Monday, October 2, 2017
A few weeks ago, the office was going to go to Disney World for an office retreat. We had planned the trip down to the smallest detail, except for two "little" problems. The first problem was Hurricane Irma - she hit 4 days before our trip, and we weren't sure that Disney would even be open. The second was that one of us had a sudden health issue that left whether she could go up in the air until 2 days before our departure. Now, there's a reason I'm an advance planner - I don't love flying by the seat of my pants. Yet, here I was, doing just that. I was SUPER stressed. Ultimately, Disney reopened in time and the health issue resolved. The trip was everything I wanted it (and planned in excruciating detail) to be. Except, that I then got sick upon our return. Truth be told, I started to get sick while I was there. In fact, two weeks later, I'm still sick.
Being out of control and having no control are terrible feelings. They cause a lot of stress, which lowers the immunity, which is why I got sick. Let's not mention all the sleepless nights leading up to the trip. Isn't this how my clients feel all the time here in the Trenches? Many have no control over whether their spouse leaves. Many have no control over how much money they will have to live on. Many have no control over what process is used. Many have no control over the outcome of one of the most important events in their lives. Being in the Trenches causes cortisol levels to hit the roof and stay there for months, which is not healthy. All this stress on your immune system is dangerous.
That's why it is so important when you're here in the Trenches to take care of yourself. I know you don't feel like it. In fact, you probably feel like just crawling into bed and pulling the covers over your head, or buying a one way ticket to someplace far away. You could do those things, and in moderation, they're not so bad because they are ways of coping with stress. Of course, staying in bed 24/7 is not something most people really want to do, and buying a one way ticket is also not so realistic for most. What you need is to find something that gives you, if not joy, then pleasure. You need to find something over which you can exert some control and have some sense of accomplishment. That might be walking the dog every day before work, learning a new hobby, joining a club, reading for 15 minutes, putting a piece into a jigsaw puzzle. It doesn't have to be something big; and in fact, accomplishing a lot of little things is probably even better for you. Take some time to take care of yourself. That is something over which you have control. The Trenches itself, maybe not so much. Here in the Trenches.
Sunday, August 20, 2017
The events of the last couple of weeks in both my personal and professional lives have brought to mind the subject of settling a case short of a judicial decision. As you may or may not know, I settle most of my cases. Some of my colleagues do not - they try most of their cases. I know you're asking "Why is that?" You're probably also asking what I know that could help you settle your case. Well, the answers to both questions are elated. Let me explain. Before I do, a word of warning: if you think I offer a magic wand or a quick fix, this blog will be unsatisfying.
Many times, a settlement is not what a client would get in court. A client might get more alimony or more property if they went to court than if they settled. Some lawyers see that and only that, and counsel a client that because going to court could get them something different from a settlement, they should go to court unless the other side gives them what they believe a judge would probably award. The problem is that these lawyers assume that judicial decisions are predictable and uniform. They're not. If they were, everyone would know what the outcome of a case would be if they went to court and they would settle their case. At least they would have a definite range of possible decisions. Those same lawyers mistake positions for needs, and then are confused when clients get what they want and are unhappy. As the courts are still in business and judges are still hearing family cases, even with the best of attorneys, these assumptions are obviously incorrect. So, there is an element of unpredictability in taking a case to trial, and a client might get what the attorney thinks they will and they might not. Settling takes away that unpredictability. Still, there are times when you have to go to trial.
How do you know if you have to go to trial? I have a few pretty good indicators.
1. There is an issue about which there can really be no compromise. For example, one parent is staying in the home state and the other is moving across the world to a location that is at least as desirable as the home state; and both parents want the child to live primarily with them.
2. You make offers of settlement and the other side doesn't respond, or makes counterproposals. that are the polar opposite of the original offer and they persist in insisting theirs is the only solution, and this pattern continues.
3. Mediation is completely unsuccessful, and by this I mean that there are no points of commonality.
4. The other side has an addiction, mental health or processing issue that makes it difficult to impossible for them to realistically assess the value of an offer, make a counteroffer, or compromise in any way.
How do you figure out whether your case is one of those that has to be tried? First, you need to do some homework of your own. All my clients do.
1. First, ask yourself three questions:
A. What MUST you have in order to settle your case? I'm not talking about things, here. I'm talking about concepts. Do you need a secure retirement, or is cash on hand more important? Do you need a flow of income, or could growth on investment get you what you want? Is it important to keep the kids in their home or school, and what does that mean?
B. What would be nice to have in order to settle the case, but which you could live without if necessary?
C. What don't you care about being included in a settlement of the case?
2. Second, answer the same questions about your spouse.
3. Think about all the ways you could get what it is you must have. There is never just one way to get what you need. Examine the pros and cons of each way.
4. Formulate a settlement proposal and make it. There's no shame in being the first to make an offer. Listen to the response, and not just what is said, but the underlying format and the expressed needs of the other incorporated in that response. See if there's a way you can adjust your offer to meet both of your needs. Remember, you are only going to be able to reach a settlement if it is mutually acceptable. It might be that even if you adjust your offer, the other side may reject it, may back away from what they say they need. This is a sign to you that your case may not be able to be settled, which you will have to explore further.
5. Think about the costs of settlement versus the cost of going to trial. These costs may factor into your needs:
A. Money: Each day of trial costs not only 6 hours of trial time, but three days of preparation. That's on top of all the preparation and work that leads up to the ultimate preparation for trial.
B. Time: There's a reason our Administrative Office of Courts puts a one-two year deadline on completing the trial of a case - it takes every bit of a year (or two) to get a case to trial and completed. That's a lot of time to have no resolution to your case and no ability to move forward with your life.
C. Emotion: Emotions run high in a divorce. As long as the divorce remains in process, the heightened emotions do no ebb and there is not relief.
D. Having to go to trial: Trying a case is not a pleasant experience. You will be subjected to direct and cross examination. You will have to sit through days of trial. It is exhausting. It is unpleasant. Some people are terrible testifiers. For some people, being subjected to the trial process will re-traumatize them, and set back all of their recovery from their divorce.
This isn't my life, it's yours. I advocate for you. My advocacy looks a whole lot different depending on whether I am advocating for a position or a need. If you don't do the heavy lifting and figure out your needs, with the help of your lawyer, not only will you probably not settle your case, you will also be unhappy with any outcome. Life isn't about things or money, although when you are in the middle of a divorce or custody matter it may seem so. Life is about underlying wants and needs; and in order to settle a case you need to know what they are. Here in the Trenches.
Sunday, August 13, 2017
Something else happened when I was sick that is really relevant here in the Trenches. I had a primary care physician. Let me tell you about my experience with this doctor. My insurance carrier told me I had to have a new primary care physician. I call this doctor's office and found they were taking new patients; and I asked to be able to designate them as my primary care physician. They agreed, and then informed me that I had to have a physical with this doctor as a condition of being her patient, the first appointment they had for that was 5 months in the future, and that if I needed a referral before then, I was out of luck. This doctor had come highly recommended and I'm rarely sick, so I agreed. I showed up on the day of my appointment and they forgot me in the waiting room. Then the doctor spent a lot of time telling me about their divorce and not really asking me anything about me - I was not wonderfully comfortable.
Fast forward 1.5 years later, and I'm really sick. I really didn't care for this doctor, so I didn't want to make an appointment, even though I needed one. Then I called their office. It was business hours, but they didn't answer. People are busy, so I left a message; they never called me back. Then I went online to their online appointment scheduler; there were no appointments for 3 months, even for a sick visit. So, I went to urgent care. They treated me. 1.5 weeks later, I was still really sick, and again there were no appointments with my primary care, so I went back to urgent care, and saw a different person. They prescribed a different treatment. 4 days later, I'm still just as sick. I thought, what should I do?
At that point, I thought about my own practice. If I had been a client instead of a patient, what would I have told myself? I would have said that lawyers and their clients are like dogs and their owners. In a successful relationship, we resemble each other in our outlook in life and approach to resolving disputes. I would have also said that your divorce lawyer will know more about you than you ever wanted anyone to know, and so you had better be comfortable with them and their staff, or you will be reluctant to share necessary information with them or to call them at all. At that point, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I had not taken my own advice when it came to choosing a doctor. I am certain this doctor is a good doctor - good recommendations count for a lot, and the existing patients love this person. This doctor is not the right doctor for me, just as I am not the right lawyer for everyone.
About a decade ago, I had a primary care doctor I loved. 8 years ago, she decided to become a concierge doctor. Although the annual fee for her service was not that expensive, I had no health issues at all. I didn't feel like I could justify the cost. As I went through primary care physician after primary care physician, and finally having no physician except my gynecologist, I kept thinking of this doctor and how I trusted her. Finally, as I was so sick and not getting better, having no continuity of care, and having no one who I could call who I trusted, I looked up her number and gave her office a call. The woman who answered the phone was like Chrystal at my office; I felt like she really cared. I paid the darn fee, and she got me an appointment for later that same day. I showed up, and my doctor was exactly as I remembered her. She was thorough. She answered all my questions (including all the really stupid ones that were ridiculous but were keeping me up at night); she and I had a rapport. She ordered the tests I needed. I felt better immediately, not because of the medication or the tests she prescribed, but because I knew I was in good hands. I felt safe and secure that my issues would be handled and all my questions would be answered. I think she's an excellent doctor, but she is probably no better or worse a doctor than the other one. The difference is the relationship, and that relationship makes her a better doctor for me. The relationship, more than technical prowess, makes one lawyer better than another....for you. Here in the Trenches.
Sunday, August 6, 2017
The last day I posted was the day my beautiful granddaughter was born - three weeks early. Not only that, I was in the midst of a horrible something that had settled in my chest, that made breathing, let alone functioning at an acceptable level, take all of my effort. As I struggled through not knowing if I was contagious still, and being unable to see the little angel until I was sure I wasn't, and then learning all the new ways medical science say we should treat newborns, and finding time to spend with grandma's angel, I thought about everyone in the Trenches.
First, I thought about how it's now a "thing" that people don't disconnect from work when they vacation. I read one article on the internet and one in the Washington Post today that said that people bring their work cell phones and check emails on vacation. We all feel that tug to stay connected 24/7, because we can. As a result, we enjoy fully none of the things we should. I do it. My clients do it too. I resolved to spend an afternoon a week with my angel and her parents, and turn off my cell phone (except for taking pictures, of course). I want to enjoy this experience of my first grandchild and of my son being a parent, and I can't if I don't put my worries about my clients to the side for those few hours I'm with them.
I want my clients to do the same with your worries. I know it's your life we're talking about. I know that there is easily enough to do to keep you fully occupied with your case for all the hours you are not at work. I know you feel like if you don't work on or worry about your case, you feel guilty. I'm giving you permission to unplug, not for every day, but at least once a week. Take a few hours to recharge, to not read about divorce, to not work on your documents, to not talk about your divorce. It will be like you had a mini-vacation. Remember how you feel when you come back from vacation (no, not the part where you wish you could be on vacation every day for the rest of your life)? You feel renewed and ready to tackle what life throws at you. I know I feel that way after my half day with my son and his family. You need it too.
Second, I thought about all of the frustration I felt in being unable to do what I wanted to do while I was sick. I couldn't visit my brand new granddaughter. I couldn't help care for her. I couldn't help my son and his wife with some of the daily chores they were too tired to do. I couldn't run or lift weights or go to yoga. I hated it. I hated not feeling like myself and being able to do what I wanted to do. Isn't that how my clients feel too? Many clients feel depressed, angry and overwhelmed. Many lack the resources to do the things they like to do.
What did I do? Well, I asked mom and dad to send my pictures of the little angel. Bless their hearts, they were religious about it, and I had quite a collection by the time I could visit. They let me know how she was doing. I also embraced my physical recovery period as a message from my body to just stop; I realized that recovery is as important a part of fitness as the workouts themselves and by reframing, I could recover without guilt. You can do the same. Depression and anger are natural parts of the process of grieving loss; and in the Trenches, it's the loss of what was. The only way to get through those parts and get to acceptance is to embrace them as a natural part of the process. Part of that acceptance is accepting that life will change (by the way, life always changes), and adapting to the limitations and realities of your new life. Can you reframe what is happening? Can you find a workaround? Figure out what is most important and why, and I bet you'll come up with a solution.
Third, just as medical "science" changed its tune about what is best for babies in the 5.5 years between my son and daughter, so has it changed numerous times since then. All the rules for babies are different than when I was the mom of a newborn. Our minds become less flexible as we get older, and it's hard to rewire your parent brain to the new rules. What I could "get" easily as a young mother takes more time as a grandmother. It's hard, and frankly, some of the new rules make no sense to me. Still, I am working mightily to deal with the new reality and make it part of me.
Isn't that also what my clients do? The rules of divorce are something you have hopefully never dealt with, and if you have, certain aspects of the law have undoubtedly changed since then. The rules of dating are different. Life as a single is different than life as a couple. You have to adapt to move forward. Otherwise, you're the man in the blue leisure suit or the lady with the bouffant hairdo - out of touch and living in the past. Embrace the change and adapt to it. It will help your recovery, and as a bonus, will help maintain your mind's plasticity. Here in the Trenches.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
The single most important document you will get from your divorce or custody matter is your settlement agreement, consent order, or court order. It is the document that will guide all of your interactions with your co-parent or former spouse. If that is so, why do so few people read it, either before or after they sign it? I mean it. I can't tell you how many phone calls I receive from clients asking questions, the answers to which are front and center in their settlement agreement. That's followed close behind by people who can't find that document at all and wonder if I have it. Honestly, you probably paid a lot of money to obtain the terms that are contained in your settlement agreement, consent or court order. Why would you not keep it safe? Why would you not read it carefully, tab it, index it, and know every term by heart? Does that make sense to you? Me neither. Here in the Trenches.
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
Back in 1998, after having completed my Guardian ad Litem (Best Interest Attorney) training, the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland, assigned me to my first case. I was to represent an 11 year old boy and his 16 year old sister. The details of that representation could probably fill a short book, but that's not the point here. I ended up representing that 11 year old boy for 6 years, and added a group of people to the folks I call family.
You see, at the beginning of the representation, for reasons unrelated to fitness, I had to recommend that the children live with dad. You would think that mom would despise me, but no. Every semester, I would receive in the mail a 2 x 3 envelope into which mom had folded (into a million pieces) both children's report cards, on which she would write a sticky note letting me know how everyone was doing. If something good happened in the meantime, I'd get another envelope from her. I loved getting them.
I would also hear from my little boy, who was not so little, every 2 or 3 months. He'd call me on the phone and update me on how well or not so well things were going at his dad's house, and in life. We'd have a phone pow wow and catch up and decide what he should do next. When my boy turned 17, we decided it was time to move back to mom, and this time I represented him as his attorney. I was so proud of how he advocated for himself and how we worked out all the details necessary for him to accomplish the move. After he moved back with mom, Daughter and I would stop by and see him at his job, and he would let her "help" him. I think he kind of liked having a little sister. Then he graduated from high school, and he gave me one of his very rare tickets to graduation. He also sent me a letter that I have framed on the wall of my office.
Then, his sister got married. I was invited as a friend of the family. I loved seeing her all grown up and happy. She has since had three lovely children, and I was invited to all of the baby showers. She's my friend on Facebook, and I get to enjoy all of her family's milestones.
Next, my boy got married. It was one of the happiest days of my life. You see, he asked me to be his Best Man. Last week, he and his wife had a beautiful baby boy. It made me cry with joy. His mom sent me a message of how well "our" kids turned out. She's right - they really did. Who knew, when I accepted that court appointment, that I would adopt a family and that they would adopt me. I know I made a difference in the lives of this family (and they made in mine), and that is my proudest achievement, here in the Trenches.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
Let's talk law offices and the practice of law. You all probably don't know that as part of what I do, I am co-chair of the fee dispute committee for our local bar. Yes, there is a committee that investigates and helps resolve disputes about the amount of a lawyer's fees. Before you get all excited and think you can come to us and say that someone's hourly rate was too high, or that they shouldn't have charged you a fee because you lost your case (yes, it happens), the fee dispute committee is there to look at a fee and see whether it was, in fact, too high (for some reason, no one ever complains that their lawyer charged them too little - go figure), and help the client and the lawyer settle on the disputed fee. Anyway, we joke at our Bar that I am chair of this committee for life, because I've been doing this 8 or 9 years, and no one else wants to do it. As a result, I have seen a lot of lawyers' bills, from the really expensive big firms, to the solo practitioner. Let me give you some tips as you wade into the Trenches, so I don't see your complaint cross my desk.
1. Read your retainer agreement BEFORE you sign it. I know, this sounds simple. In fact, a few of you just face planted on the table at the thought that someone wouldn't do this. It is my experience that almost no one really reads their retainer agreement. I have been in private practice for almost 30 years, and I can count on one hand (with fingers left over) the number of people who took their retainer agreement with them to read at their leisure, and who then contacted me with questions about the language in the agreement before they signed it. If it says I can charge you interest on an overdue balance, don't you want to know when I might do that and when I won't? I know I try to keep my retainer agreements in plain English, but there are still pieces of them that are not easy to understand if you're not a lawyer. Don't feel stupid if you ask a question; and conversely, if the lawyer tries to make you feel stupid for asking it, do you want them to be your lawyer?
2. OPEN your monthly statements and READ them. Again, sounds simple, yet it's not. I had one client to whom I mailed a cashier's check for a lot of overdue child support. After a period of time, the other attorney contacted me to make sure my client received the check, because it hadn't been cashed. I called my client, who proceeded to sift through the 20 or so unopened envelopes from me sitting on the desk. Yes, I said unopened. So first, open your mail. Second, read it. If you don't understand a billing entry, if you don't recall why there would be that billing entry, if the amount of time seems excessive (although I did have someone complain once that I didn't spend enough time perusing a document), then call the lawyer's office within 30 days of receipt. They should answer your questions and not charge you for the privilege of doing so (unless, of course, you combine a discussion of your case into that call or email). I'm charging you a lot of money - don't you care to know on what you're spending? If you wait until the end of your case and then open the bills and dispute on from 9 months ago, chances are, no one is going to be sympathetic.
3. Ask who is going to be working on your case. Is it just the person sitting behind the desk with you now, or will other people be doing work for you? Ask what work they will be doing. Ask why. Ask what happens if there are two people sitting in on your meeting, mediation or court appearance? Will you get charged for both? Is there a blended rate? Why are two people necessary? There are often really good reasons for two people to work at the same time on the same matter and same part of the matter. Sometimes there aren't. My office rarely, if ever, charges for two people at the same meeting. Some offices, however, divide duties and as a part of those divided duties, each lawyer/paralegal is doing something different and necessary even in the same meeting - that might be a reason to charge for two people. I have been a client, however, and my attorney (who I soon fired) had another attorney sit in on every meeting, even though that attorney added no value whatsoever to the meeting and was simply there to know what was going on. When I complained after the first bill that showed that charge, I was told that was simply how they did it and I would be charged for two lawyers whether I wanted them or not. OK, then I knew, and I had a choice whether to stay with that firm or move somewhere else. Do not fail to read your bill and then complain at the end of the representation that you were double-billed; that's your fault and your problem.
4. By the same token, ask if the lawyer does all the work on your case, or if their paralegal/assistant does a first draft that the lawyer then edits and expands upon. Who goes through and organizes the volumes of documents you provide - the lawyer or an assistant? Some firms don't have paralegals. Some firms don't have anyone but lawyers start to draft or review anything. Others have their paralegals/assistants take a first crack at it. None of these ways of getting out the work is wrong, it's just different, with different costs. You're paying for it and you should know. If you don't know, and don't read your bill and then don't complain until after 9 months of those charges, I don't feel that sorry for you.
5. You will be charged for the lawyer to do research. We don't know everything like the back of our hands, and we want to make sure that we are accurately applying the most recent law to your case. As a client, I want my lawyer to do that. Here's what I don't want them to do: teach themselves the basics on my dime. You should not be charged for research for things as elementary as how to file an answer, how many interrogatories they are allowed to ask, how many days until a pleading is due. Yes, I've seen it.
6. For what are you going to be charged, when and why? Filing the papers in your file at the office? Opening and organizing your file? Phone calls to set appointments and court dates? Making copies (both by the page and by the hour)? Travel? Postage? Hand delivery? Again, I've seen courts award lawyers their fees for all of these things, so they're permissible charges, but don't you want to know before you open your bill? Don't you want to know how the lawyer defines all these terms, so that you can make sure you're on the same page? Many of these things will not be in your retainer agreement, or if they are, are not defined or set forth in detail.
7. Ask what you can do to work on your case to save money. It costs a lot of money to sort through all of your papers and put them in order and figure out what you didn't provide. It takes a lot of time to go through the documents your spouse provided and do the same. If you can do that, and give a detailed breakdown of what's there and what's not, it'll save you quite a bit of money. If you're good with a spreadsheet and are good at tracing the money, I won't tell you you can't, and again, if you do it well, it will save you money. Of course, if you bring me documents thrown into a shopping bag, or send me documents in no particular order, or forget to tell me everything I need to know to assess what I have, it will cost you a lot, and I can and will charge you for that.
8. Lawyers do not guarantee outcomes. There are a lot of reasons why you may not "win" your case. I can pretty much guarantee you won't get everything you want. Most of the reasons have absolutely nothing to do with whether the attorney did the work necessary for the job. If your lawyer phoned it in, that's a problem, but most don't and they are prepared for whatever your case brings to the best of their ability. Sometimes your case isn't that good, or the judge isn't sympathetic, or your attorney didn't have the skills or experience another lawyer would have. That last one's on you. I know, lawyers are expensive. I know, you want to save money. Let me clue you in to a secret that really isn't a secret. Although there are exceptions, the bargain basement lawyer is cheap because they are either not that good at what they do or because they haven't been doing it very long. Give me a $100 an hour lawyer, and I will run rings around them every time because I've been doing this almost 30 years so I have more experience and knowledge, because I've worked on hundreds of cases, and I attend hours every year of continuing education. I do the same work in less time and know what is important in a case and how to present it. I also have a reputation for knowing what I'm doing and for being candid with other lawyers and the court, and those take time and effort to build. That's why I'm paid more. Don't hire the cheapest lawyer and then refuse to pay the bill because they didn't handle your case like the most expensive lawyer.
9. If you are running out of money for your case, talk to your lawyer. Don't let the bill continue to increase while you hide your head in the sand. We know the process is expensive. We know your finances better than do you. We would rather not be stuck with a huge receivable or have to withdraw from your case because we're not being paid. Have a conversation with your lawyer and see what other payment arrangements can be made. Don't be embarrassed - we'd so much rather have that conversation with you now than sue you later or leave you in a lurch. Maybe they'll work out the bill with you and maybe they won't. but isn't it better to know?
10. Be an educated consumer. Read what's sent or given to you. Ask questions. Learn your options. take an active part in your case. It is your life and your money, after all. Here in the Trenches.
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
As you all know by now, every year, Daughter and I run the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend at Disney World in Florida. In late February. The weather in late February in Central Florida is much like the weather in the rest of the country - unpredictable. You would think as a Florida native, I would remember that, but I don't always. Such was the case a few years ago, when Disney named their Princess weekend for Frozen. It certainly was - frozen. The temperature for the 10K was below freezing. Did I bring appropriate clothing? Heavens no. I brought shorts and floppy sparkle skirts. What to do? Well, we could run in our planned costumes and looked adorable and frozen. We could have not run. Lucky for us, two things happened. First, we stopped at the outlets for our usual shop on the way to the race. What is usually on sale at Florida outlets? Cold weather gear, of course, and I used the opportunity to stock up on some things I needed to run in the fall and winter. I had them with me, in all their technicolor glory. Second, the rest of our family ran the morning before in the 5K, when it was even colder, and Disney thoughtfully supplied them with warming mylar blankets, which they saved for us. Daughter and I looked a little goofy (no pun intended), our costumes were totally messed up, but we made do with what we had and were able to run without freezing off body parts because running the race and doing it together was what was important. That's life.
That's also life in the Trenches. Many times here in the Trenches, one party wants something the other isn't willing to give. It might be money for support. It might be time with the children. Whatever it is, that party isn't going to get what they want at that moment. They may, however, get something less.....for now. For now doesn't mean forever. It really means for now. So what happens when the party says what they want and the other says they won't give that but they will give something else? Usually, the first reaction is to say "no." "No" is really the wrong answer. I really don't care if the other party is being totally and completely unreasonable. Saying "no" is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. I want the children half the time; you want me to have the children every other weekend. If I say "no," not only don't I see the children half the time, I don't see them at all. I want $1,000 in support; you want to pay $500. If I say "no," I not only don't get $1,000, I don't get anything. Making do with something temporarily, even if it's not everything you want, is probably better than nothing.
Wait a minute, you say. Are you telling me to give in to that dictator? Are you telling me not to fight for what I want? Are you saying I should just cave in? Of course not. However, if you have no court date for 3 months, or you just separated, or the attorneys haven't had an opportunity to help you determine and resolve the issues, then making do with what you have while making sure the other party knows that it is under protest and only because something is better than nothing, may be what you have to do to stay in the running and continue to move forward. You're doing it for now, and only for now, and maybe that "now" has a defined time limit. Honestly, do you want to tell a judge that because you couldn't get your way, you just decided not to see the kids? Or would you rather show a judge how unreasonable the other parent was and that you took what time you could because being with your children was important to you? Would you rather have the other parent say you are incapable of caring for the children without the ability to disprove their statement, or would you rather you take less time and make them eat their words? Again, defining your goals early on and deciding what is most important to you, will help you determine whether saying "no," even just for now, is the right choice, or if settling for something less than ideal in the short term will further your goals. The knee jerk reaction is not usually the better course, and even those of us who toil here have to remind ourselves of that. Here in the Trenches.
Monday, June 5, 2017
I know I talk a lot about dogs and their owners, most recently here. It's true, however. There is an attorney for every client and a client for every attorney. What you're looking for is an attorney who talks so you can understand, who shares your approach to the divorce process and your values. Just as there are so many different people, so are there different attorneys. I've really struggled to illustrate this point for you, because there aren't a lot of blogs out there that have the right tone, but finally I can. I want to talk to you about a friend of mine here in the Trenches, Lindsay Parvis.
I love Lindsay. She has been the legislative liaison for the family law section of the bar association for years. Lindsay loves researching legislation. She follows the cases, the statutes. She loves researching the nuances of new laws. OK, she's a bit of a legislative nerd - and that's a good thing. Lindsay loves all of that, and she's incredibly generous with her knowledge. Me? I love reading her reports, so I know what to research in more detail. That woman saves all of us hours of incredibly detailed reading. Bless her.
She's more than the Bar's researcher, however. She's an incredibly good and passionate advocate for her clients. She cares deeply about them and their fates. As well as Lindsay communicates her wealth of information and knowledge to other attorneys, she has labored to find her voice to the world at large in order to share her knowledge and also her compassion. Recently, she's absolutely found it, and I've discovered a wonderful example for you of the differences in attorneys. Lindsay's writings are wonderful to read. Her insights are thought provoking, yet entertaining. Her personality as an attorney shines through. Go to her Facebook page and read a few posts. Yet, her voice is very different from mine, just as is her approach to clients. Is she a wonderful attorney? But of course. So, why am I saying this in my blog? Why am I saying lovely things about my competition? Because she's not. my. competition. Hear her voice and hear mine. They are not the same and neither are our clients. Read her posts and read mine. You'll see what I mean. Dogs and their owners. Here in the Trenches.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Whenever I talk about process, I like to think of myself as The Process Girl, kind of like Julia Roberts was The Safety Girl in Pretty Woman. I know, pretty presumptuous of me, but I can dream. After this week, I am thinking of myself more like Wonder Woman, but with a big P on the chest of my costume. Why the change? Well, in Pretty Woman, Vivian was The Safety Girl more as an incidental part of what she did. The letter on the chest of Wonder Woman's costume reflected the innermost essence of what she was; and that's how I feel about process. I can deal with being Lynda Carter too.
This week, the importance of process was driven home to me twice. Let's back up and talk process again. No, not the type of process, like a dispute resolution mechanism, but the process of deciding itself. You see, it doesn't matter whether a person resolves their disputes around the kitchen table, or through mediation, collaborative process, lawyer to lawyer negotiation or litigation; the steps of the process is still the same:
1. Identify your goals, hopes, wants and needs, both from the process and for your life moving forward;
2. Develop the questions that need to be answered in order to realize those goals, hopes, wants and needs;
3. Determine and gather the information necessary to answer the questions you have asked;
4. Brainstorm without evaluating all possible solutions of the issues by using the information gathered to answer the questions needed to meet your goals, hopes, wants and needs;
5. Evaluate the possible solutions in order to meet resolution.
We call the five steps of the process different things depending on what kind of dispute resolution method we use. The steps may take different formats. But, and this is a big but, you MUST go through all the steps in order. Sure, sometimes we need to circle back based on what information is discovered, but the steps are always the same and in the same order. You cannot shortcut it - EVER.
Here's what happens when you try to shortcut the process - people get upset. They get really upset. and they get derailed You see, the steps of the process have multiple purposes; perhaps the most important of which is that it forces people to disengage their reactive, primitive reptile brain and engage the more evolved, rational part of their being. In other words, the steps of the process help folks be less emotional because they are focusing on something concrete. It helps people operate from a place of fact and information and not simply pain, shame and disappointment. It's empowering to be fully informed, and jump starts the analytical brain so people can make their own decisions.
Twice this week, clients attempted to shortcut the process; it wasn't pretty and it wasn't productive. Reminding people that there is a process, that we will get to where they want to go, and letting them know when that will be, is tremendously reassuring. Once clients know their concern is on the radar, that it will be addressed and when, they can relax. That helps motivate them to gather and synthesize information and make decisions. That's the beauty of the process. It's why I'm The Process Girl. Here in the Trenches.
Monday, May 15, 2017
You know I'm a bit of a Disney geek. We go every February for the Princess race weekend. When I lived in Florida, we went a few times a year. This year, I'm going with the ladies here in the Trenches.
When I plan the Princess weekend, I plan the weekend. I do it all. It is exhausting work. I call Disney. I spend interminable hours on the phone with their customer service. I arrange the dining, the rooms, the transportation, the park tickets. Even though I love planning the trip, there is no one to share the burden of the details. There is no one to help me vet all the choices. It's taken me years to learn everything I know about planning a Disney vacation. What you may not know about Disney is that they are remarkably bad about sharing information with their customer service representatives. Many times, I know more than them. They are not told when certain tickets will become available, or when certain discounts hit their servers. They don't know about all of the special events available to guests. If you're lucky and get one who has been there a while, they have some first hand knowledge of the resorts, but mostly, you're on your own. Yes, they are wonderfully nice and try to be helpful, but by and large, the customer service representatives aren't given the facts they need to really, really help you, as opposed to just making your reservation. So, for me, it can be lonely and stressful to make all the plans. Don't get me wrong, I love the research, I love making the plans; it's just a bit overwhelming.
For this Fall's trip, I decided to try DVC Rentals. They sell people's Disney Vacation Club (timeshare) points to folks like me. You rent a vacation club lodging by buying their points. It is supposed to be somewhat cheaper than renting a hotel room at the same resort at Disney, and as I love their deluxe resorts, saving money is good. Any way, I contacted them. Lauren Enochs answered my inquiry. I explained my requirements; she made suggestions as to appropriate lodgings, based on our needs, availability of the lodgings, and type of resort. She helped me compare choices. I made my choice and made a reservation. Work done, right? Wrong. Lauren sent me an email when it was time to make my dining reservations, so I wouldn't miss out. She answered my email about the dining plan (on a Saturday, no less). She obtained a quote for me for park tickets. She arranged my transportation from the airport. All I had to do was email her. No hours on the phone with Disney. No waiting on hold. I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I could focus on making this the best trip ever, as opposed to dealing with the minutiae of the logistics of getting us there and sheltered. My goodness, what a difference it made having Lauren there. Even though I knew what to do, it was so much better to share the chore with someone I could trust to know at least as much as I, if not more. I will never plan my Disney trip alone again without my guide.
Getting a divorce is kind of like planning a trip to Disney. Sure, you could do it yourself. It will take you years and years of research to learn all of information you need to know to make an informed decision. It will take over your life. Maybe you won't understand everything you learn. You need a customer service representative to help you. The trick is to find the right representative. You could call around and find an attorney. Maybe you'll be lucky and find one who has been around a while and knows the lay of the land and the latest developments in the law. Maybe you'll get someone who doesn't, and if that's the case, the stress you feel in dealing with your divorce or custody matter may not be relieved. You'll sense there is something more, something you're not getting. You wonder if you're getting all you should. What you want, what you need, is a Lauren. You need someone who knows the law, knows the ropes. You need someone who tries to understand you, tries to understand what you need. You need someone who speaks your language, who makes you feel safe and cared for. When you find that lawyer, that is the lawyer for you. You may have to go through a lot of interviews with a lot of
Wednesday, May 3, 2017
I'm down here in beautiful Savannah, enjoying continuing legal education and the company of my colleagues and friends from around the country. One of my friends commented that my blogging has been a bit spotty over the last few months, and he was wondering what was up. This friend rarely "likes" any of my posts, and doesn't comment; he describes himself as a lurker on my blog. I knew he read my blog on occasion, but until he told me this, I was not overtly aware that he was a regular reader.
I'm not only attending this conference, I am also presenting. My topic is locating the military servicemember in order to start a family law case. One of the methods I talked about was seeing if the servicemember has a Facebook page, Twitter account, or other social media account. Lots of folks have them, and usually they have them well prior to a family law case being commenced. Part of having these accounts is adding "friends" and building a community of contacts. Most people never look at their friends list after they have added people to the list. Some people never even set their privacy settings. As a result, unless someone "likes" their posts, most people don't remember who is on their friends list, and thus, who has access to the information on their social media pages. Many times, their spouse, friends of their spouse, family of their spouse, friends of friends of their spouse are seeing everything posted, and only if they're stupid are they "liking" or commenting online. I know I have 237 friends on Facebook, and maybe fewer than 10 ever comment on or "like" my posts. That means 227 people are seeing what I'm putting online, and saying nothing. If my privacy settings weren't enabled, the world could see what I post. Wow, what a treasure trove of potential evidence exists online! As a attorney, I'm not allowed to create a phantom profile in order to be "friended" by the opposing party. I am also not permitted to tell a client to remove their social media pages, because that would be destruction of evidence.
In light of all of the above, what am I telling you? Periodically review your privacy settings. Periodically review who you have allowed to view your online social media, and edit it when there is a major life event that affects your social network and familial ties. Be judicious about what you post online; don't post it if you don't want it to be the subject of your deposition or brought up in testimony in court. Remember that everything you say can and will be used against you in your custody or divorce case. Let the poster beware. Here in the Trenches.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
It's time to revisit process. Remember, I'm the process girl. The most important part of any process for dispute resolution is the first step: clarifying your interests and goals for the resolution of the dispute. If you don't take your time with this step and really flesh it out, then you have no idea what represents an acceptable resolution. You might obtain a resolution or ask a judge for a result that doesn't actually meet your needs. Do you want that to happen? Do you want to spend the time and effort (and many times, money) on resolving the dispute, only to find it doesn't work for you? Heck no.
Here's the other thing, no matter what the process choice, settlement is ALWAYS a possibility, even if you're going to litigation, even if it's the first day of trial. If you know your goal and the interests that underlie it, you can assess options quickly, make tweaks to proposals and make decisions efficiently. If you don't, you're destined to spin your wheels and dither (I hate dithering, even though I'm probably guilty of it myself).
I was reminded of all of this yesterday. I had a case with an attorney who is renowned for taking little to no interest in a case until the day of trial. Now, this attorney is a really good trial attorney, and he has other attorneys who prepare the case for trial so he can just show up and try it. He is, however, the only attorney on his side with any authority to reach a settlement. That means that if you want to settle with this attorney, you are necessarily unable to do so until the night before trial or the morning of trial. That's tricky, because if you use your trial time to try and settle and don't settle the case, you have lost your trial slot and won't get another for month, and you will have annoyed the court. Usually, a delay and pissing off the court are not in your client's best interest. Ergo, if you're going to try to settle, you had better be reasonably certain it's possible, and more, that you know whether it's going to happen in a reasonably short period of time. The only way that can happen is if you know your client's goal for the representation. As I like to say, a case about the money is never really about the money; the money stands for something.
What does all this mean for you? It means that you want your attorney to spend a lot of time getting to know you, getting to know what is important to you, discovering what is working and not working about your present circumstance and why. You want your attorney to dig deep with you about your hopes, wishes and dreams. I know, that doesn't sound like "legal" work; it may feel like it takes a lot of time. Maybe you feel like it's a waste of time. It's not. Spending that time with you lays important groundwork that enables you to settle your case in a way that meets your core needs, and it lets us here in the Trenches work efficiently. Spending the time now will save you time, effort and money later. It's a worthwhile investment in your future. Here in the Trenches.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Daughter asked me to write a guest post on her fitness blog about the effect strength and balance training had on my running (see my post and her excellent blog here). After I wrote my post, I
took leave of my senses and thought it would be a great idea to have her write a post for my blog about her perspective and experiences as a child of divorce. No sooner had I hit the send button on my text when I realized the huge risk I was taking. What if her father and I not only turned her world upside down by divorcing, but we also totally screwed up the aftermath? To say I was concerned would be to put it mildly. Still, I promised myself that because she published my entire post without changes, I would do the same for hers. Without further comment, here are Daughter's thoughts - Here in the Trenches.
I'm not your average child of divorce. When it was announced to me and my brother that my parents were getting a divorce, a word very common in our household since both parents are family law attorneys, we handled it very differently. My ten year old brother got the news and started crying, a pretty typical reaction, but my five year old mind immediately went "yay! I get two of everything!" As well, not only was my reaction different, but our situation was different. My mother moved away as far as I could ever imagine... just kidding she moved into a house on literally the next street over. Throughout my childhood, until my father moved, I was able to pretty much move freely between the houses if I forgot anything or needed to go over. I'm not sure if it's because of their knowledge of the situation, or just because they were able to handle it well, but my parents were always able to go to back to school night and be in the same room, or go to school events and be civil and say "hi," which definitely helped the strange divide in our family.
Just because my parents know better doesn't mean they always made the right decisions however. You can know everything in the world, but when it comes to your family, your emotions can cause you to act in ways that you weren't expecting. Your divorce attorney, or best interest attorney, or family friend who's gotten divorced twice and is hoping third time's the charm (fingers crossed!) can tell you everything right, or wrong, but sometimes it still doesn't resonate with you. During my thirteen years as a child of divorce (until i turned 18, then I was technically an adult of divorce but that sounds weird), I've learned the good and bad. Hopefully my experience, one that has virtually no memory of my family together, but also one that has knowledge of divorce and what to do and what not, can help with the hardest parts of divorce.
For the parentals:
Listen to your children. I know that seems like a duh of course I should do that, but I feel like many parents think they're listening, but are doing anything but. When the divorce is fresh, you're scrambling. Scrambling to adjust to your new life, maybe starting a new job, maybe in a new area, so I get it. You have a lot on your mind. But you know who else does? Your child. And if your child is anything like I was, he/she doesn't want to put anymore stress on you or "bother" you with anything until its too late. Too late = (for me) hysterical meltdown complete with incomprehensible sobbing so not really getting that point across anyways. The point of this, at dinner, go for a walk with the dogs, go get your nails did, but talk. Actually talk.
Keep some consistency. I know, you're like come on. You just told me that I'm scrambling to adjust to a new life, how do I keep consistent? It doesn't have to be hard. I'm talking as easy as Sunday night dinners. My father and I consistently went to hockey games. It was something we enjoyed doing together and we could just immerse ourselves in the game. It wasn't a time to talk, just time with my dad. My mother and I went through a rough patch and getting back together, we went and got our nails done every Sunday. I looked forward to those Sundays and it gave my life a bit of structure and it was fun times with my busy as heck momma.
Have fun. Divorce is hard. It's hard on you, it's hard on your kids, it's hard on teachers who don't know who to send home letters to, it's hard for the mailman who's trying to find you, it's just hard. However, that doesn't mean your life is just a big hole of stress and darkness. You need to find some fun. Like I said in the last tip, I had fun with my parents. We had our own time to enjoy and to destress. My parents were busy. They both had their own businesses, taking people through the process our family was going through, and it took a lot of their time away from me and my brother. The times I remember from my childhood were the few really bad moments, but they were scattered in with really great times with each parent.
Para los children:
Speak up. My big mouth has gotten me into more trouble than I can even count. However, the reason it's gotten me into big trouble is because I waited too long to say anything. I waited until my distress had built up so much that whenever I opened my mouth it was a huge sobbing/yelling/screaming fit. If I had just talked to my parents about things that were bothering me, instead of thinking I was bothering them with my feelings and shenanigans, it would have saved my household a lot of stress in an already stressful time.
Be flexible. I know that you're the child and they're the parents and they're supposed to cater to you, but (again) this is a tough time for everyone. The amount of stress and emotion they are under through this whole process has the tendency to cloud judgement and make them a bit strange for a bit. You just need to roll with the punches (not literally and only to a point) and be flexible with how your parents are handling things for a while. Maybe work got in the way of your dance recital, but they sent grandma to record it to watch it later. I know it's not the same, believe me, but you need to realize they are doing their best. And if you feel like they aren't, say something.
Accept change. I hate change. I'm a huge creature of habit and I don't like my life being uprooted. Maybe that stems from the constant change in my childhood with the family shenanigans, but whatever the reason, I hate change. But when your life is changing the most it could possibly change when you're a kid (aka any time before 18), you can't fight the change. If you do, you're going to be miserable. I know you were used to life as it was, but you need to be flexible and roll with it. Your parents are going to move, they're going to move on aka they're going to meet someone else that isn't your other parent, and the best thing you can do is stay positive that this is a good change and accept it.
The last thing I can say for both sides is that, this is possibly the hardest thing your family will go through. And the most important thing to remember is the love in your family. Just because your parents don't love each other like that anymore, doesn't mean they love you any less. Just because your children are acting out and saying how much they hate you (sorry mom), they don't. They just don't know how to express themselves in this situation. Your family is still your family, no matter what, and just remember the love and remember to love each other.
Monday, April 10, 2017
Today, I was a witness in a trial. I hate being a witness. There is nothing so nerve-wracking as sitting in that witness box. Do I look at the judge or at the attorney? Am I speaking up? What if I don't knew the answer to a question? What will the other side ask me. Nerve-wracking. I did fine, but it got me thinking on what it takes to be a good witness. Here are 10 Tips.
1. Speak loudly, slowly and clearly. Those microphones do not necessarily amplify; they are there to record. Some of us are a bit on the hard of hearing side, and if you speak quickly, you are probably not speaking clearly, and I will have to ask you to repeat yourself. It's even worse if the Judge has to ask you to repeat yourself....continuously.
2. Look at whomever makes you most comfortable. I was a judge at this year's high school mock trial competition, and all of the coaches must have told their students to direct their testimony to the judge. Having them all stare at me when they answered questions was a lot forced and made me a bit uncomfortable. When I testify, I look at whomever is asking me the question and occasionally, at the judge. It just feels more natural for me. Do what feels natural to you.
3. Control your facial expression. Just because the witness box may be below where the judge is sitting or directly to their side, or just because the judge appears to be focused on the paper in front of them, do not assume they aren't watching you. They can see you, and part of how they view your testimony is how you act.
4. Listen to the question and answer only that question. Take a deep breath. Calm yourself. Really listen to what is being asked of you, and answer it. Don't answer the question you think they should be asking. Don't answer more than the question, even if you think it helps. If they need to, they'll ask a follow-up. Remember, the answer to the question, "Do you know what day it is?" is "yes," not the name of the day.
5. Don't argue with the questioner. Just answer the question. The judge wants the information; and they don't want to have to play referee to get it. Remember, even if it is the opposing party or their attorney asking you the question, they are doing their jobs in the courtroom. It's not personal.
6. Don't play word games with the questioner. That semantics crap just annoys everyone. If a word has a common meaning and it is used in the usual way, don't play games. Just answer the question.
7. Don't be afraid to ask to have the question rephrased or repeated. Sometimes, questioners think they are really clear in their questioning, because after all, they know what they're asking. Problem is, sometimes, that's not so clear to our listener. It's OK, ask us to say it a different way or to repeat it.
8. Don't guess. If you don't know, say you don't know. Don't do it with every question, or you violate rule #6. It's OK not to know or remember everything.
9. If the other side says "objection," STOP TALKING IMMEDIATELY. Let the Judge and the attorneys discuss the issue. If the objection is sustained, don't answer the question. If it is overruled, go ahead and respond, but not until the Judge rules. Maybe I would be rich if I had a dime for every time a witness tried to explain why what they were about to say wasn't really objectionable. I'm an attorney, and I don't even chime in on those discussions; I just check out my cuticles, or the way that bug is crawling across the witness stand, or how great the clerk looks in the blouse she's wearing. I digress, but you get the picture. Be quiet.
10. Don't worry if you said something you think may be harmful, or didn't say something you should have. The side that called you as a witness has two chances to either get out all the information or fix a mistake. They call you for your direct testimony, and then after the other side cross examines you, they get to ask you rebuttal questions. If they don't ask you anything on rebuttal, it means that whatever you are worrying about your testimony wasn't bad enough for your side to need to fix, so you can relax. Let the attorney worry about what is enough and what hurts the case.
11. A bonus for you. Please dress at least in the style known as business casual. The court and the process deserves the respect of pants without holes, shoes with toes if you're a man, blouses and hemline that leave something to the imagination, and pants below the knees. It's not the grocery store on a Saturday.
Here in the Trenches.
Monday, April 3, 2017
I just had to file suit in one of my cases here in the Trenches. We had attended mediation and made some progress. Then we stalled. Some people did some things they shouldn't have done and it destroyed whatever tenuous trust existed between the two spouses. My client no longer believed anything that came out of the other spouse's mouth, including any of the underlying information on which we had based our prior negotiations. My client needed to see the numbers - under penalties of perjury. That's all there is to it. So, I filed and I asked the other attorney if they would accept service of the court papers. There are two points I want to make based on what happened after that.
You see, the first thing that happened was that the other attorney, who I have known and trusted for many years, called and email me so we could talk. The second thing that happened was that I called her. She wanted to know what was up and why. I told her. She then said two things: first, tell me what documents you need to see and I'll get them for you; and second, please send me another settlement proposal so we can continue to narrow the space between our clients' positions and meet their needs. She knew I didn't make the decision to file lightly and that simply because I filed didn't mean we were in all out war.
The first take away for the client from all of this is that you really, really want your attorney to not only know the other attorney, but also to respect and get along with them. It is your best option for a settlement that works for both you and your spouse. This attorney and I trust each other. We both know that we both know the practice of family law. We both know want to help our clients be OK and move forward with their lives (not all attorneys share this philosophy). We can believe that the other will not take an action without a good reason. We know the other will not ramp it up without a conversation, and we will never shut down those avenues. All of this is vital to making sure the clients get what they need, and that they get what they need in a cost effective way. If this attorney and I did not have the relationship we do, there would be no offers of document production or continuing conversations at this stage of the game. No, we would simply retreat to our corners and start churning out discovery, which in case you all missed it, is a huge money maker for us. We'd be preparing for a 4 day trial, another big money maker, without any effort at settlement except what the court requires. If I don't trust what you say, I won't trust what you'll do.
The second takeaway is that the choice of process can be very fluid in family law. There are very few, if any, process choices that are irrevocable or which cannot encompass other process choices. Sometimes, mediation fails to reach a full settlement, and the case settles with lawyer-to-lawyer negotiation. Sometimes, mediation fails to reach a full settlement, the court process starts, and then parties return to mediation. Sometimes, folks start in court and end up in collaboration. Sometimes, they start in collaboration, move to court and end up in mediation. I always say there is a process choice that is right for every person; it's an art (and sometimes trial and error) to figure out which one it is in a given case. I don't think using any process, even if it is not the one that leads directly to a durable agreement, is wrong. Even in this case, I see a value in our attending mediation. Each process helps the client and the attorney move forward toward resolution; thankfully the other attorney in my case and I see our movement from mediation in the same way. Here in the Trenches.
Monday, March 27, 2017
Like many of us here in the Trenches, I think I'll scream if one more parent who pays child support tells me that they're pissed because the other parent isn't even spending their child support on the children. It usually goes something like this: "I pay my child support, and it's a lot of money, and the other parent told our child he/she can't afford to buy them "X." What are they using the money for? I certainly don't see our child in new clothes, and you should see the state of their shoes. My ex, on the other hand, just bought a new car; is that where my money is going?"" OK, let's put the myth that child support is for the direct, palpable expenses of the child to rest right now; it isn't. Perhaps a history lesson is in order here, because that's usually where I go first.
Way back in the dark ages, before 1990 or so, there were no child support guidelines, and child support was up to the discretion of the judge. No disrespect to judges intended here, but most of them had no clue how much it costs to raise a child. Most of them set child support so low that the custodial parent couldn't afford the ordinary expenses of their household and ended up on federal entitlements like food stamps, welfare and medicaid. It cost the federal government a lot of money, so they government decided to do something about it; they tied federal highway funding to the passage by each state of laws that standardized the amounts of child support through their state. Lo and behold, each and every state wanted highway funding, so they passed some form of child support guidelines. Those guidelines are a formula that represent the legislature's best guess of how much it costs on average around the state to raise children. By "raise children" what we mean is the incremental cost of a larger home, more utilities usage, higher grocery bills, more transportation costs of having additional human beings in a home, along with the direct costs of clothing, haircuts, medical copays and the like. Their purpose is so that the child enjoys a relatively comparable standard of living in both houses; it's really not OK that they live like royalty in one house and like a pauper in the other. Yes, child support can be a huge financial burden, and it feels really unfair to be paying so much money and see no benefit. After all, when you spend that much money, you want to be able to quantify what you're getting. I can't help you with the amount of support; that was set by the legislature. Let me help you with seeing a benefit for you financial sacrifice. What you're getting is your child having a decent place to live, electricity and running water, clothes on their back, a reliable car in which to ride, and a co-parent who isn't quite so stressed out about finding the funds with which to do that. Your child benefits from all of that because of you. That's priceless. Here in the Trenches.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
What I hope for them is that they retain the optimism they had today. We were fortunate that the judge insisted that even though we had a signed agreement, the parents nonetheless come before him so he could ensure that they understood their undertaking and its importance. The judge did a masterful job. He asked each parent questions about their son that made them smile. He talked to each of them about the struggles their son was enduring; he opined that parental conflict probably made those problems worse. He asked them about the terms of the agreement and made sure they understood their undertaking. He warned them about what would likely happen if they failed to obey the order they were entering. He made them smile and he made them tear up. I hope he caused them to soberly reflect. They left the courtroom a little lighter and with some hope. I wish for them that the actions they take justify that hope. Here in the Trenches.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
There was a time in my life (and I know this is going to make me sound old) when, if you told someone to dress like they were going to church, or like they were going to travel, or they were going to work, you knew they would be dressed appropriately for court. You knew that the men would be wearing dress slacks and either a button down shirt or a polo, and the women would be wearing nice slacks or a skirt with a blouse. If you were lucky, the men would come in a tie and the women would wear a dress. Back in the old days, we knew that the way you dressed when you showed up demonstrated the respect you had for the institution. Those days are gone. Mother lives near our local Catholic Church, and I am often running by there as folks are arriving for mass. The way they dress appalls me: cutoffs and bikini tops (it is Florida), jean shorts, "distressed" jeans, running clothes., and the like. When I travel, I see folks dressed in their pajamas. So now, instead of just telling clients to dress like they're going to church or work, I have to spell it out. Oh, I know, everyone dresses down these days. Not in court when you're my client. Shorts and sandals? Heavens no, especially not for men. Momma told me you only get one chance to make a first impression. If you don't think the judges notice what you wear and decide whether it's appropriate, please think again. If you don't think that what you look like in the courtroom influences how the judge sees your case, please think again.
While we're on that subject, don't ever think the judge doesn't notice what's going on in their courtroom. Sure, they may look like they are intent on the witness in the witness box. That doesn't mean they don't notice you rolling your eyes, or mouthing "liar", or taking and receiving texts (yes, all those things have happened). Judges are like your momma - they have eyes in the back of their heads, they can see through closed eyelids, they hear that mutter under your breath that you thought no one heard. One of the reasons that it is so darned difficult to overturn a judge's decision on appeal is that the appellate court defers to the individual who had, not only the opportunity to hear the evidence, but also the ability to observe the witnesses and assess the demeanor of the litigants in their courtroom and on the stand. Don't believe me? Read about 100 published appellate opinions and I guarantee you will, because that's what they say. There are so many ways to win or lose a case. Why would you let how you look and how you behave, instead of the facts, determine the outcome of your case? Just my $.02. Here in the Trenches.
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
One of the first documents I ask clients to prepare here in the Trenches is their financial statement. "What is a financial statement," you ask? Simply put, it's a budget. You know, one of those things we're told every household should prepare and use, but almost none of them do....until you're getting a divorce. Then, it's one of those documents that you are required to file with the court. Preparing one of these financial statements is a daunting task, as in most jurisdictions it is 8 or so pages long. Lots of clients try to half-ass it and guesstimate the dollar figures. In my office, that doesn't fly. I've been in the Trenches for almost thirty years, and I've seen hundreds of financial statements. I know what numbers look reasonable and what don't (just a hint - any financial statement in which all the entries end in zero or five don't pass muster).
Oh, I hear you saying that it's just a stupid form, so why put any effort into it? Well, because it's not just a stupid form. It is perhaps one of the most important documents you'll create. How can I know how much alimony you'll need, if I don't know your expenses? How can I know how much alimony you can afford to pay if I don't know your expenses? You want to keep the house? Terrific, but can you afford it? The financial statement lets me know. Were you and your spouse living beyond your means and we need to talk about more realistic expectations for the future? Will you be able to add to your retirement, post divorce? Yup, all things the financial statement tells me - if you put the effort into it to do it right. Otherwise, you're right, it's just a form.
So, get out your checkbook, your credit card statements, your bank statements. Take a look at your historic spending. Think you'll need to move? Look into housing costs where you might want to live. Is your car on its last legs? Look into the cost of car payments for a newer one. Footnote the heck out of your financial statement. Be as accurate as possible. Help me to help you. Here in the Trenches.