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Missing Spouses No Problem in Florida Courtrooms


Juliana Cooper needed a divorce. It was time for a fresh start. After all, she hadn't seen her husband in a decade, according to Jessica Vander Velde of the St. Petersburg Times. Cooper summed the situation up to Judge Scott Stephens:

"I'm assuming he's still alive."

Judge Stephens was not surprised. He sees many cases like Cooper's, as do judges in family law courts all over the state.

Larry Glinzman, a spokesperson for Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida calls the phenomenon "disappearing spouse syndrome."

"I see these people come in, and they've been separated a long time—'he went back to Jamaica' or 'she went to Alabama,'" says Judge Peter Ramsberger. Stephens reports one case where a woman reported not seeing her husband in forty years. No wonder he didn't bat an eyelash when Juliana Cooper shared her story.

Ramsberger says he ensures that the divorcing party has done a thorough search for their missing spouse, a process that is required by state divorce laws. When he's satisfied with their efforts, he grants the divorce. Attorneys and judges say these sorts of cases are not specifically tracked, but are nonetheless a recognizable part of life in family law court.

Sheryl Watts of Tampa, Florida recently appeared before Judge Stephens. She hadn't seen her husband in 16 years. Before that, she saw him only in the two weeks between their marriage and his abrupt and unexplained departure.

"And he hasn't come back looking for you in all that time," Stephens said.

"I don't think so," Watts replied, laughing. Time apparently does heal most wounds.

Each week Stephens hears about 16 hours worth of the most simple and straightforward divorce cases, ones that do not usually require divorce attorneys to resolve. He sees factory workers, couples under 21 and over 80, people married for years (sometimes in absentia) and others who have made a hasty mistake and are looking to hit the reset button.

On a recent Thursday, he heard about twelve such cases. One man reported placing advertisements in four different PennySaver publications to try and reach his wife with news that he was filing for divorce. He got no response.

Another woman said she had only halfheartedly searched for her husband. He used to stalk her, she said, so the long separation was her idea. She hadn't seen him in five years, and preferred to keep it that way.

In Watts' case, the judge asked a few routine questions to determine how hard she looked for her husband, to establish her place of residence, to find out if there were any children or property purchased with her husband. These interesting scenarios often prompt him to ask additional questions—a sort of judge's prerogative. On a recent afternoon, the record was held by a woman who had not seen her husband since the glory days of the Reagan Administration.

In nearly all such cases, the judges involved reach swift decisions. Stephens says many of his cases are opened and closed in five minutes.

"Who says you can’t make people happy in this job?" he says.

Not Sheryl Watts. Married at age 23, separated 13 days later, and still separated 16 years later, she received her divorce after just three quick questions and walked out through the courtroom doors divorced, relieved and certainly happy.

Source: St. Petersburg Times

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