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Unusual ruling: Judge denies a couple’s divorce

In a virtual court hearing last month, the judge said, "I get the vibe that you might be able to work this out, and I could be wrong, but I sit through a lot of these things."

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An unusual ruling in a Kentucky divorce case has lawyers scrambling.

Bullitt County Family Court Judge Monica Meredith recently declined to grant a divorce, and instead, sent the couple back to counseling.

Doug and Nicole Potts were married for 13 years when they separated late last year, and since, have agreed to put their child’s needs ahead of their own.

"We are two very mature people and our marriage did fall apart, and we are being cordial for the sake of our child," Doug Potts told sister station WLKY.

The cordial behavior was praised by attorneys for both parties. No one expected it to backfire.

In a virtual court hearing Aug. 12, Meredith said, "I get the vibe that you might be able to work this out, and I could be wrong, but I sit through a lot of these things."

She continued, "Would it be beneficial to either of you all if I ordered you two to reconciliation counseling or are you past that?"

Nicole Potts responded, "I would say we are past that. I mean, this has been a year in the making at this point."

Doug later said they've tried to make it work four times.

According to Doug, the couple has already spent upwards of $13,000 on counseling and attorney fees. "We’ve already been down this road with counseling and it didn’t work," he said. "So you could say that it's causing some emotional distress rehashing what broke up the marriage and being ordered to do this all over again, but I'll do whatever it takes."

The specific order issued by the judge states:

"Before entering a decree of dissolution, the Court is required by KRS 403.170 to make a finding that the marriage is irretrievably broken and in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, such irretrievable break down is the sole basis for dissolution. However, KRS 403.110 also compels the Court to liberally construe all chapters of KRS 403 so as to 'strengthen and preserve the integrity of marriage and to safeguard family relationships'. While it is highly unusual, in this instance, the Court cannot make the finding at this time that this marriage is irretrievably broken based upon the testimony and evidence before it. Frankly, the Court observes these parties to be two people who have lost the ability to communicate with one another about their emotional relationship and, perhaps, have let their pride become a wall between them."

Nicole's attorney, Sidney Vieck, said in response to the ruling, "I'm pretty stunned that a court would order a couple to go back to counseling when they're behaving so respectfully towards one another. Usually, the opposite would be true."

Doug's attorney, Dorothy Walsh Ripka, was equally as stunned. "From my perspective, the ruling was very unexpected, and my goal in my practice is to have my clients prepared for any situation. I can tell you after talking to opposing counsel, neither one of us expected this ruling," she said.

In addition to the counseling, the judge also ordered that neither party shall introduce the child to any dating interest until the action is finalized. "That was probably the most surprising part of the ruling because no one really talked about that, and these parties have been separated for quite some time," Walsh Ripka said.

The couple was ordered to seek counseling until mid-October, and in a future hearing, prove to the court they tried again. But Tuesday, Vieck filed another motion to dissolve the marriage.

"Interestingly enough, the judge didn’t make her order a final order, and if it's not final, there's no way for attorneys or anyone in the legal community to file a formal appeal," she said. "So I filed a motion to have it set aside and for the judge to enter a decree at that time."

Vieck is expecting that decision to come Sept. 13.

As the couple processes the decision and awaits the next hearing, Doug says they’ll continue to abide by the judge’s order. "Sometimes people lose sight of what's best for their children, and we have made a decision not to do that to our daughter," he said.

Both attorneys agree that selfless behavior and commitment to put their child first is exactly what a couple should do, and say it should not be mistaken for anything otherwise.

"It’s really important for you to look at this and say, 'Being mature adults, and civil to each other, this is really the key to having a great, separate family,'" Walsh Ripka said. "Because you’re still a family."

So what does this mean for the future? That remains to be seen, but Vieck said it wouldn’t be ideal for anyone seeking a divorce. “It would be a tragedy for every citizen of this state if this were to be upheld as some valid precedent in the future,” she said. “I mean that would be completely disastrous.”

You can read Meredith’s full ruling here.