Going to Court to Make Your Life Better
Name changes, custody battles, and the beginnings and ends of marriages.
It’s just after nine in the morning inside courtroom five at a probate and family court in Eastern Massachusetts, and the security officer on duty — mid-forties; thickly built; his bald pate white and gleaming — is listening to a recap of a Red Sox game. This is a motion day — the judge, instead of presiding over one trial, will rule on dozens of filings. Around me, lawyers and civilians are settling into the gallery in ones and twos and threes.
The two groups are fairly easy to tell apart: it’s not just that the lawyers carry briefcases and favor pantsuits; it’s that the non-lawyers look worried. The judicial system into which circumstance has dropped them is confusing and labyrinthine; besides which, the kind of circumstance that drops you into a hedge-maze of legal paperwork is rarely a happy one. One woman is praying.
I have been in family court twice; the second time was earlier this year, when I paid $180 to change my last name for the second time in six months. I changed my name for the first time when I got married — that part was actually easy. You declare your intention to change your name when you apply for your marriage license, and the minute you pronounce your vows before a justice of the peace, that intention becomes legal fact. It’s getting any other institution to recognize said fact that turns out to be tricky. By the time I figured out that social security is the only government office that will accept a marriage certificate as proof of a change of name, I’d been to the RMV twice and spent between fifteen and twenty minutes crying on the floor of my apartment.
I’ve never felt the force of the feminist argument against giving up one’s maiden name. Everything from the infantilizing term — I lost my “maidenhood” long before I married — to the fact that that name, too, symbolizes the long reach of patrilineal power, reeks, to me, of false victories. Unless you make something new up, you will always be inheriting your surname from one man or another. It was only through trying to navigate the bureaucratic snarl that a change of name engenders that I understood the practical misogyny of the custom. Changing one’s name is time consuming and irritating: no wonder women, and not men, are the ones expected to do it.
So in the end, it seemed easiest to fork over $180 to officially reclaim the name I was already using — possibly fraudulently — on my driver’s license and passport and car insurance.
While I was there, getting a gold (and legally binding) sticker affixed to one of the various documents I’d filled out, a man walked in. He was on strike and trying to get his child support payments reduced. “I have,” he kept repeating, “no income coming in.” It was patiently explained to him that a judge would have to rule on his case in order to reduce the monthly dollar amount he owed to his ex-wife; that he was unlikely to get a court date for several weeks. “Is someone’s life in danger?” the woman who had been helping me asked the man, when he inquired about getting an emergency court date. “Well, no,” he admitted. “Well, that’s what emergency court dates are for. They don’t really consider money an emergency.” Human vulnerability pressed up against regulatory intransigence; regulatory intransigence remained intransigent.
Legal motions — a request for an order of protection, say; or a petition to reevaluate the amount of child support one parent owes the other — are narrow, specific: a small chapter in a much broader narrative. This is why people hire lawyers — even if you manage to figure out which forms to file and when, you still need to know how to provide just enough context without going off-topic; how to be specific without introducing unnecessary detail; how to present the right kinds of evidence. “What do you want me to do?” is a question the judge in whose courtroom I sat often asked, not unkindly, after he’d heard from both parties. Lawyers are infinitely better suited to answer this question, for the people whose lives will be affected by the eventual ruling inevitably want the judge to do so much than he or she is capable of. They want whatever personal trauma has brought them into the courtroom to be solved, or at least soothed; they want things to get better.
In courtroom five, a man’s (female) lawyer explains that the temporary order of protection against him, filed by his wife, should be allowed to expire because she’s delusional: she’s recently spent time in a psychiatric hospital after claiming someone removed her uterus. The wife denies this — she just wanted to get a sonogram because she thought her organs were “not in the right place” — and accuses the husband of changing, on various official documents, her date of birth, his own date of birth, and their son’s name. The wife does seem frantic, but I’m suspicious of her husband’s claims that he just wants to take care of her. Can the wife provide evidence that she is “definitely in fear of imminent harm”? She cannot. The judge rules that the protection order will expire at 4pm that afternoon.
A soon-to-be divorced couple is arguing over money: the husband has custody of their son, but the Department of Revenue still thinks he should be paying his wife $100 a week in child support. This should be easy to resolve — “the custodial parent,” the judge explains, “is probably not in a position to pay child support to the non-custodial parent” — and legally, it is. The fact that the mother lost custody because she became homeless is irrelevant. As is the fact that she became homeless, she claims, because her husband stole her assets. “I filed an opposition letter,” she begins, but the judge gently cuts her off. The matter of the opposition letter is not before him. It is not an issue on which he will be able to rule.
A mother is upset because her son briefly spoke to her father over the phone while he was visiting her sister and mother. Her father is a registered sex offender; he is not allowed to contact her child. She doesn’t want her sister and mother’s visitation rights terminated. What she wants, it seems, is for an authority to acknowledge that what happened was wrong, that it shouldn’t happen again.
A woman claims her ex-husband isn’t paying his half of the expenses for their four children. Two of the four children have mood disorders and medical bills can total up to $5,000 a year — but the father is more interested in establishing the fact that his ex-wife enrolls their two daughters in costly extracurricular activities: horseback riding, fencing, modeling school. “I understand kids are expensive,” he says, but a line should be drawn. One senses he wishes the judge would draw that line for him.
The first time I was in family court, I was thirteen. My parents were renegotiating the details of their custody agreement, and I was old enough to be asked what I wanted. I never actually saw the inside of a courtroom. Instead, I spoke to a woman I assume was a social worker; she, presumably, was responsible for telling the judge the story of who I was and what I wanted in a way that made it clear why either of those things mattered.
Still, even speaking to a social worker — an advocate, not an adjudicator — I remember feeling the need to slice the reasons I wanted to live primarily with my mother into detailed but relevant bites. I reminded myself not to become emotional, because I felt that would be taken less seriously if I started to cry. I remember — though I would not have put it in precisely these words at the time — feeling the need to translate the messy complexity of my life into a legally comprehensible narrative.
A judge is both terribly suited to rule on matters of child custody, domestic violence and the relinquishing of parental rights, and also better suited to the task than anyone directly involved in the situation. It is evidence of a general lack of faith in human reason — we largely don’t trust individuals’ abilities to privately settle disputes involving money or children — and a supreme faith in the principles of reason, even when those principles must be interpreted and applied by a human actor.
Over and over again, I asked the people who worked in family court whether their jobs depressed them. Wasn’t it disheartening, to deal with people at once helpless and distraught, day after day? They all said it wasn’t. Sure, the job could be hard; but it felt good to help people. It was an argument for the persistence of the human actor, even in a system necessitated by human failure. It was also an argument for the importance of bestowing comfort and understanding, which the court itself is powerless to provide. After explaining to the man on strike that he probably wasn’t eligible for an emergency court date, the woman who had been helping me with my name change nevertheless walked him through the process of applying for one.
Miranda Popkey is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter: @mmpopkey