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California Breakup : 'Divorce is one of life's most traumatic events. On the stress scale, it's right up there with the death of a loved one. And particularly where children are involved, you're divorced to someone, not from them.' --Hugh McIsaac, Director of Family Court Services, Los Angeles County Superior Court

March 13, 1988|Susan Squire | Susan Squire is a contributing editor of this magazine.

DRESSED IN A BLACK LEATHER-TRIMMED SUIT and clutching a court order, Arlene Colman-Schwimmer picks her way through a junkyard of scrap iron inhabited by a couple of shabby-looking dogs. It is drizzling, and the high heels of her Bruno Magli pumps sink in the mud. But she presses on toward a lonely tin shack.

As one of Los Angeles' priciest and most powerful family-law attorneys, Schwimmer knows her way around mud--at least the kind that is slung between acrimonious spouses. Today, she is the point woman of a divorce platoon bent on exhuming ammunition from the dusty cartons and metal filing cabinets that clutter the shack's back room. Trailing behind her are two men in blue jeans and one in a business suit, armed with the weapons of modern divorce war: microfilm machines and calculators.

Schwimmer, an imposing woman who garnishes her conversation with Yiddishisms and off-color humor, reaches the shack first. She turns to the man in the business suit, Jim Cohen, a $185-an-hour forensic accountant she's retained for this high-profile case. "Can you believe this schmutz ?"she says, flinging open the door.

What Colman--Schwimmer needs to find in this ratty hut is proof of hidden income to which she believes her client, Laurie Fisher, is entitled. (The names of all the divorcing couples in this story have been changed.) The way Colman--Schwimmer has it figured, Fisher's husband, David, is in partnership with his brother in the scrap-iron business and, therefore, his share of it should be divided under California community-property law. But David Fisher claims that the money he's received--hundreds of thousands during more than 20 years of marriage--has all been loans, not partnership draws. Although the brothers have been stonewalling Colman--Schwimmer for weeks, her court order means they can no longer prevent her access to company records.

Colman--Schwimmer and Cohen sift through the unruly pile of papers, passing some along to be copied by the men in jeans, who have set up their microfilm machines on two rickety wooden desks. The other side has been either truthful or careful: Though there are numerous canceled checks made out to the husband, they are all stamped "Loan to David Fisher" in the memo portion.

Late in the day, a bleary-eyed Colman--Schwimmer sucks in her breath and calls Cohen over. She waves a $5.95 bill from a nearby stationery store. "For one rubber stamp," it says, "to read, 'Loan to David Fisher.' " The date of purchase is after the filing of the divorce action. The brothers had taken out all the pre-divorce checks and imprinted them with the post-divorce stamp.

"This was a piece of evidence that turned everything around," Colman--Schwimmer says. "You'd never dream that some moron would just let it stay in a file. We'd hit the brass ring."

From Bedroom To Balance Sheet

MARITAL BEHAVIOR BECAME IRRELEVANT as the basis for the awarding of property with the California Family Law Act of 1970. The Year of No-Fault shifted the locus of legal snooping from bedroom to balance sheet, making the business of family law--once regarded as only slightly less sleazy than criminal law--both fashionable and intellectually appealing. Today, adultery is only germane if it can be linked to finances. "Now if a man pays his chickey-poo a $30,000 salary and claims she's his secretary," Colman--Schwimmer says, "and the wife's lawyer can prove that Chickey-poo can't tell a typewriter from a piano, you call it 'misappropriation of funds,' and you use it to jack up spousal support."

In high-stakes cases, lawyers function like film producers, assembling a skilled crew to put together the financial picture. They hire accountants to trace, inventory and price property; actuaries to value pension plans and life insurance; appraisers for real estate, fine arts and furniture; specialized appraiser-accountants to estimate the value of a spouse's business; tax experts to determine the tax consequences on each transfer of property, and psychiatrists and private investigators for child-custody disputes.

"In the past, you'd spend two days in court on who was sleeping with whom, and one day on property," says Colman--Schwimmer. "Now when a lot of money is involved, you're talking about 10 to 15 days--and it's all about numbers."

It's not just tangible assets that are considered--the de Koonig, the IBM certificates, the million-dollar Trancas Beach lean-to. The future must also be price-tagged. Officially, the concept is called executive good will and defined by the courts as "the expectation of future public patronage." It's what Colman--Schwimmer calls "old-fashioned Schisselgelt-- key money. A little something extra just for being in place."

Let's say you own a grocery store. Calculating the value of the canned goods, the cash registers, the shopping carts is one thing. But how do you measure the worth of the 100 customers who can be expected to come in each day because yours is an established business?

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