Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, March 2, 1999

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Attorney Bradley Coates counsels couples seeking
a divorce to treat each other humanely.

Divorce: without fault,
without folly

Divorce with Decency: By Bradley A. Coates, University of Hawai'i Press, $16.95

By Nadine Kam
Features Editor


The history of marriage isn't made up of love and romance, but of finance and commerce, with parents as dealmakers.

Perhaps past generations were on to something. When a business deal sours, for instance, the partnership is dissolved, assets are divvied up, and both parties go their separate ways. When a contemporary marriage dissolves, there's often a lot of pain and cruel behavior that makes a civilized divorce nearly impossible.

Bradley Coates knows this well. As a managing partner of Coates and Frey, among the largest divorce law firms in Honolulu, he's witnessed his share of bad behavior, including that of a man who left his wife only after removing all the furniture from the couples' home, hiding their two cars, stashing the family yacht in an undisclosed shipyard, draining their joint financial accounts and hiding their two children.

The case is described in Coates book, "Divorce with Decency." It's labeled "The Complete How-To Handbook and Survivor's Guide to the Legal, Emotional, Economic and Social Issues."

Chapters cover a range of topics, from child custody to domestic violence to premarital agreements, even the resumption of one's maiden name.

"It's my attempt, as an overgrown hippie guy, to make a decent statement," said Coates, whose 20 years of handling divorce cases weighed on his conscience.

"That half of all marriages end in divorce is not a great testimony to human relationships," he said. "It's the most bizarre phenomenon you can experience. People will swear one day they love each other 'til death do they part, then one day want to make it reality. People end up really hating each others' guts. I've had clients get killed. It really makes you reevaluate everything you've done with your life.

"I've always wanted to do something more useful for people. I try to do what I can to pursue the reconciliation issue, but people have usually made up their minds before they get into my office."

The problem with antagonistic divorces, he said, is they only benefit the lawyers. Divorce lawyers make more money off contested divorces than those uncontested. While an uncontested divorce may yield $500 to $2,000 in fees and take about six months, he said, a contested divorce may generate $20,000 to $30,000 in fees and take as long as five years.

Although countless books on divorce have been written, Coates aims for, as the name implies, a decent and helpful tone, rather than one that creates an adversarial position from the start, such as one by Lee Covington entitled "How to Dump Your Wife."

"That's not the tone I want to set in counseling clients," said Coates, who is divorced and remains friends with his ex.

"I try to tell people they're not gonna get anywhere until they're human to one another. I try to start them on the high road, to understand their own ability to settle the case."

Divorce is still a relatively new phenomenon, increasing in the last 30 years. It's still a stigma to the point where Coates says he sees clients walking into his office with the book wrapped in plain brown paper. At book signings, people skitter away when they see the title of his book.

"When you've got something happening to one out of every two couples, any other phenomenon like that would be considered a national health emergency, but people still don't want to talk about it."

Coates includes information on the emotional and financial toll of divorce that most people don't think about. Divorce puts people on a roller coaster that involves being uprooted from their home, "changing sexual mores, morality, the whole deal. They're breaking the established family bond to be whatever kind of person that they want to be. It's a major cathartic period in their lives. They're very malleable, volatile.

"The status they seek to regain, inevitably, is a happy marriage. Hopefully, they can look back and figure out what kind of spouse they've been and grow from the experience."

If the book does a good job warning people of the pitfalls of the end of marriages, Coates might put himself out of business, but he predicts there's no chance of that.

"I've always said that divorce is a recession-resistant business," he said. "We rely on the dependability, or undependability, of the human condition."

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