She Who Unties the Knots

Jessica Gelt is a Times staff writer. Contact her at

Love is "temporary insanity curable by marriage," wrote 19th century journalist Ambrose Bierce. Maybe that's why the number of marriage licenses recorded in L.A. County last year (more than 56,000) is so close to the number of filings for dissolutions, nullities and legal separations (nearly 40,000). Supervising Judge Marjorie S. Steinberg, who oversees the 45 family law judges and commissioners who preside over these cases, is on the front lines of one of L.A.'s toughest judicial beats. It's a job that requires patience and heart.


Q What's the smoothest way to sail through a divorce?

A There's collaborative law, where you pick one lawyer for the two of you. Our court gives special consideration to those cases, so people who do collaborative law get their judgments signed really quickly. The other way is to just sit down with a couple of lawyers and work it out.


Q What's wrong with that?

A Before you know it you'll have a $75,000 bill from your lawyer and your husband will have an $80,000 bill and you'll sell the house and you won't have much left. I'm not blaming the lawyers, but litigation is not the best way to go for most of these cases. Consumer Reports had an article recently about ways to save money, and No. 3 was don't get a divorce.


Q What does a typical divorce cost in L.A.?

A It's nothing for us to see $50,000 spent on each side and sometimes $1 million on each side. When I see someone with only $25,000 in attorney's fees I think that's pretty cheap. One of my colleagues just had people fighting over tea bags--tea bags! That's hardly worth spending your child's college education and your retirement savings on.


Q What's the most common legal mistake made by couples seeking a divorce?

A People don't understand that just because you filed a petition it doesn't mean you automatically get a divorce. Until you get a judgment signed by the court and entered in the court records you are not divorced. I've heard, "I thought I was divorced and I married somebody else."


Q Do couples ever decide to reconcile?

A I did have a couple where the man realized he would have to pay off the loan on the Camaro, so he decided he didn't want to get divorced after all.


Q What would you say to a young couple wanting to tie the knot?

A Really know yourself before you get married, because you can't really ever know that other person 100%.


Q You've been been married for more than 40 years. What's the secret of your success?

A Have a good sense of humor--that's a rule for succeeding in life as well. The real lesson I take from this is that your kids always need to know that you're on their side, and that your problems are not their problems. People get married with the best intentions, and I don't know what goes wrong.


Q Any advice on how to avoid the most common pitfalls of marriage?

A Marry the right person in the first place!

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