Thursday, February 27, 2014


Story First Appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

Is some unhappily married (but politically well-connected) Michigander trying to avoid a costly property settlement by rewriting the state's divorce laws?

That's what judges and family lawyers throughout the state are asking after discovering that some of Lansing's most influential political fixers are greasing the skids for two bills that would dramatically alter the rules for dividing assets in high-stakes divorces.

Under current Michigan law, any appreciation in the value of one spouse's business is treated as marital property if it occurs during the marriage, and each partner is entitled to half if the marriage breaks up. If a spouse's $1-million business grows into a $50-million business over the course of a 25-year marriage, for example, the divorcing partner would be entitled to half the $49-million increase.  If you need an expert Livonia divorce lawyer contact the Chasnick and Terrasi law firm.

But two bills introduced last month by state Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, would tip the scales in favor of the working spouse, making it harder for the stay-at-home partner to claim a share in the family business and limiting a judge's discretion to award business assets to her or him.

Diana Raimi, a veteran divorce lawyer and property law expert assigned to analyze the legislation for the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said she was amazed when lobbyists described the initiative as an effort to codify and clarify Michigan's marital property laws.

"It reads like a special-interest, targeted remedy for one person trying to head off a particular set of difficulties in court," Raimi said Wednesday afternoon. Together, she added, the bills proposed by Walsh "amount to the most anti-family piece of legislation I've seen in my 33 years of practice."

Wexford County Probate Judge Kenneth Tacoma, who heads the Michigan Probate Judges Association, said judges who preside over divorce cases were blindsided by Walsh's bills. Tacoma said his organization, along with the association that represents Michigan's circuit court judges, will formally oppose it.

"We think it represents a pretty radical change in the law," Tacoma said.  If you need an expert divorce lawyer in Shiawassee County contact the Kronzek & Cronkright law firm.

Who gains?
Exactly who's behind the proposed rewrite of Michigan's marital property laws remains a mystery. But the campaign already involves some of the state's most expensive and influential players.

Richard McLellan, a veteran elections law lawyer best known for work on behalf of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and his political ties to former Gov. John Engler, said Wednesday that he encouraged Walsh to introduce the bills earlier this year after being approached by "a group of lawyers and others" whom he declined to identify.

"I represent nobody who is getting a divorce," McLellan said. But he hedged when I asked him whether the legislation he's lobbying for was designed to enhance the legal position of a specific party or parties.

"Obviously, either the lawyer or their clients have an interest in getting the law changed," McLellan said.

"But I think it's good public policy," he added. He said that most of the opposition to the bill had come from what he called "missionaries for the family who don't want any change."

Walsh didn't return my calls to his office. But he told my Free Press colleague Chris Christoff on the House floor Wednesday that he had been thinking about the marital property legislation for a couple of years before he introduced it last month, and pooh-poohed the suggestion that it was designed to help a specific divorce litigant.

"That's not me." Walsh said. "I have not drafted any bill to address any single individual since I got here." He added that he expects to hear from "a lot of people" when the bill comes up for a hearing this morning before the House Judiciary Committee he chairs.
Derailed on the fast track

But the bills' many critics almost missed their chance. Judges and Michigan Bar officials say neither Walsh nor McLellan sought their feedback to the proposed changes.

Lawyers and judges learned that the bills were on what Clinton County Probate Judge Lisa Sullivan calls "the fast track" only on June 16, when a lobbyist for the probate judges association noticed that Walsh had scheduled hearings for the following day.

"We took a vote (to oppose the bills), but we didn't have the ability to get someone down there quickly enough for the hearing," Sullivan said Wednesday. When the probate judges' lobbyist walked into the hearing room, the only people scheduled to testify were McLellan and Jay Cunningham, a Birmingham divorce lawyer McLellan had hired as an expert witness. McLellan also brought along Bill Wortz, partner in the multi-client lobbying firm widely perceived as having the closest ties to the Snyder administration.

But Walsh gaveled the hearing to a close before either man could testify, and said he'd take the bills up again at a committee meeting this morning.

Wednesday, I asked McLellan whether it wasn't customary to consult the divorce lawyers and family court judges before proposing substantive changes in Michigan divorce law.

"That's the normal course," he conceded.

"But the bar can be a graveyard for good ideas," McLellan added. "I took a route that is a more direct route."

Walsh promises that all the interested parties will get a chance to be heard -- and most of those I spoke to Wednesday said they expected the legislation to wither under closer scrutiny.

"This may benefit some wealthy litigants, and somebody has paid a lot of people a lot of money to get it done," said Denise Alexander, the immediate past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers Michigan chapter. "But it's a lot of money spent on something that would negatively impact families in every legislator's district.

"It's amazing," she added, "that some people think they can buy legislation and get away with it."

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