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Child custody and divorce realities and oddities in Kramer vs. Kramer

Child custody and divorce realities and oddities in Kramer vs. Kramer

Kramer vs. Kramer is a heartwarming drama about the pains of divorce and child custody. It’s a moving portrayal of how ex-spouses Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and Joanna (Meryl Streep) went from estranged exes to sworn enemies to allies. What many divorcees will find particularly relatable is Ted’s sheer ineptness at making French toast on the first morning of Joanna’s “desertion.”

But how to make French toast is just one of Ted’s many plights. The film wastes no time making some carefully observed realities about divorce and child custody. There are, however, some oddities, too.

No job, no custody

When Joanna leaves Ted, he is left to care for their son Billy and spectacularly fails at it in the beginning. His recent promotion as a creative director means he has job security, but it also complicates his new situation. Now, he must care for a rather unruly child while his domineering boss constantly puts him through the wringer. Consequently, his job performance suffers and he is eventually laid off.

Fifteen months later, Joanna shows up and tells Ted she has “found herself” and is now ready to care for her child. Ted seeks legal counsel and his lawyer minces no words; he counsels him that without a job, he stands no chance of winning. The lawyer quite bluntly (and helpfully, we might add) advises him to find a job within 24 hours.

Miraculously, he does land a job — one week before Christmas, no less!

Two things are certifiably true in Ted Kramer’s situation:

  • An unemployed parent (mother or father) is not likely to win a child custody case; and
  • Frankness and aggression may work wonders during a job interview.

The mother who abandons her child wins the battle

The case goes to court and Ted and Joanna’s lawyers do what most movie-lawyers do: they sling mud at each other’s clients. After the Kramers’ lawyers take their turns brutally questioning the exes on the stand, the court ultimately grants custody to Joanna.

The movie-judge’s decision was largely viewed as realistic in terms of how child custody cases were resolved at the time (it was the ’70s). That decision might raise modern audiences’ eyebrows, but the film was set at a period when custody decisions were highly favorable to mothers. This was long before joint custody became a popular option for splitting spouses.

Because Joanna left him, Ted assumed that her “desertion” meant the decision will sway in his favor and that he has an “open-and-shut case,” which, apparently, he did not. Interestingly, the film became notable for challenging the notion of a mother easily getting custody.

To appeal or not to appeal

Unhappy with the outcome, Ted tells his lawyer that he wants to appeal the decision. His lawyer advises him that although it’s possible to appeal, it will cost him a lot.

Ted doesn’t mind and is indignant. The lawyer cuts him off and says that if he does appeal, Billy might have to pay the price, by taking the stand and testifying in favor of or against either parent. After giving it thought, Ted capitulates and Joanna gets custody.

The decision not to appeal the judge’s decision worked in favor of the movie — at least it didn’t go on for a few more minutes, keeping its running time to a brisk one hour and 40 minutes. But if Ted had appealed, Billy may not have been called to take the stand since, in new appeals, new evidence is rarely called for.

Also, some family law attorneys seeing the movie for the first time might take issue with the courtroom scenes, finding them out of date. That is, why didn’t Ted or his attorney seek joint custody?

If Ted and Joanna’s case were to be tried in the present day, the dispute would be guided by the principle of the best interests of the child. And Ted might just have a fighting chance at winning joint custody. In any case, we would also buy tickets to that movie.

In the end, Joanna has an epiphany and makes a decision that she and Ted believe are in Billy’s best interests. We bet you want to know exactly what happens in the end. Call Buckingham, LaGrandeur, & Williams’ offices in Renton if you want to find out. Call us, too, if you need counsel for your dissolution of marriage and child custody case.