Since there is no national divorce law in the United States, a woman's rights are governed by the court decisions of her state -- some of them fair, some extremely unfair. In many divorces women suffer financially more than men. Yet if they had planned ahead, known their legal rights, and followed correct procedures, they might have received more equitable treatment, according to Norma Harwood, author of a new legal guide for women. ``A Woman's Legal Guide to Separation and Divorce in All 50 States'' (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, $22.50 hard-cover, $11.95 paper) offers invaluable information otherwise available only in law books.
Mrs. Harwood, who lives in Huntsville, Ala., is an expert in family law with many years of experience in the field. In a recent phone interview she explained how she felt impelled to research and write her book after representing an Alabama woman facing divorce. She had been married 30 years and had foregone her own career development to raise a family. The woman's just-retiring husband was to receive about $30,000 a year retirement income, and Mrs. Harwood was helping her sue for 10 percent of that income to help maintain herself.
Although the case was lost, the author's research on it led her to study the laws of her own and many other states.
``I became aware of how different all the state laws were in what they permitted and in what they did for women,'' she says. ``I found that longtime homemakers are often penalized under our current system. The court says they can support themselves, but in fact many only qualify for low-paying, entry-level jobs. And starting work in middle age, they rarely are able to accrue sufficient retirement benefits to keep them above poverty level when they reach age 65.''
Mrs. Harwood started writing the book, she says, ``by putting down those facts I thought all women should know but which are not readily available to them. I found no book like this on the market. I would like to think that mine will help women make more intelligent decisions and know what to expect from a lawyer. I feel strongly that women should be in there looking out for their own interests, rather than leaving everything to a lawyer to decide.''
In the book she explains the rules, pitfalls, and ways in which women often lose out, and tells when a woman should go to court and what she should expect in a trial. She names those few states that do not honor a prenuptial contract in court of law, and how portions of such contracts can be struck down in a divorce court, when it is felt that equity overrides.