[Editor’s note: A longtime freelance writer for The Citizen and Fayette Woman, Maggie Worth recently had a remarkable experience with the Fayette County legal system. The following is her first-person account of that journey.]
“Are you sitting down? You’re not divorced.”
Even in a sitcom, it’s a wildly unfunny joke. When some smug young man in the county clerk of courts’ office actually says that to you, laughter is the farthest thing from your mind. And when you’re staring at the certified, filed-in-office stamped copy of the final divorce decree you picked up from the very same office nearly five years prior, it feels like you’ve been dropped down a rabbit hole into a not-very-friendly alternate universe. Because, seriously, this can’t happen in real life, right?
Except it did.
The whole debacle began with a whim early last November. I’d been dating a man and we’d been talking marriage. This surprised the heck out of me because I’d sworn I’d never do it again, which is why I’d never bothered to go back to my maiden name after divorce number two. I got this funny little idea in my head that I wanted to remarry under my own name rather than someone else’s.
The catch is that the man in question has a chronic, potentially life-threatening illness that had worsened suddenly and significantly. Much as I wanted to go back to my maiden name, I didn’t want to start a potentially lengthy legal proceeding, just in case we decided we wanted — or needed — to move quickly.
In fishing around the internet, I came across an (apparently incorrect) forum comment that sometimes the court that had granted a divorce could amend it to restore a person’s maiden name. That sounded a little farfetched to me, but it was supposed to be much quicker so I figured I might as well call and ask.
I’m thankful I did, because that’s when I got hit with the bad sitcom joke.
Now that it’s over, let’s call this, “How to walk into a courtroom married and walk out divorced for almost five years.” It goes something like this:
1. Get divorced. Do everything right. Leave with a signed, filed-in-office, stamped, CERTIFIED copy of your final decree.
2. Decide to go back to your maiden name four years and eight months later.
3. Call the superior court clerk’s office and have some smart*** young man say, “Are you sitting down? You’re not divorced” — and then shut up quick when you tell him about the document you’re holding.
4. Cancel all your day’s appointments and immediately haul your cookies an hour to the one-county-over courthouse to show said document. Watch people PANIC for 20 minutes and be sent away with promises to receive a call from the clerk of courts “soon.”
5. Call six hours later to ask for the correct name spellings of everyone you dealt with that day “because 11 Alive will want to know.” Get promptly connected to Clerk of Superior Court Sheila Studdard, who assures you that you are divorced, they just misplaced the original, but it’s a simple matter of having the judge declare the copy they made from yours an original. Be reassured that this is no big deal and it’ll likely be fixed in the next two weeks.
6. Spend seven weeks and countless calls fretting because no one is giving you answers – when they bother to return your calls at all – and the clerk persists in acting as though you’re being unreasonable and pushy and not at all grateful for the fact that she’s going completely out of her way to help you resolve the disaster HER OFFICE CREATED IN THE FIRST PLACE.
7. Finally, a week before Christmas, get a call back from a crying county clerk. Find out the entire situation is more complicated than she chose to disclose. Discover that, for some unknown reason, her office never even filed the divorce, even though the decree is marked filed, and that, four years later, the judge called a peremptory hearing to prompt action. You were served notice, but since both you and your (turns out not) ex had both moved right after the divorce and the forwarding order had long since expired, it was returned undelivered. And so the case was dismissed. And. You. Aren’t. Divorced.
8. Freak the #$%@ out. Seriously. Have a massive PTSD episode (yes, it’s formally diagnosed), which triggers an asthma attack and leaves you lightheaded from inhaler overuse while trying to battle back a full-on ASD meltdown (also formally diagnosed).
9. Sleep like the dead.
10. Get up, give up trying to wrap your head around the fact that you have a legally executed final divorce decree for a divorce that, legally, never happened, because even your Mensa-member brain can’t make that @#$% make sense, and go call an attorney.
11. Choose a firm based on their reputation and get passed to a young attorney who manages to simultaneously be baffled as to what to do *and* man-splain you – and who can’t even meet with you until Jan. 11, almost four weeks away.
Also, based on your conversation with said attorney, accept that the clerk’s office has immunity and that you’re going to bear the full cost and effort involved all on your own — even though the teary court clerk told you that you could file suit against her so your bills would be covered.
12. Try like hell to enjoy the holidays even though you’re worried sick about the money this is going to cost you, stressed about the (additional) hours you can already tell you’re going to have to invest, still completely disoriented by the whole situation, and heartbroken because, well, let’s just say that people really do show you who they are in a crisis. Fail to actually find peace or joy, but manage to get through anyway. Even though, as it turns out, you’re actually physically sick at this point – and will be for another month.
13. Get served with Fayette Superior Court Judge Christopher Edwards’ response to the motion the clerk filed back in early November. Find out that she didn’t tell him the case was dismissed either, which is what caused all the delays. Also discover that, not only is her motion useless because the case had been dismissed, which means a party to the case must first move to set aside the dismissal, but that she was not exactly accurate or forthcoming in her motion.
Hell, she didn’t even manage to spell your name correctly. Somebody (the judge’s clerk maybe?) managed to spell your name right but not your ex’s. Literally the only documents on which everyone’s name is spelled correctly are the ones you yourself filed five years ago. The judge has, however, gone into considerable detail to explain exactly how the case can be rectified, which you truly appreciate because now you can tell your attorney what to do.
14. Decide to go ahead and write up the affidavit you know you’ll need in support of the motions your attorney is going to draft because you happen to know how to do it and it might save you a couple hours in fees and for god’s sake you have GOT to get SOMETHING done while you’re waiting around. Meet your ex at the notary and have the thing signed.
15. Finally heed the gnawing uneasiness in your gut and switch attorneys before you actually pay attorney one. Meet with attorney two, who doesn’t talk to you like you’re an idiot and is clearly quite competent. Pay her retainer.
16. Get a call THE VERY NEXT DAY from a deputy clerk who tells you she sat down with the county’s attorney, who drew up all the necessary paperwork for you to sign. Meet with yet more “wow, you really are a big old meanie” attitude when you ask, quite reasonably, why the heck nobody told you this meeting was happening BEFORE you wrote a $1,500 check to your own attorney. Convince deputy clerk to email you the paperwork. Review. Share the docs with your attorney who says she’ll get back with you in a couple of days.
17. A week later, give up waiting on the new attorney and draw up the @#$% motions and supporting documents yourself, using as a model the county attorney’s documents, which couldn’t be used as written because clearly no one had given him all the facts either. Drive all over creation getting stuff signed, notarized, and turned in. Get more shade cast at you by the deputy clerk when you check to make sure everyone’s names are spelled right (apparently asking for proper name spellings on legal documents that have already been flubbed once is “complaining.”)
18. Eventually accept that the judge is going to INSIST on a motion hearing, even though it is completely within his judicial purview to simply sign the fracking motions on the spot. Or at any time before the next available court date, which is ANOTHER three weeks away. While you’re waiting, receive a refund for most of your retainer, which is lucky because your septic tank promptly malfunctions and you use the refund to pay for the repairs, which no one can get to for eight days because apparently the universe thinks you don’t have enough @#$% in your life.
19. Spend 38 minutes in court ON VALENTINES DAY, which begins with the judge stating in open court in his best “tolerant” voice that he hears you’ve been quite agitated about the situation but that the law is the law, and then mostly involves you answering questions you already answered five years ago, listening to the judge posture about how much time and effort this case has caused him and his staff, explaining yet again why you didn’t respond to the peremptory hearing notification because the judge has implied this is all your fault for not responding even though the move is documented in both the affidavit and the dismissal motion you drafted, and being man-splained some more.
Having spent a goodly chunk of your career doing PR and crisis messaging, begin to suspect that the whole purpose of this hearing was a combination of CYA and image-enhancing grandstanding, no matter how much the judge insists that he just wants to make sure all the bases are covered (as though covering them all five years ago did a lick of good).
20. Leave the courthouse with a (new) decree that refers back to the old, meaning the original decree’s date is effective and you’ve been divorced almost five years after all, just like you always thought — but also with a lingering terror that it’ll get screwed up again and you’ll have to do this over and over ad infinitum like some kind of marital demise Groundhog Day.
21. Realize that, now that you’ve heard from the judge, practically everyone who was involved in this in any way (excepting the county’s counsel and your ex-husband) has managed to make this thing that happened to you – and for which you did 98 percent of the work and paid ALL the money – about them.
Heck, someone even managed to center two people who were, at most, tangentially involved but whose reputation among a bunch of people whose opinions are equally irrelevant, not to mention disturbingly wrong-headed, supposedly could be hurt.
22. Rant on Facebook.
23. Eat ice cream.
So there you have it. In theory, the nightmare is over. But during each of the eight nights since court, I’ve managed to jerk awake at least once from a dream in which the mess is still ongoing. That will fade eventually, I suppose, but I can’t say my outrage has done so. Because here’s the thing: having to go through this was sheer hell, but it could have been so much worse.
If I hadn’t gotten that wild hair about changing my name and checked out the long shot about having the decree amended, I could quite easily have gotten remarried and become a bigamist. I had the properly executed decree, remember? That’s all most counties ask for. Also, there’s only a three-year window for having a dismissal set aside. If I hadn’t happened to stumble on this disaster, and that window had closed, we’d have had zero remedy. All our taxes for however many years would have been wrong. Any marriages would have been invalid. Our lives would have been in shambles.
What if I had moved out of state? What if there were children involved? What if I didn’t have the resources to write out a $1,500 check – or the savvy to be able to handle so much of the documentation and filing myself? What if the original divorce had been contentious? What if I didn’t know how to contact my ex?
What if one of us had been a victim of domestic abuse?
That’s the one that turns my stomach day after day. What if one of us had had to sit in court and face the person who’d abused us? All because of a “clerical error” nobody can be held accountable for.
At the end of the day, here’s what I really want to know: is anybody planning an audit? If no, why the hell not? God knows how many more “errors” have yet to be found – and how many of them are already beyond fixing.
[Maggie Worth is a freelance writer, communications trainer, and organizational strategy consultant. She lives in Newnan with a spoiled rescue named Jazzy and spends her free time completing DIY projects, binge-watching old detective shows, and reading anything and everything that catches her attention.]