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Harry M. Fain, 88; family law attorney pushed for no-fault divorce in state

July 14, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Harry M. Fain, a pioneering family law attorney who helped bring no-fault divorce to California in 1970 and handled the high-powered breakups of such celebrity marriages as Elvis Presley, Cary Grant and Ali McGraw, died Friday of pneumonia at a skilled nursing facility in Los Angeles. He was 88.

"For many years he was the dean of family law lawyers in Los Angeles, a hugely respected lawyer, with great legal talent and ethics above reproach," said Don Mike Anthony, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Southern California Chapter.

In a field of law where cases can be fraught with anger and emotion, revenge-seeking and the potential for irrevocable harm when children are involved, Fain worked on several key fronts to change the laws and lessen the pain.

In 1966, as the divorce rate in the nation soared, then-Gov. Pat Brown appointed Fain to the Governor's Commission on the Family, whose mandate was to study and suggest revisions to California laws relating to the family. In a traditional divorce, a court considered who was responsible for the failure of the marriage -- because of issues such as adultery or desertion -- and then justified an unequal division of community property based on that finding. In no-fault divorce, community property is divided equally, without concern for who was at fault.

The commission recommended no-fault divorce, an equal division of community property and the creation of a statewide family court "with jurisdiction over all matters relating to the family." Some of the panel's key recommendations were incorporated into the Family Law Act, which took effect Jan. 1, 1970.

Though no-fault divorce did not accomplish all of the commission's goals, "I don't believe anybody would suggest we would go back to the prior system," Anthony said.

In his practice, Fain preferred settlement over litigation. The attorney praised Presley, his client, when the singer reached an out-of-court agreement in 1973 to pay his wife, Priscilla, nearly $1.5 million.

"This man agreed to pay her this without any contest because he wanted to be generous and make her happy," Fain said in a 1973 Times article. "I never met a man so unselfish."

Fain also represented Lee Majors in his divorce from Farrah Fawcett, Rod Steiger in his divorce from Sherry Steiger, and Marguerite Simpson, the first wife of O.J. Simpson.

"Harry treated all of the concerns of his clients as if they were the most significant issues in his life," friend and attorney Douglas A. Bagby wrote in an e-mail to The Times. "He considered it a very special privilege to assist his clients, and his personal integrity was an example for all of us."

Born Dec. 30, 1918, in the town of Canora in Saskatchewan, Canada, Fain grew up in Winnipeg. After graduating from high school he moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, where he was a member of the university's soccer team. In 1942 he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces and worked in military intelligence. After leaving the military he studied law at USC and earned a degree in 1946.

Much of Fain's career was spent working at Beverly Hills law firms including Fain, Lavine, Kaufman and Young. He was a founder and past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and was active with the American Bar Assn.

In the early 1950s, Fain and his first wife, Shirley, divorced and she won custody of their three children. Later, Fain returned to court and the judge granted him custody of the children -- at a time when it was far less common for men to get custody, said his daughter, Beth Fain.

Fain was an early proponent of the rights of fathers and an advocate of children's rights, arguing that courts should consider the best interest of children involved in divorce, family members said.

Fain is survived by two daughters from his first marriage, Beth Fain of Berkeley and Jeanette Miller of Fallbrook, Calif.; a daughter from his second marriage, Barbara Fain of Beverly Hills; and sisters Dorothy Mann of San Diego and Esther Roman of Winnipeg, Canada. His second wife, Reva Fain, whom he married in 1955, died in 2005. His son, Alfred Fain, died in 1984.

In a decades-long career, Fain witnessed the effects of changes that he helped bring about.

"I find that the courts can and do look upon the father's demand for custody somewhat differently than 25 years ago," Fain told a reporter for The Times in 1972. "The courts are increasingly willing to judge that a father has as much right to a child as the mother."

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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