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  • Writer's pictureLinda A. Kerns

Remember Kramer v. Kramer? Real-Life Divorce Rarely Ties Up So Neatly

What you should do if your marriage may be unraveling.

Divorce and separation provide endless fodder for movie and television writers. Forty-five years ago this year, the Academy award-winning Kramer v. Kramer used french toast to poignantly demonstrate the raw emotions accompanying divorce. Right after the Meryl Streep character leaves the marriage, Dustin Hoffman, her on-screen husband, botches breakfast as his young son watches him burn the french toast and drop it on the floor as he impatiently dismisses the child’s insistence that he only likes his french toast in whole pieces. A scene at the end of the movie shows the metamorphosis of the characters as they work in coordinated tandem to make breakfast, smoothly anticipating each other’s moves. In the absence of his wife, a father learned how to parent.

As divorce became more prevalent in the late seventies and eighties, the PG-rated flick dramatized the raw pain of child custody battles and children entering their teen years in the late seventies and early eighties saw snippets of their own lives, or of their friends, in the drama playing out on screen. Kramer v. Kramer touched on the complicated financial challenges of divorce but devoted most of the screen time to the relationship aspects.  

Recently, we learned that Meryl Streep’s real-life marriage did not stand the test of time.  In October 2023, Meryl Streep’s representative confirmed that she had been separated from her husband, Don Gummer, whom she married the year before the release of Kramer v. Kramer, for six years. They did not mention an actual divorce but confirmed that they lived apart.

As is the case for many people divorcing in their later years, Streep's children had grown into adulthood. At this stage in life, worries about current and future financial security replace battles over children. Meryl Streep and her movie star million-dollar earnings likely provide ample financial cushion such that the financing of separate residences causes neither worry nor strife. For the rest of those facing mid- and later-life marital breakdowns, worries about the economic realities overwhelm and take center stage.

Unfortunately, when panic sets in, perfectly rational adults can begin to spiral. Just at the time they need to make important decisions that determine the path of the rest of their life, they lose all sense of reasonableness. Going down the rabbit hole of internet legal advice can often aggravate the loss of logical thought as laws and rules vary from state to state and procedures can vary from county to county.  What might be a stellar decision for the resident of one state or county could financially ruin the resident of another.  Well-meaning but often misinformed family members and friends add to the chaos.  

To stop the swirling of emotions and conflicting information, the best course of action when faced with the end of a marriage is really the simplest: consult with a local, experienced family law attorney. While most attorneys charge a consultation fee for this first meeting, the cost will pay for itself tenfold as you navigate the perils of divorce. Unwinding the financial aspects of marriage takes research, analysis, patience, and information. Treating this process as the most important business transaction of your life will be the difference between security and chaos. If you do not like the first attorney, keep looking until you find the right connection.

The writers of Kramer v. Kramer tied everything up neatly in a storybook ending, where the mom realized that the dad and son belonged together, so she did not enforce what she won in court. No one talked about the long-term financial and emotional consequences of family dissolution.  Real life rarely follows such a feel-good and comforting path.

If you believe, or even suspect, that your marriage could be unraveling, take immediate steps to stop the merry-go-round of uncertainty. Face this difficult life challenge armed with the knowledge you need. You will undoubtedly burn some french toast along the way like Dustin Hoffman’s character at the beginning of the movie.  However, turning that fear and trepidation into a productive action plan with the advice of a professional will serve you well, and your post-divorce self will be ever so grateful.  

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