Betty A. Thompson, 88, was colorful and influential family lawyer in Virginia


Betty A. Thompson, who became one of the most prominent family attorneys in Virginia and who was instrumental in crafting the commonwealth's statues for equitable division of property during a divorce, died Sept. 24 at George Washington University Hospital. She was 88. (James M. Thresher/Washington Post)
September 26, 2012

Betty A. Thompson, a gimlet-eyed lawyer who became one of the most prominent family attorneys in Virginia and who was instrumental in modernizing the commonwealth’s divorce statutes, died Sept. 24 at George Washington University Hospital. She was 88.

She died after a stroke, said Laura Dove, a lawyer at Ms. Thompson’s Arlington County-based firm.

After graduating from George Washington University’s law school in 1948, Ms. Thompson became one of the first female lawyers in Arlington. She made a short-lived bid for the General Assembly in 1957 as a virulently pro-segregationist candidate but in later decades reversed herself as “very open-minded” on equal rights. Her continuing ties to state political leaders brought considerable influence as her stature rose in legal circles.

Ms. Thompson, once dubbed the “queen of divorce court” by an admiring peer, was initially a trial lawyer who litigated civil and criminal cases. She developed a speciality in domestic relations law in the 1960s as demand grew amid the increasing social tolerance for divorce.

Divorce law proved immensely profitable to Ms. Thompson, who was not shy about flaunting her expensive tastes in designer clothes, wine, art and jewelry. As she became known as one of the most effective (and priciest) divorce lawyers in the area, she was outspokenly critical about ephemeral matrimony (“Marriages today are not for keeps — everything’s throwaway.”) and the desire among divorcing parties for revenge instead of legal resolution.

“There are times, in a settlement meeting, when a client wants the last $1,000 of a $2 million settlement,” she told the Ten Leaders Cooperative, an association for professionals. “And I’ll ask, ‘Does it really matter?’ ”

Ms. Thompson was described as meticulous and exceptionally well prepared at trial or (more often) settlement. She was also coolheaded and tough-skinned — necessary traits to practice divorce law in a region known for its unsettling mixture of power, ego and media glare.

She was the first woman to lead the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association and the Arlington County Bar Association, and she helped open such networking groups to women.

She often had to tolerate an old guard that, according to friends, tried to test her tolerance for crass humor. She never flinched. “You have to never forget that you are feminine and a lady,” she told The Washington Post in 1981, “but at the same time when you’re in your role as a lawyer, it has nothing to do with sex.”

Joanne F. Alper, 62, a retired judge on the Arlington County Circuit Court, was early in her career a courtroom nemesis of Ms. Thomson’s. “What was remarkable about Betty was she could be your opponent in a case, but she could also be your mentor,” Alper said, adding that her friend would represent a client to her fullest and fiercest, then go out afterward and advise a younger lawyer on how to be more successful next time.

Ms. Thompson presided over the era in which family law practitioners had to become far more sophisticated about tax law, real estate law, corporate law, custody law and trust law. Estates — even among those who were not wealthy — became increasingly tangled.

The laws themselves were quickly changing, and Ms. Thompson was at the forefront of their modernization in Virginia by working with the state legislature to amend the old rules.

Until 1982, Virginia was among the few remaining “title” states, in which a spouse whose name was on the title to a property retained ownership after a divorce. A court did not have the legal authority to perform the equitable (not necessarily equal) distribution of that property.

“The system ran according to legal title, greatly to the benefit of wealthy spouses, mainly husbands with a lot of property, and greatly to the detriment of women, mainly poor women,” said Brett R. Turner, an expert on equitable distribution who works for the Charlottesville-based National Legal Research Group. “Virginia was late in the game, and Betty deserves a lot of credit for doing the groundwork.”

Ms. Thompson helped shape the state’s adoption of equitable-distribution statutes in 1982.

Lawrence D. Diehl, an eminent family law lawyer in Chesterfield, Va., who later took the lead in refining the 1982 statute, said Ms. Thompson’s work “recognized the value of homemaking services and other non-monetary services” in the divorce process.

From 1995 to 2009, Ms. Thompson chaired the Virginia Bar Association’s family law coalition that advised the General Assembly on legislation related to divorce law.

Through the coalition, Ms. Thompson was involved in what Diehl called a “monumental” and successful effort in 1998 to give Virginia courts the authority to set a defined duration for spousal support instead of allowing payments to continue indefinitely.

Betty Ann Thompson was born Aug. 26, 1924, in Washington and raised in Arlington, where she was a graduate of Washington-Lee High School.

She was the second oldest of five daughters of a contractor and the only one of her siblings to pursue a professional career, she once told The Post. She received a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University in 1946.

In 1957, she lost a Democratic primary battle for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates after pledging foremost to battle court-ordered racial integration in public schools. She called the law “a cancerous growth on our body politic” and likened it to the excesses of Nazi Germany and international communism.

She told The Post in 1981: “I don’t think you hold to a view you had 20 years ago. I have no prejudices against black people and I consider myself very open-minded. But I think that whether you’re black or white, you should have equal rights but you have to earn them.”

Ms. Thompson, who had no immediate survivors, never married but had a companion who died in an accident many years ago, according to friends and colleagues. She warned against entering marriage with no forethought to its possible collapse. She advised premarital contacts.

“When you marry somebody, you mortgage yourself for life,” she told The Post in 1981. “It’s not like buying a car, where you have to fill out all sorts of forms. Marriage is a totally unwritten contract based solely on ‘I love you’ and there are no warranties. That’s the big myth about marriage. People think they’ve bought a lifetime of security.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
Most Read Local