A once-taboo word now calls out from a storefront

A once-taboo word now calls out from a storefront

August 26th, 2012 by Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News

The Teeter Law Office, specializing in divorce cases, has recently moved into new office space at 1415 Market St., across the street from the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

* 45 percent: Projected cumulative lifetime risk of divorce for a first marriage in the U.S.

* 51 percent: The number of men in 1976 who said getting a divorce should be more difficult.

* 48.2 percent: The number of men in 2010 who said getting a divorce should be more difficult.

Source: Scott Stanley, University of Denver; General Society Survey, University of Chicago

Hamilton County Attitudes

• 88 percent of survey responders disagreed with the statement: "Marriage is an old-fashioned, outmoded institution."

• More than two-thirds (78 percent) of Hamilton County adults said marriage should be considered a promise "til death do us part." And 20 percent said marriage should be considered a promise "as long as love shall last."

• More than 4 out of every 5 people (83 percent) say that a couple unhappy in their marriage should "remain together and work to re-establish the love they once felt," while only 13 percent said that the same unhappy couple should "get a divorce."

Source: First Things First survey

POLL: Is marriage an old-fashioned, outmoded institution?

Across from the city's most famous landmark, a small law office has appeared on Market Street boasting a bold awning.

People have called the building's landlord to complain, but Richard B. Teeter, the firm's only attorney, doesn't care. It's all about supply and demand.

"1-800-DIVORCE" stands out in white letters, nearly in view of the Chattanooga Choo Choo. A small sign on the window says "$345, BASIC DIVORCE." That's for no property, no kids, Teeter says, sitting behind an old judge's desk.

"I see people taking pictures of [the sign]," said Ashleigh Hyma, Teeter's 19-year-old granddaughter, who works the front desk. "I don't get what the big deal is.

"My mom's been divorced five times," she said.

The Teeter Law Firm has been advertising cheap and quick divorces for years while churches and nonprofits in the city have been trying to rein in what they see as an epidemic of live-in partners and failed marriages.

"It is a sign of the times," said John Van Epp, an author, speaker and founder of Love Thinks, a Florida-based organization that creates educational programs about marriage. "We now can have a whole market that appeals to people wanting to get out of marriage quickly. The fact that we have become so desensitized to divorce is contrary to the pain that so many have felt from the divorce process. ... The image is that there are hardly any consequences of divorce."

Divorce, once a taboo word, became commonplace in the 1970s and peaked in the 1980s. The numbers have since made a slow downward crawl. But as the divorce rate has dipped, the rates of marriages has dwindled, too.

"Divorce is clearly so painful that people are delaying marriage," said Van Epp.

Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that the number of married adults in the U.S. had hit an all-time low, 51 percent. In 1960, 72 percent of adults were married, the survey said.

On a national scale, confidence in marriage has eroded over time. Today, four in 10 survey respondents believe marriage is becoming obsolete, Pew Research said.

But not in Chattanooga, said Julie Baumgardner, executive director of First Things First, a nonprofit that provides marriage and family coaching.

Even though Tennessee was once among the five states with the worst divorce rate, 88 percent of Hamilton County residents recently surveyed by First Things First said marriage isn't outdated or old-fashioned, and 78 percent said it was a promise for life.

"But there is so much apprehension," Baumgardner said. "Parents are saying, 'Wait, wait, you have got to wait. Be sure. Be really certain.' There is a huge sense of apprehension."

Signs like 1-800-DIVORCE don't make the situation any easier.

"We have told people for so long that divorce isn't that big of a deal. It really doesn't impact the kids. If you aren't happy you deserve to be happy," said Baumgardner. "What we really know to be true is that it absolutely does affect the kids, emotionally, developmentally, spiritually, psychologically, educationally, in every way you can think of."

Teeter has been practicing law for around 40 years and, for the last 17 years, he's been working out of the Frances Willard Building downtown, juggling a mix of divorce and personal injury cases.

But he is getting older -- he's 68 -- and began to have a retirement vision. He wanted to have a storefront, a divorce clearinghouse. When people are angry and fed up, a split can't come soon enough, he said.

"Doing divorce is better than being an undertaker; someone's got to do it," he said. "More people are made happy than sad by divorce."

Lawyers typically charge upward of $1,500, and a complicated divorce can cost more than $15,000. Free services through the Southeast Tennessee Legal Services are limited and representing yourself can be disastrous, especially if there if property or alimony or child visitation is involved.

Teeter's idea was: Offer divorce cheaper than anyone else and the money will come. His number -- 1-800-DIVORCE -- is a national brand. When someone calls the number from Hamilton County or surrounding counties, they are funneled to Teeter. Only five attorneys in Tennessee are part of the call service, according to their website.

"We focus on volume," said Teeter, who has been divorced several times himself.

Even though the number of divorces in Hamilton County has declined -- by 27 percent since 1997 to 1,450 in 2010 -- Teeter saw a niche and moved in.

That's where the "1-800-DIVORCE" sign comes in.

The poor and uneducated are more likely to get divorced, he said, and that's where the real money is. If you don't have a high school diploma, your chances of divorce are higher. If you have a child out of wedlock, your chances are higher. If you live together before marriage, your chances are higher.

It makes sense, he said, to have the firm well advertised along a city bus line, within walking distant of public housing and Section 8 rentals.

Hyma said about four or five people a day come in off the street. It's sad, she said.

"A lot of people don't know how to argue," she said. "The first thing they think is, 'Let's get a divorce.'"