The War of the Roses: Lessons from Oliver and Barbara on dividing property during divorce

The War of the Roses: Lessons from Oliver and Barbara on dividing property during divorce

“A civilized divorce is a contradiction in terms.”

In an era of conscious uncouplings and gentle separations, does this line from the 1989 film The War of the Roses still hold up?

If you believe that divorce is an inherently nasty battle between ex-spouses who are reduced to fighting for their lives to claim a house, then you agree with the above quote by Gavin D’Amato (played by Danny DeVito), the film’s omniscient narrator.

If you believe in the possibility of, or had divorced amicably yourself and became friends with your ex, then you’d disagree.

The film posits the former, and the ordeal of “protagonists” Oliver (Michael Douglas) and Barbara (Kathleen Turner) resembles much of what happens in real life, but in much less cinematic terms.

“She’s waived alimony”

Oliver and Rose’s first encounter is quite sweet and romantic. One rainy day, they meet in an auction house where they bid for the same Japanese artifact, find each other attractive, and eventually tie the knot.

Oliver, who’s a Harvard law graduate, is a tad turned off by his wife’s inability to piece together an anecdote about a Baccarat and other supposed shortcomings. Meanwhile, Barbara starts to get annoyed by her husband’s tics, like his phony dinner laugh, and finds his ambition off-putting. This and other perceived slights may or may not have compelled her to crunch his spine one night.

One day, she decides she can no longer stay married to him. She doesn’t want alimony; she just wants the house.

In real life, the length of a marriage is a significant factor in determining whether a court will order a spouse to make alimony payments. Ideally, a spouse refusing alimony payments should discuss his or her rights with his or her lawyer. Barbara refusing the alimony so she could negotiate to have the house for herself is actually not that unusual.

“She wants the house. You want the house.”

Arguably, both Roses wanted to keep the house for their own selves because it was such a nice house. And there won’t be much of a story if the Roses settled amicably!

As their war rages on, Oliver moves out, but comes back upon attorney D’Amato’s counsel that it is well within his rights to stay at their marital home even though they “have pursued separate lives.” This one’s a completely normal scenario although not necessarily a relatable one.

From a personal perspective, pitting your colleague/friend against his spouse by advising him to stay in the marital home, knowing that their relationship is deteriorating, wasn’t such sound advice. But legally, it made sense.

Again, the movie would have been less riveting if Oliver just moved out and settled.

Both spouses really want the house…till death do them part

Barbara may not be the breadwinner or the brains of the family, but she proved to be a formidable opponent to Oliver.

The Roses bought the house while they were married, which makes it marital property. Since they both want the house for themselves and can’t agree on how to divide it, lawyerly intervention was in order. But alas, they were both intent on beating each other.

Non-movie couples would be more rational and opt to sell the property. That doesn’t mean that real-life couples never have the same dilemma as the Roses’. However, disputes rarely reach a point where the exes end up hanging by a chandelier as they fight tooth and nail for a property.

Attorney D’Amato was the voice of reason when he advised Oliver to give in to Barbara’s wishes. But Oliver was stubborn and his stubbornness is what, in the end, justified the fabulous sequence involving the warring couple literally hanging on to a chandelier for dear life.

“There is no winning! Only degrees of losing!”

When couples choose to commit only to their personal causes and dismiss the wise counsel of their divorce attorneys, the above quote will definitely apply. For years, Seattle family law attorneys Buckingham, LaGrandeur, & Williams have helped ensure separating spouses don’t end up like the Roses.