Divorce Can Be Difficult for
Asian/American Families in Hawaii

By: Bradley Coates
Special to the
Oahu Island News

The good news is that Asian folks who remain in their traditional homelands have a significantly lower incidence of divorce compared to the half of all marriages that end in divorce here in the United States. The bad news is that the divorce rate for Asians who live here (especially those who are married to non-Asians) has increased to levels that far exceed traditional Asian homeland rates, perhaps because there is far less societal stigma attached to divorce in America than in Asia. To assist Asians who find themselves part of this increasing divorce trend, I will point out some key family law principles that apply to most divorces in Hawaii.

The following hypothetical scenario is one we see quite frequently in our office: While attending the University of Hawaii as an exchange student, a young Japanese lady meets a seemingly nice guy. They get married and wife’s parents give the young couple $50,000 as a wedding present for a house down-payment. They have their first child when the wife is 25 and in the second year of her conditional green card. She has learned some English but is still much more comfortable in her native tongue. Her husband does not encourage her to enter the job market and she remains a housewife and mother. About seven years pass. Their house is now worth twice as much as when purchased. Unfortunately, the couple is having marital problems and divorce is imminent. The wife’s parents are in shock and denial back in Japan, because “this just doesn’t happen in our culture.”

So, what’s next? If the parties can agree on all issues, they can get an uncontested divorce. This is by far the easiest, most economical and “sane” way to handle divorce, and if handled correctly by a competent and cost-conscious family law attorney, it can be completed within 2 – 3 months at a cost of $500 - $1,000. Unfortunately, in light of the inherent disadvantages that the Asian wife faces in our scenario, the husband is probably in a position to obtain a lopsided deal. As a wife from another culture, she is unemployed and bewildered by the complex legal process. Thus, even after negotiating to try and settle the case, our hypothetical couple still may not be able to agree on final terms.

At this point, one or the other of them will probably have to proceed further in the family court. So, what is the smart thing for the wife to do? She should immediately find a competent Hawaii family law attorney to represent her. Since clear communication between client and attorney is always so important, the Japanese wife may want an attorney who can understand her language and explain to her some of the pertinent legal issues involved in a Hawaiian divorce. A brief recap of these issues is as follows:

Child custody. Under Hawaii law, the court utilizes the “best interest of the child” test. No gender preference exists. One of the primary criteria is which parent has been the “primary caretaker parent.” In our Asian wife scenario, this could give her an advantage on child custody since she has been the homemaker/caretaker while the husband has been busy at work.

Child support. This is based on a mathematical formula found in the Hawaii Child Support Guidelines. It factors in the respective gross monthly incomes of the parents, other costs related to the child and the specific type of physical custody arrangement. In our Asian wife scenario, if the wife is awarded custody of the child, she should be entitled to significant monthly child support based on the high disparity in incomes.

Alimony. This is essentially spousal support and is based on numerous factors. The “bottom line” is the ability of the payor to pay alimony and the need of the payee, along with what is “fair and reasonable” in the particular case. Unlike child support, which is calculated by a strict and generally rigid mathematical formula, no such formulas exist for alimony. Instead, it is subject to a judge’s wide discretion. In our scenario, the wife could be awarded what is termed “transitional” alimony, to allow her to maintain the standard of living she had while married until she can transition to her new circumstances as a single person. If she is returning to college or vocational school to improve her prospects for future employment, the judge may award her “rehabilitative” alimony.

Due to the complexities that can be involved in contested cases, the first spouse to consult with a competent Hawaii family law attorney can gain a distinct advantage by setting the initial tone on key issues. For an Asian spouse who may at first be at an inherent disadvantage, this can be crucially important in order to ensure an equal footing during the divorce process.

Bradley A. Coates, J.D., has been a practicing divorce attorney in Honolulu for over 25 years. He has been selected as Honolulu’s Best Divorce Lawyer and is the founder of Coates & Frey, Hawaii‚s largest family law firm. Coates wrote an award-winning book titled “Divorce with Decency: The Complete How-To Handbook and Survivor’s Guide to the Legal, Emotional, Economic and Social Issues.” This article contains general information; readers should not take any actions based on this summarized information. Instead, appropriate experts should be consulted for each individual’s case and/or fact situation. Phone: 524-4854. Web site: www.coatesandfrey.com.