts, ledgers, accounts payable, sales schedules, frequent-flier benefits, deeds, leases, canceled checks, deposit slips, appraisals, balance sheets, savings statements, income tax returns, diaries, brokerage accounts, pay stubs, loan applications, life insurance policies, memberships and much more — had generated 22 pounds of paper. He'd weighed it on his bathroom scale.

He had stopped making his $5,700 mortgage payment, allowing the Mediterranean Revival home where Murielle lived inside a gated community in Clearwater to fall into foreclosure. His business was failing and he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was about to file for bankruptcy. He was on his second lawyer and ironically, since Murielle had no money, he had to pay for her lawyer too. As far as he was concerned, it was like paying someone to rob him.

He looked angrily down the hallway toward his reed-thin wife, huddled with her snowy-haired attorney, O. Stephen Thacker. Terry believed Thacker was egging Murielle on, telling her she could get more money. The more Murielle fought, Terry reasoned, the more Thacker was paid.

"She's completely oblivious," he sneered. "She's not sophisticated enough to understand she's being taken advantage of."

• • •

THE ESTRANGED COUPLE took seats across a table in front of Judge John "Jack" Helinger, a former prosecutor and family law attorney who had become a judge just eight months before.

Right off the bat, Thacker asked the judge to find Terry in contempt of court. His tone was thick with disdain. He was either a very good advocate or he despised Terry. Maybe both. It was hard to tell.

At a previous hearing, the judge had ordered the couple to sell Terry's gun collection, a 16th century French hutch and a water scooter to pay legal fees. That hadn't happened.

Terry was supposed to pay Murielle $700 a week in temporary support, according to a previous judge's order. But Terry had decided he was only going to give her $450 a week. Then, Thacker said, Terry had stopped paying her altogether even though he'd gone on vacation with his new girlfriend. He hadn't paid the mortgage or the property taxes or the car insurance. Murielle was down to $60. Oh, and the power was about to be shut off.

There were so many issues it was like unraveling a clump of tangled necklaces in a jewelry box. I wondered why Terry had called me to witness him getting beat up like this. It was almost uncomfortable to watch. He seemed a man who liked to be in control, and here in divorce court he had no control at all. Was he avoiding his responsibilities or truly unable to fulfill them?

I decided to return a couple of days later to find out how the judge dealt with Terry. This hearing was even more painful to watch than the first one.

Thacker had enlisted a forensic accountant, who said Terry's business accounts showed he had far more money than he was saying. Terry claimed he was plundering his company to pay Murielle's expenses and the cost of the divorce.

"Do you have the ability to satisfy your obligations?" Helinger asked Terry.

"No, I don't, your honor."

"What do you have?" Helinger asked.

"Well, my personal bank account has $2,300. I have cash of $120 in my pocket. And my company bank account has $22,000, which is what is left from a $35,000 loan I took out to make payroll."

It was clear the judge wasn't happy with Terry, but I was surprised by what happened next. He found Terry in contempt and ordered him to give Murielle the $2,300 in his bank account and the $120 in his pocket. He had to pay Thacker another $15,000 within 10 days.

Pay, or spend 30 days in jail.

He paid.

• • •

IN THE HALLWAY I approached Thacker. A combative attorney, he wore a pinstripe suit and had a smooth Southern accent. He worked with his attorney sons and had once represented Linda Bollea in her divorce against wrestler Hulk Hogan.

I introduced myself, and said I'd be interested in talking to him about the case. A woman walked up at that moment and handed Thacker an order in another case. He grinned. I peeked at the document — an order setting aside a prenuptial agreement. I later learned that the husband, who owned farms, RV parks and office buildings across the country, was worth nearly $300 million. Thacker represented the wife.

This is a big case," Thacker said.

He couldn't understand why I was covering Terry and Murielle's divorce. At that point, I didn't know why either. I said something vague about divorce and the economy.

He looked unimpressed.

To be sure, reporters didn't venture often into this part of the courthouse for a case with no celebrities and no unusual legal issues. But I wondered if it might turn out to be meaningful because it was so average.

I should say that my own experience with divorce 12 years ago was the polar opposite of Terry and Murielle's. I'd negotiated my own marital settlement, filed all the paperwork and been granted the divorce — all in the span of four months. There were no attorneys. Of course, there wasn't much money involved either.

I had always wondered why it took so long for some divorces to play out, leaving everyone devastated and destitute. Now I had an opportunity to find out.

VOL. II PERPETUAL MOTIONS

I NOTICED RIGHT AWAY that the case never seemed to go anywhere: plenty of motions but little movement.

Motion to enforce court orders on sale of property. Motion to modify temporary relief. Amended motion for contempt to enforce order. Motion for protective order and extension of time. Emergency motion to modify temporary primary residence.

All of these meant Terry and Murielle and their lawyers and their experts would come together in front of the judge, sometimes at a combined cost of $1,250 an hour. She did this, he did that. No, he did this; no, she did that. An endless battle of wills. The pair — through their attorneys — hurled seemingly unrelated and unsubstantiated accusations at each other, all of which entered the permanent public record of the court file.

Then one day in August 2009 came this: emergency motion for return of the child and to terminate contact.

• • •

SO FAR, Terry's case had revolved mostly around money, not the kids. Their 18-year-old daughter lived sometimes with her father, sometimes with her mother. They had agreed early that Murielle would have primary custody of their 11-year-old son.

But one night at 10 p.m., Terry had received a call from the boy. He was on the side of the road about a half mile from home. He'd run away.

Terry picked him up, but he didn't take him back to his mother's. He called the police. That wasn't particularly surprising; by this time, several of the couple's interactions outside court involving property exchanges had taken place with the police present.

Within days, the recording of the call was playing in Judge Helinger's courtroom. Terry tells the police dispatcher his son ran away, he's involved in a divorce and someone needs to tell Murielle he has the boy.

"She's a drunk," Terry says, when the dispatcher calls back to say she can't reach Murielle. (Later, he said he made this comment out of his son's earshot.) Murielle had been claiming for some time that Terry was turning the children against her. Her attorneys accused him of disparagement.

Helinger's mouth set in a firm line as he listened.

"To call the police with the child right there is unconscionable and detrimental to the child," the judge said. He said he felt that Terry was taking out his frustration at being ordered to pay $17,420 to Murielle and her attorneys the month before.

"Until further order, any parenting time contact between Mr. Power and (his son) will be supervised and all telephone calls will be recorded," Judge Helinger said.

In a short time, I had watched Terry's complete demise. His pension business was a shambles. He had emptied his pockets. And now his time with his son had been restricted.

The order would remain in effect until a custody evaluation (that Terry would also have to pay for) was performed by a licensed psychologist.

Murielle, who had managed to lose more weight since the last hearing, lifted a bony hand to dab at her eyes with a tissue. Terry tried to put on a game face as he left the courtroom.

"Am I that bad a guy?" he asked a little too glibly. "I thought I was a great father."

• • •

"THIS IS WHAT WE CALL in the legal system a high-conflict case," Helinger said during a Dec. 1, 2009, hearing. "We didn't create it. It is what it is."

Maybe so, but the process that was supposed to help them find common ground wasn't bringing them any closer. Two mediations had failed. Terry said Murielle had asked for $7,500 a month, which he claimed was 70 percent of his income. He countered with $5,000; she'd come back asking for $10,000, he said.

Most frustrating was that they kept slogging over the same ground. The temporary alimony. The bills. The house. The attorneys' fees.

"I'm micromanaging this case more and more," Helinger told them during another hearing. But managing implies control, and it didn't seem as if anyone was in control.

In just the first year, the cost to represent Murielle — including attorneys' and forensic accountant fees and other costs — climbed to $92,236.85. Terry's legal representation in 2008 cost $54,234.40, which he paid in full.

He grew defiant and by the second year he claimed he couldn't pay and then refused to pay. This, of course, brought on more motions, more hearings, more anger and more attorneys' fees.

Then, in early December 2009, the child custody evaluator, who had spent three months interviewing everyone involved, asked for an emergency hearing.

 

VOL. III SONS AND LOVERS

A MONTH LATER on a bright, breezy day in January 2010, Terry stood on the sidewalk in front of his son's middle school. The bell rang and a stout boy with wavy brown hair emerged from the throng of darting students. It was the first time the boy had seen his father at his school in months.

A surprising report from the custody evaluator, sealed in the court file, had resulted in Terry getting 50/50 custody. He had paid $2,460 to a supervisor to oversee three months of visits with his son.

"Daddy," the boy yelled, running toward him. He stopped short of a hug.

"Hey, buddy," Terry said, beaming.

For the first time since I'd met Terry, he wasn't ranting about his case. Until then I hadn't found him particularly endearing. I admired him for building a successful business without completing college (he'd left just shy a couple of credits and was a certified financial planner). And I sympathized with the seeming unfairness of a system that made him pay tens of thousands of dollars — for his attorneys and his wife's attorneys — with no end in sight.

But I didn't envision him rolling down his window to hand a buck to a homeless man or volunteering at the Salvation Army. And it wasn't as if he lived in poverty: He now rented a four-bedroom house in Safety Harbor and leased a Lincoln Navigator. Sometimes he even went flying, one of his passions.

When he talked about his son, however, I saw another side of him. He seemed relaxed and likable.

Terry brought his son home from school that day. The boy's eyes were wide as he toured the house, which had a pool and a 12-foot Christmas tree draped in tinsel.

"Wow, wouldn't Mom be disgusted with this tree?" the boy asked. "She hates colored lights. Remember me and you did a tree and Mom took the whole thing down?"

Terry nodded, but said nothing.

"Are you ready for some football?" he asked.

"Sure."

• • •

IN AUGUST 2010, Terry wheeled a chest full of documents up to the fourth floor of the Pinellas County Courthouse. It was his 36th divorce hearing. His girlfriend, Dee Dee Trott, teetered in white platform sandals beside him. Then 44, she was blonder and curvier than Murielle. She wore a low-cut white blouse and carried a white Ed Hardy bag speckled with pink hearts and the word LOVE. A divorcee, she'd been living in Spring Hill with her two young sons, one recovering from leukemia. Terry responded to her ad on Craigslist not long after the divorce was filed. Eventually she quit her job as manager of a pediatric office, moved to Clearwater and began working as an office manager for Terry's pension business.

"She's my fiancee and she's assisting me today," Terry announced to the judge — the case's third.

The winds certainly had shifted. For the previous eight months, Terry had been acting as his own attorney, busily filing motion after motion, adopting the very behavior that had so angered him in the beginning of the case. But he now had full custody of his son. He had prompted Helinger, a judge he didn't like, to remove himself from the case. He had also convinced the new judge that his business was not a marital asset because it was a professional service and he couldn't cut himself in half. Then, he had sold it to Trott for $1. Murielle's lawyers were still protesting that move — by filing motions, of course.

Thacker, sitting next to one of his sons and the forensic accountant, looked furious.

For a second time, Terry was trying to get the judge to further restrict Murielle's visitation based on the custody evaluation. Robert Evans, the custody evaluator, was — at a cost of $1,000, according to Terry — sitting outside the courtroom, waiting to testify.

But the judge told Terry they could not proceed. Terry, unschooled in legal procedure, had failed to send out a required notice. Evans was sent away again.

"We can't get the facts in front of the judge," Trott said, shaking her head as she and Terry left the courtroom.

"The process takes precedence over the safety of the child," Terry said. "That's how it works and it's despicable."

• • •

BY JANUARY 2011, the case had come to a halt. The third judge left family court for another division; Judge Joseph Bulone, the fourth judge on the case, took his place.

Thacker withdrew from the case, leaving Murielle without an attorney. Terry had turned off the financial spigot, refusing to pay Thacker's bills or Murielle's support. This drew another contempt order, which he appealed.

The lack of progress had driven Terry into a near constant rage. He'd even sent an email to 30 of their neighbors, blaming Murielle for the poor condition of the property and spilling details of the divorce.

I recalled an angry but still fairly respectful email almost two years earlier, telling her the power was to be shut off.

"You've bled me dry and I don't have the money to pay this either," he had written. "I just wanted to give you the opportunity to make other arrangements before you were inconvenienced."

Now his emails called her an "idiot," a "psycho," a "greedy b----." These weren't the words he would have used to describe her when the divorce was filed, but somehow years inside the family court system had given him new reasons to hate her.

Terry acknowledged to me that he'd become more "callous." At the outset, he said, "I was trying to find some way to make everything okay." But as his offers were declined, as the requests from his wife and her attorneys exceeded his income, according to him, as every dime he spent on himself or his girlfriend was scrutinized and criticized, he felt trapped.

"It's not who I am," he said. "But everything I did was under a microscope and it wears on you. You may not be a slave, but it's as close as you get. You have no life. It changes you."

 

VOL. IV A GOOD FRONT

UP UNTIL THIS POINT, Murielle had been the gaunt, teary woman on the other side of the table from Terry. One day in spring 2011, her attorneys gone, Murielle sat waiting for a hearing in the courthouse by herself. She wore a coral linen dress and tan sandals, her Yves Saint Laurent bag on the bench beside her. She was working for $8.50 an hour at a friend's business preparing documents to be scanned.

She did not seem like the woman in the custody evaluation, the one who supposedly had "a history of alcohol abuse and psychological issues" and "needed counseling." The one the custody evaluator, whose testimony Terry had finally succeeded in getting admitted in court, had said "frightened" and "alienated" their son and physically abused their daughter. At that moment, she seemed insecure, ill equipped to handle the world on her own. She had once described herself as a "baby duck that just got thrown into the water."

"You know I just went through five weeks of no running water at the house," she told me. "So the judge basically had him cough up some money to get the water turned on."

She had flushed the toilet with scummy pool water. She had showered with gallon jugs of water. The power had been shut off. Her housekeeper was gone. She said she had had "no TV" for six months. I asked her what it was like to roll around in a five-bedroom house all by herself.

She said it was lonely.

"Am I perfect?" she asked. "Absolutely not. Nobody is."

But, she added, "You know, we had an amazing marriage. His friends will tell you he loved me to death. I'd wake up in the morning and I'd say, 'What am I going to make? Am I going to make quail? Am I going to make rabbit?' That's what I did. I'm French. That's what you do. He was really proud of me. We entertained well."

It was hard not to feel sorry for her. Had she been a naive pawn of attorneys who told her she could get more? Or had she been greedy? She'd put in almost 20 years with this man, raising their children. But if she'd negotiated earlier, perhaps the divorce wouldn't have degenerated so completely.

I asked her about her plans. She said she wasn't sure.

Why had her attorney left? I asked.

"Because I owed them a lot of money," she said. "And I don't know if you noticed, but we kept going to court over and over again for the same thing. And Steve Thacker came to me and said, 'We think you're a nice person but we can't keep funding the case without any money coming in.' "

Why hadn't she taken the original offer, the $65,000 a year?

"That wasn't forever," she said. "And at the time, they were telling me I could get more." (Thacker says it is false that his firm did not encourage settlement.)

She said she'd heard Terry had taken their son on a ski trip and a Disney cruise. She missed her son.

"A child needs to see his mother," she said.

VOL. V THE BIGGEST MESS

THE TRIAL WAS SET for Sept. 20, 2011. Terry was ecstatic that the end was in sight. A few days before the trial, Terry stopped by the office of his new attorney, Harvey Spinowitz. The attorney had appealed another order for Terry to pay Thacker and Murielle, keeping him out of jail.

Spinowitz walked with a cane and his skin was ashen. I later found out he needed a kidney transplant. He had bad news for Terry.

Murielle had asked for a continuance. She had a new attorney, LeAnne Lake.

"She's very aggressive," Spinowitz said.

It would take time for Lake to study the 22 volumes in the case, he said. "I think it's going to be a year."

Terry sighed angrily.

"What are we even arguing about?" he asked.

It was a good question. There was no money left, according to Terry. The house was upside down. The custody had been decided for the most part. I thought often about not coming back. But it would be like watching two-thirds of a movie and getting up to leave before the end.

The trial date was rescheduled for Feb. 14, 2012, Valentine's Day.

Judge Bulone had vowed no more continuances. But less than a week before the trial, Lake asked again.

Terry had submitted a financial affidavit reporting no income. Lake found it hard to believe. She said she wanted to question Terry's girlfriend, to clarify his income.

Spinowitz suggested doing it before the Feb. 14 trial.

"I can't because this afternoon I have a blood transfusion," Lake said. She said she was in remission from Stage 4 breast cancer. "I can't do a three-day trial without a transfusion. My red blood cells are down."

I looked around the room. Could this be any more crazy? A fourth judge. Two attorneys, one with kidney failure, the other staving off cancer.

Judge Bulone shook his head.

"This case is the biggest mess I have, so thank you so much," he said. "I don't want to do this but I grant the continuance."

The next available trial date was eight months away. Terry let his attorney go, again.

"I'm trapped in the system," he said. "I can never break out. It's like Groundhog Day."

• • •

TERRY HAD BEGUN looking into a new movement: Florida Alimony Reform. Under a proposed law, alimony would be based on a formula that would take into account the couple's incomes and years of marriage and spit out a total. No fuss, no muss: a number. And an end.

Terry wondered whether his divorce would have caused him less pain — personal and financial — if that formula had been used.

He called the financial advisor leading the movement.

"What can I do?" he asked.

• • •

THE TRIAL DAWNED on a cloudy, warm Monday in October.

Murielle spoke. Terry spoke. Terry's girlfriend spoke. Murielle's lawyer spoke. A career consultant spoke. They discussed alimony, attorneys' fees, equitable distribution of property, child support, custody, the house. The same things they had been fighting about for five years.

After 12 hours of testimony, spread over three days, Judge Bulone had his say: "People need to stop acting their absolute worst. I haven't heard a lot of spectacular things about how your children are doing, and if you think that's totally unrelated to the conflict you two created, then you're wrong. You both have to take responsibility for all this."

True, Terry and Murielle were at fault. But what about the judicial system? It seemed as if it had done nothing to restrain their worst impulses and poor choices.

• • •

I OVERHEARD a bailiff talking about another divorce case from Bulone's courtroom that had settled on the brink of trial just a few weeks before.

During Terry and Murielle's trial, Bulone had said: "I had a case that just resolved from 2006 and these people had hundreds of millions of dollars and they could afford to fight for six years. You guys can't afford to fight for a week, but here you are."

It was the case with the prenuptial agreement that had made Thacker, Murielle's former attorney, smile.

I pulled the file again. The couple had been married eight years and the divorce case had lasted six. The settlement agreement: The wife was to get property and $27 million. From that, $2.25 million was to be paid to the Thacker Law Group, P.A. Trust Account to cover costs, expert witnesses and attorneys' fees for Thacker's law firm and for another Miami law firm that served as co-counsel, among other things. Thacker said later that some of the money was returned to the wife.

 

VOL. VI COMMON GROUND

"A DIVORCE PROCEEDING culminating in trial represents a failure of our legal system." A Nevada family law judge, David A. Hardy, wrote that in a 2009 Nevada Law Journal article.

I thought about this as I sat down on a black leather couch in the office of the chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit, Thomas G. McGrady.

I suggested to him that the system that had delivered Terry and Murielle's divorce seemed inefficient, random and perplexing.

McGrady declined to talk about the case specifically. He agreed that divorce court could be confusing and that judges might do a better job explaining what was happening. But with eight family law judges handling 4,730 pending family law cases (almost 600 cases per judge), sometimes there just wasn't time.

To avoid a protracted, inefficient battle, he said, couples needed to take responsibility for settling their differences.

"I have to put this delicately, but sometimes the lawyer is partially at fault for this," McGrady said. "To be a good family lawyer, you have to be more than a litigator; you have to be a counselor. You have people who are very vulnerable and very emotional and they look at the lawyer to be the voice of reason."

Speaking only generally, McGrady acknowledged that sometimes lawyers may churn their cases.

"It almost seems like in some cases where you get one where there is money, we're going to litigate every possible issue there is in the case," McGrady said.

In a letter to me, Thacker had argued that Terry was at fault for "the overwhelming amount of fees and costs" since he had violated so many court orders. Thacker said his firm had spent 450 hours on Terry and Murielle's divorce for a combined $113,618.50 in legal fees. Of that, he said he'd received only $20,170.90.

I asked McGrady about alimony. Should it become a formula, as Terry wanted? Under the proposed law, someone married 20 years, for example, could get 10 years of alimony. McGrady said alimony was "kind of an antiquated theory" but he felt it was still needed in some cases, particularly for the older woman who has devoted her life to a husband and children.

"And I have a problem with having it be hard and fast — if you just made it math," he said. "I think it would lead to more inequities."

Hardy, the Nevada family law judge, argued in 2009 that alimony awards were "judge-specific, idiosyncratic, inconsistent and unpredictable."

Terry and Murielle's runaway divorce suggested he had a point. Judges awarding alimony had to make their decisions based on one spouse's ability to pay and another's need. I imagined that if each of the four judges handling Terry's case had been forced to make a decision at the same point in time, each would have come up with something different.

• • •

ONE MONDAY MORNING in November, Terry came out of the yellow stucco house he now rented in Clearwater. He carried a cup of coffee and walked past the plumeria and the rosemary he had planted in pots because he couldn't put down roots. It was his 55th birthday.

"Is this what you want?" asked the mail carrier as she pulled up.

Terry tore open the yellow envelope. His girlfriend stood nearby.

"The court's ordering the house be sold and she gets to stay in it" until it's sold, he read aloud.

He flipped the page, his hands shaking. The judge had awarded permanent alimony.

"My alimony obligation is $1,500," Terry said. But Murielle would owe him $525 a month in child support for their son.

And Murielle was to pay the outstanding bills of her former attorney, Thacker, and her former forensic accountant — a combined $150,486.

Terry smiled, satisfied. He was finally divorced.

Five years, four judges, six lawyers, $400,000 in attorney and expert fees and costs, a child yanked back and forth, the petty arguing — all for a net payment of about $1,000 a month.

• • •

I WENT TO SEE TERRY at his office in Clearwater. He said his new business overseeing 401(k) retirement plans was growing slowly and he was working off his debts. He was waiting to see if Judge Bulone would grant another hearing so he could reduce the back alimony he owed Murielle, about $87,000.

So the case was over, but it wasn't over.

An hour later, I met Murielle at a bagel shop across the street from Terry's office. She had picked the location. She had stopped working at her $8.50 an hour job. She had been rear-ended in a car crash and hurt her neck and was considering a lawsuit.

She said she had given up seeking custody of her son at trial because she felt the proceedings were harming him.

She called Terry irresponsible with his appeals and motions. "He's just racking up attorney fees," she said.

"The thing is, right now Terry's living very, very well, and I have no money," she said. "He was able to do whatever he wanted with this system . . . he got angrier and angrier and it got out of control. If you look at Terry, he didn't follow I don't know how many orders and he was never held accountable."

She said the legal system had failed her. I was struck by the irony. Both Terry and she felt the system had failed them. Neither supposedly had money left to pay each other or their attorneys. And now she was complaining about legal fees. That was new. Divorced, the two of them again had something in common.

• • •

THREE WEEKS AGO, Terry stood at the door of his old house. He had heard from a neighbor that moving vans had turned up a few days before and that Murielle was gone.

The power was off. A musty smell greeted Terry, his girlfriend and the Realtor as they opened the front door. Murielle had cleared out the house — Terry's office furniture, their son's bedroom set, the wine collection.

Trott nodded appreciatively at the mahogany doors, the redwood floors, the Italian marble baths. They entered the master bedroom closet.

Terry stopped, training the light from his phone on something hanging to his right.

"Oh, this is creepy," he said.

The last time he'd seen it, it had been in a box.

Now Murielle's taffeta and lace wedding dress hung there like a ghost, a smudge of rouge lipstick on the front from a day long ago.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8640. Follow @WriterLeonora on Twitter.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ALIMONY

Alimony originated in England during the 12th century

when churches did not grant divorces but allowed a couple to live apart.

Once divorces were granted four centuries later, alimony became the norm to prevent divorced women from falling into

poverty. Spousal support later turned up in colonial America and has remained a stable part of the American divorce ever since. Today courts award men spousal support too. But critics say alimony is an outdated concept and that judges have too much discretion. In recent years, this has led some states to consider changing the way alimony is determined. In 2011, Massachusetts adopted a law that turned alimony into a formula based on the length of the marriage.

Florida legislators are considering a similar bill (SB 718) that would do away with permanent alimony. If it passes, the amount and duration of an alimony award could be determined by the length of the marriage and the paying spouse's income. For example, a court might award a wife in a 26-year marriage a maximum of 13 years of alimony with the amount not to exceed 33 percent of the husband's gross income. The Family Law Section of the Florida Bar opposes the measure because it might have serious financial consequences for nonworking spouses in long-term relationships and because it could also flood the courts with alimony payers attempting to get out of obligations.

The divorce from hell, the battle for alimony and emptied pockets 04/03/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 7:33am]

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