Helen lives in Silver Spring. She married John 20 years ago, ran their home, reared their three children and considered herself in every respect an equal partner in the marriage. But over those 20 years, the property the couple acquired was listed only in John's name.
Last year, when they got a divorce, Helen discovered that under Maryland common law she had no legal right to any part of that property.
Helen and John are fictitious, but the situation is not. It is the way marital property has always been disbursed upon divorce in Maryland. The spouse who stays home and contributes to the marriage in every way but monetarily loses out. The ownership title is the only thing that counts.
Two years ago, in recognition of what it saw to be a gross inequity in the law, the administration of Gov. Marvin Mandel created a commission to study and rewrite the disbursement of property divorce statutes. The fruits of that commission are now before the General Assembly in the form of a bill that has been the most controversial - and most heavily-lobbied - equal rights issue of the session.
There is general agreement among the various groups interested in the legislation that the present law, as the Governor's Commission on Domestic Relations Laws put it, "embodies evils which call out to be remedied." There is no such consensus, however, on what form the remedies shoul take.
The disagreement has found the commission, headed by Baltimore lawyer Beverly Anne Groner, on one side, several women's groups on another side, and many legislators caught in the middle, somewhat bewildered. According to some lawmakers, the dispute has already virtually assured that the measure will not get anywhere this year.
Although the bill is complex, the dispute is quite basic. Many of the women's groups want the disposition of marital property to be exactly equal - 50.50. The commission, on the other hand, argues that such "equality" is too simplistic an approach, that the judge overseeing the divorce should be allowed to apply a set of standards by which the property would be dished out.
Yesterday, at the first step of the legislative process, the 50-50 proponents won out. The Senate Judiciary Committee amended the commission written bill to include the "equal share" provision and then sent it out to the Senate floor by a 5 to 2 vote. The committee also amended the bill so that the "family home," inherited property and gifts would not be included on the disposition arrangement.
The committee's action infuriated two senators - Mike Miller (D-Prince George's) and Melvin Steinberg (D-Baltimore Count) - who had served on the commission that spent two years developing the bill.
"You just killed the bill," shouted Miller." "You gutted it. It stinks. I'm going to vote for it now." Miller attributed the amendment's success on "women who belong in Marine hats and combat boots - those militants."
Steinberg, somewhat more reserved, said he was certain the amended bill would be killed in the House Judiciary Committee, where another member of the commission, Joseph Owens (D-Montgomery), presides. "There's no way Owens will accept this," said Steinberg. "The bill is dead, zappe, finished."
Sen. John Garrity (D-Prince George's), who pushed the amendments, said he found the idea of a judge deciding precisely what value should be given the wife "abhorrent." "The child-rearing services a mother provides are 90 per cent more valuable than anything I could ever do," said Garrity. "I think the property should be divided right down the middle."
Another supporter of the amendments, John Bishop (R-Baltimore County), discounted Miller's claim that the bill had been gutted. "What we've done is lay out the issue in a very clear way," said Bishop. "The bill was so complex that it would have run into very serious problems on the floor."