Over many years, Guam has experienced warfare over the question of how to manage the end of troubled marriages, whether for long time island residents or for military and other Americans living in Asia who simply want a speedy divorce. Players in this drama have included the legislature, the judiciary, the island’s growing legal community and the still-dominant Catholic church, which continues to view divorce as a mortal sin.
But over the years, a consensus has developed, moving on from the once strict ‘fault’ requirement that divorcing couples prove in court misconduct by the other spouse to the more relaxed nearly ‘no fault’ standard that prevails in many other U.S. jurisdictions, making ‘irreconcilable differences’ sufficient to grant a divorce . That’s been the biggest change in divorces sought by long time Guam residents.
In between though, was a ‘wild west’ period, in which thousands of off-island divorces were granted, often without the presence on Guam by either party or even the knowledge of both parties.
Current law now requires off-island couples agree to the divorce in advance and that at least one of them travel to Guam for seven days to establish residency. The requirement was once 90 days. This likely satisfies no opponents to liberalized divorce, but appears to have drastically cut the number of such divorces to several hundred annually and likely boosted tourism revenues.
Attorney Bill Pesch has been representing divorce seekers since the 1990s.
“If you go back to the 1980s, Don Parkinson when he was a senator had this outrageous law that was passed and I don’t mince my words on this. I was very opposed to it People could get divorced here and not set foot on the island and sometimes be divorced and not even know they were divorced. And at that time we were doing probably 2,000, perhaps 3,000 divorces a year. We were a divorce mill. It was embarrassing.”
Attorney Gary Frank Gumataotao, who handles a growing number of divorce cases, on and off-island, says he went into this work with an important background: he had previously experienced a divorce.
He has a more charitable view of Parkinson, now an inactive attorney on Guam, whose persistent newspaper ads marked the ‘wild west days.’
“We called him the King of Divorce,” Gumataotao recalls. “$199 for an uncontested divorce. It was $60 to file a divorce in those days, now it’s $300. Don offered a really good deal. He gave good counseling to people. I never heard anyone complain about Don and I think he was very thorough about the way he did things.”
Senator B.J. Cruz, now speaker of the Guam legislature, spent 13 years as a judge, handling cases including divorces from the bench and then went on to crafting the laws that apply to divorce.
Cruz and others familiar with the Guam divorce picture decry the ‘cavalier’ attitude that many people take toward entering marriage, unanimously making the comparison to requirements to drive a car. Extensive class work and actual driving experience are only part of what is now demanded by law.
“There’s no such thing as a license like that for marriage,” he says. “There’s no such thing like that for having children. They just get married and drop ‘em and don’t understand the responsibilities that go with that.”
There’s no disagreement about factors pointing to a divorce: Topping the list are cheating, family finances and abuse of drugs and alcohol, all of which can lead to family violence.
“We always ask straight-on, ‘why do you want a divorce?,’ Gumataotao says, “and the majority of people will say they want a divorce because and they’ll have a certain reason. Here, a lot of times, it’s adultery. We hear, and I think this is immature, ‘we’re just not in love anymore.’” Gumataotao’s rule of thumb is that 50 percent of all marriages end up in divorce. And he estimates 11 percent of those who divorce re-marry their (former) spouse.
For divorce lawyers, these clients require a lot of work. “They’re very emotional about what they’re going through. The relationship is torn asunder and when there are children involved, that makes it even worse,” Gumataotao says. For Pesch, “After practicing law for about 30 years, I decided to make a shift. I did not want to do the contested [divorce] work any longer. It wears on you after a while. Some lawyers can litigate a case and not get emotionally involved in it. I have a difficult time doing that.”
Gumataotao, whose firm still does contested divorces, says these cases can be hard. “Divorce clients will call you at 2 a.m. and say ‘she’s trying to take the refrigerator.’ What do they want you to do? You’re not going to be able to call the police or anything. You’re not there and you don’t want to go there and mess with that.”
Guam divorce ads circa 2001
In the past, the island’s Catholic Church has been active in seeking to shape civil law on divorce, but seems to have settled into unstated acceptance of the status-quo in some cases.
“I was very happy when the church here finally recognized that for domestic violence cases, that they would look the other way about the fact that you were getting a divorce,” Senator Cruz said. “There is no reason anyone should have to live in a domestic violence situation.”
Asked for an interview for this story, the Archdiocese of Agana offered this prepared statement:
“The Church is against anything that dissolves or attacks the sacred bonds of marriage, this includes pornography, infidelity, promiscuity and prostitution, which sadly, all have a strong presence in our island. We certainly do not relish promoting Guam as a haven for non-residents seeking divorce.”
Attorney Gumataotao has praise for church counseling in the marital area. “The Catholic church has also tried to go straight on with the problem of divorce and implement things like marital counseling before people get married and even counseling after they’re married.”
And that’s echoed by Attorney Pesch, regardless of who provides the counseling: “One of the first things I say to people when they come in is, ‘have you tried to work on your marriage?’ I’d be very happy to be put out of business tomorrow if people stopped divorcing and started getting along. I’d find something different to do.”
So what’s to be done about divorce on Guam and the later results for those involved?
Gumataotao suggests that present child support for the children involved in a divorce is inadequate after one spouse walks away from the marriage.
From a legislative point of view, Senator Cruz says that while lawmakers are reluctant to impose what are generally labeled as ‘nanny state rules,’ the present law allowing marriage at 16 with parental permission or 17 without, seems to point relationships in the wrong direction very early.
As for those who receive uncontested Guam divorces from abroad, the future consequences for them are in the hands of the jurisdiction where they live after they return from their seven day Guam visit.
Guam divorce ad 2017