Monday, March 27, 2017

Whatever is Child Support For?

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

Hope Springs Eternal

I thought I was trying a case today and tomorrow.  I thought there was no way to settle it.  This case had gone on for 4 years, almost without abatement.  The parents have been caught in a cycle of pain and disappointment.  One is trying their darndest to break the cycle; the other is too hurt to move beyond the pain.  Their child is suffering mightily.  My client thought there was no hope of moving forward and had no choice but to ask the court to make a choice between the two parents.  It wasn't what she wanted, but without cooperation from the other parent, it was what she had to do.  At the last minute, we were able to resolve the dispute.  Is the resolution perfect?  No.  Is it possible everything we put into place to help these parents move forward might fall apart?  Yes. Might they never get out of their cycle?  Possibly.  Sometimes, there is no happily ever after.  Sometimes, you do the best you can and hope for the best.  If they can adhere to the consent order we entered today, there is hope for this family and for their child.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

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

Trial Tuesday - Watch Your Ps and Qs in Court

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

Wednesday Workings - Why Your Financial Statement is Important

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.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Monday Meditations - I'm Back....Really

I'm back...really this time.  I was getting pretty burned out over this blog, and all of the mishegas over the election and its aftermath was just overwhelming.  I can always count on the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend to get me back on track.  I'm trying a new format, so we'll see how this works.

This year's Princess was odd.  Daughter's best friend decided that weekend was a great one for her wedding, plus Daughter badly sprained her wrist, so Daughter didn't run.  My Cousin broke out in a full body of hives, so she didn't run either.  That just left me.  Which made for a different kind of race weekend.  You see, as I've told you before, Daughter hates to run.  Disney staggers the starts of their races according to how fast they think you are going to finish.  You let them know your speed by providing a finish time for a comparable race.  The only two races Daughter usually runs in a year are the Princess 10K and the half marathon.  What happens is that she runs all out during the 10k, so she'll have a good starting position for next year.  That means we stop for almost no photo opportunities and we run hard.  Because she doesn't normally run, the next day, she's sore, so we don't stop much during the half marathon because she's worried she won't be able to finish.  We have fun because we're together,  but sometimes I don't feel like we get the full experience.

I always run a race for time during the year, just to see what starting position Disney will give me, and so I can see how well I'm training.  My starting position is usually pretty good (which tells you not how fast I run, but how slow everyone else is).  This year was no different.  I ran easy.  I stopped for lots of photo opportunities.  I chatted with other runners.  I had a different kind of fun.  Because Daughter missed this year, she needs another race during the year for a Disney starting position.  We're going to see if we can push her in that race so she can have the same kind of experience I had this year - and we can have it together.

Oh right, the Trenches.  What does this have to do with the Trenches?  C'mon, it hasn't been THAT long since I've written.  Process determines outcome, both in the Trenches and beyond.  What determines process are your goals.  Daughter runs our races a certain way because of the outcome she needs.  I run my way because I have a different desired outcome.  One client can mediate, while another has to litigate.  A client could mediate but chooses to collaborate.  Each process requires different things from the client and the lawyer, and so some are not suited to given clients or lawyers because of their needs or their goals (or the behavior or needs of the other party).  Each process resolves the dispute, but does it in different ways, and those ways provide very different experiences. The first decision for any client is just like for my Daughter and me - what kind of race/process do you  want or need?  That choice determines the experience.  Here in the Trenches.