Overcoming: The story of a middle-aged divorcee

by DANIELLE MURPHY

The entrance to the Community Legal Center, the location of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.

The entrance to the Community Legal Center, the location of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.

She always thought she would have a good marriage. She thought he was a good husband, a good father and a good provider. They had four children and nine grandchildren. But, 32 years after their blissful wedding day, it was over.

Monica was in her 50s and had only lived in the United States for six years after emigrating from South America. She hadn’t held a job, or planned to hold a job, since her midwife training when she was first married. Suddenly she was left alone and had to take care of herself.

Monica requested that her real name not be used due to concerns for her safety and well-being.

“We had some goals,” Monica said. “To have a life together like normal. For me, that is a normal thing and I always thought that, that was his normal thing too. There wasn’t any reason to think something different. The idea was to be together as a family, as a couple.”

She began to feel alienated as things began to go wrong at his work. As she asked about it, he grew more distant. He said he was trying to protect her, but she felt hurt.

“Communication in a marriage is the most important part. This is a sad story but it could have been better. He just never wanted to talk about it,” Monica said.

When she asked him what he was trying to cover up, he told her he wanted a divorce. That was it. They separated.

He moved out immediately.

Monica was bewildered. “I think he lost his mind,” she said, “because he always had good principles.”

During the three-year separation, he informed her he would take the necessary steps to start divorce proceedings. Time passed and nothing happened.

Neither one had taken further steps toward a divorce when she found out she needed an operation. He agreed to pay for part of her medical bills. He also assisted her with a small amount of money and kept her on his medical insurance.

The operation was successful, but the attempts at obtaining monetary support weren’t. The money Monica received from him became more and more infrequent.

She started to work, taking care of children for extended family, but this only covered a small portion of her living expenses. She knew she had to officially file for divorce.

Monica heard about Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake from a friend. The Legal Aid Society is a nonprofit legal assistance organization that assists almost 3,000 low-income individuals with domestic violence and family law issues annually.

She was introduced to Stewart Ralphs, an attorney and the executive director of the Legal Aid Society. “Ralphs was a great help,” Monica said. “He helped me through the whole thing.”

Filing for divorce includes divorce papers being served to the spouse by law enforcement. “I didn’t know the procedure or how it worked really,” Monica said. “When he was served, he was really mad about it. He thought I was sending the police to him.”

Then, on a snowy Christmas Eve just a couple years after he moved out, she learned he had found someone else. It was a painful surprise. They were separated but not legally divorced and he had already remarried.

“Even though it’s technically bigamy, it’s hardly ever enforced,” Ralphs said.

The money stopped coming. No help with medical bills was ever received.

A judge finally issued a temporary order at the initial hearing for Monica to receive alimony. But for months Monica didn’t receive any support. After another hearing, her estranged husband agreed to mediation.

Through mediation, she found out he was making wages similar to hers. They agreed that he wouldn’t have to offer her any support now, but as he began to make more, he would pay her alimony. They were officially divorced.

Monica continued working, but still struggled to earn a decent income. When she asked her ex-husband for pay stubs, he refused, telling her to have a judge ask him instead.

Frustrated, Monica called Ralphs. He advised presenting her ex-husband with a 10-day time frame to send over the pay stubs before she would make a motion to find him in contempt of court. He didn’t respond to any of her phone calls or e-mail.

Ralphs sent an e-mail on her behalf. The response was immediate. She had the pay stubs right away.

Now, she sends Ralphs a copy of every e-mail she writes to her ex-husband to ensure compliance. The alimony comes steadily. He’s reluctant, but “as my attorney got into the middle of it, he knew I wasn’t messing around,” she said.

Monica’s current situation isn’t her ideal, but she does it with dignity. She continues to tend children for extended family members, and also does housekeeping. “I would like to only be the grandma, not the nanny,” she said. “It is not pleasant, when you are more capable than that.”

Monica’s daughter, Jill, echoes those thoughts. “My mom having to start from zero, that was hard to see,” she said.

But, Monica isn’t giving up. “I will do whatever I need to, to be financially independent, I don’t want Social Security…. It’s not pride it’s self-reliance,” she said.

She is currently waiting for results on her written certified nursing assistant test. She has already passed her skills test and is looking for various CNA positions. As for her ex-husband, she said, “I wish for him the best. It was all his decision. You can’t make anyone love you. They have to want to do it.”