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Sharpening women's weapons in divorce wars Resources: An increasing amount of information shows wives how to fight back when their marriages break up.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Four years ago, Karen Baker's husband informed her that his company was transferring him to Japan and he'd rather not take her along. But the prospect of divorce was just the beginning of her troubles.

Baker did not know how to balance a checkbook. (That had been one of her husband's jobs during their 24 years of marriage.) She didn't know how to pay the bills. And she didn't have any credit, since it had all been in her husband's name.

"There were so many things I had no idea about," says Baker, who was living in Pennsylvania at the time. "I didn't even know I was entitled to his Social Security."

Now, four years and one women's "divorce recovery" seminar later, Baker is a woman transformed. The course - taught by a lawyer, a financial adviser and an accountant - guided her through the court process, helped her get a handle on her assets and convinced her that she deserved a healthy chunk of the settlement.

So confident is Baker that she recently turned the tables on her ex-husband. After discovering he owed her a "hefty" share of tax money that she'd paid earlier on his behalf, she hired a lawyer and got her money. It was "my last hurrah," the Marshfield, Mass., woman says.

Meet today's new divorced woman. She is tough, aggressive and armed to the teeth with ammunition on how to get what she wants in divorce court. It all comes courtesy of a profusion of new books, videos and workshops geared to teaching women how to go for the jugular when their marriage breaks up.

The language of this material is not just militant but militaristic. It urges women to use "psychological warfare" to trump their husbands. It recommends espionage, furtive behavior, even, in one book, "enemy reconnaissance."

Yet many lawyers interviewed say such tactics are not unreasonable. Over the last decade, they say, the divorce landscape has changed in ways that have made the legal process more unkind than it's ever been for women, particularly mothers seeking custody of their children.

They describe a variety of factors, ranging from a feminist movement backlash to a strong lobby by fathers' rights groups, that make it necessary for today's divorcing woman to fight harder.

Consider the new book "What Every Woman Should Know About Divorce and Custody" by Sally Abrahms and Philadelphia lawyer Gayle Rosenwald Smith.

"You have to assume you no longer have the edge in custody," the authors say. "Up until now, women have assumed that they will prevail in court." But "this overconfidence and resulting lack of preparation is tripping them up."

The reality, they point out, is that today's mothers usually take the bigger economic hit in a divorce - an average 30 percent decline in their standard of living. Yet mothers may lose custody because they have to work to support the kids. "You will need to view custody as a mind game and position yourself to win," they warn in an opening chapter.

Other writers contributing to this new genre are even more aggressive, such as lawyers Sharyn Sooho and Steven Fuchs, authors of "Tao of Divorce: A Woman's Guide to Winning," which they published on the Internet.

The book integrates Eastern philosophy with divorce and urges women to adopt such strategies as "enemy reconnaissance, strategic information, covert planning, and the element of surprise" to win in court. (They do not rule out ransacking the house for secret places where the husband might have hidden assets.)

A Pennsylvania lawyer produced a four-hour video - "Navigating Divorce: Women in Control" - teaching women how to get equal " control of assets. A California woman plans to launch Divorced Woman Magazine in March. It will feature "shared stories from others who have been there," says executive editor Tina Stassis Gustave.

Why now? And why women?

Most lawyers interviewed agree that child custody cases - which formerly favored the mother - are getting more unpredictable.

"When I started law 18 years ago, the viewpoint was that men made out better with money and women with the kids," says Boston lawyer David Cherny, president-elect of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

Two working parents are now more the norm, says Cherny, and judges are much more willing to regard fathers as equal and adequate caretakers - especially since baby sitters do so much care-taking anyway. "Things aren't as automatic as they were."

But it's no picnic for the men involved. Just ask any of the dads in the fathers' rights movement, like Philip Clendenning, director of the Boston group Fathers and Families. He argues that if anyone is penalized in his state, it is fathers, who are victimized by "grossly unfair" child custody laws.

There have been a lot of changes in the financial arena, too. "Years ago, one spouse was the wage earner and one wasn't, and the rule of thumb was that about one-third of the income was paid as alimony," Cherny says. But now wives often have their own income or the educational ability to earn one. "You find the courts looking at earning potential and saying there isn't as much need for alimony. ... It's made for a lot more aggressive litigation."

Simply determining joint assets can be messy.

"It used to be that you'd have a pay stub ... a house, a car, a bank account," Cherny says. "Now, remuneration is more complex. Our lives are more sophisticated. There are retirement benefits, stock benefits, noncash compensation elements, deferred compensation."

So for women who, like Baker, leave the money issues to the men, there is a lot of catching up to do. And lawyers say such women are not in short supply.

"In most cases still, regardless of who is the greatest breadwinner, men are still in control of the financial documents that relate to the marriage," says Carole Goldstein McKay, the lawyer who produced the divorce video.

"I've had women who have come to me who manage million-dollar portfolios for others and they can't tell me what their husbands make a year. I started to realize that women were uniquely disadvantaged during the divorce process. And what that creates is a situation where women fold too soon, because they can't afford to go the distance."

Resources for Divorcing Women

* "What Every Woman Should Know About Divorce and Custody: Judges, Lawyers, and Therapists Share Winning Strategies on How to Keep the Kids, the Cash, and Your Sanity" by Gayle

Rosenwald Smith and Sally Abrahms (Perigee)

* "Divorce War! 50 Strategies Every Woman Needs to Know to Win" by Bradley A. Pistotnik (Adams Media Corp.)

* "Tao of Divorce: A Woman's Guide to Winning" by Sharyn Sooho and Steven Fuchs (divorcenet.com)

* "Navigating Divorce: Women in Control" videos, with Carole Goldstein McKay; 800-842-9060

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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