Thursday, November 1, 2018

Preparing for the Holidays with the Kids

In Texas, most divorce court orders have very detailed and explicit plans for how holiday time with the children is divided between the parents. The standard language has been developed over time and is based on common problems and the best solutions that had been developed over the years.

Some of the provisions are a little unwieldy -- not surprising since they came out of the legal system. Still, they provide a good standard for people to consider. Keep in mind that almost every possession schedule order says that the parties can follow any plan they come up with, as long as they agree. The formal order is the backup in case they are not in agreement.

What should you do if you anticipate a possible issue?

1.  You need to start now. The holidays are approaching. In November, we have anywhere from 2 or 3 days off to 10 days off from school and sometimes work. The standard order allows each parent to have Thanksgiving every other other year. In December, in addition to various family gatherings, we have an extended time off from school that extends into January.  Families have different traditions and preferences regarding the holidays and usually can make accommodations that work for both parents. Usually the December vacation time is split approximately in half.

2.  Situations change.  As time passes, circumstances change. There are new marriages, moves, new jobs, new kids and kids may age out -- moving out for college or work or relationships. These changes, or even new events, create a need to sometimes modify what has worked in the past.  The first of November is a great time to look ahead and do some planning if you see the possible need to adjust the possession times for the holidays.

3.  Time to consult.  This is a good time to meet with your attorney if you anticipate you or your ex needing to make some changes in the holiday schedules.  You can get an interpretation of the current order and plan how to approach your ex or how to respond if your ex approaches you.  It is so much better to deal with these issues early in November than to wait until Thanksgiving week or the week the kids get out of school in December.

Holidays are emotional times. Everyone, especially including the kids, will benefit by the parents planning ahead and working together to make any necessary adjustments.

Monday, October 1, 2018

A Fresh Start

There are a lot of difficult and unpleasant aspects to divorce.  How's that for an understatement?

But, you can work to make something positive about divorce.  In any marriage, there are positives and negatives. During a divorce, the negatives become the focus and it's often hard to see anything good coming out of it.

The longer you stay in the negatives, the more depressing a divorce can become. The solution is to shift gears and change your focus, which is often easier said than done.

Here are three little tips to help you start your divorce and post-divorce life in a better direction.

1.  Remember what went well during your marriage. Sometimes, it's hard to remember anything positive, but you should be able to with a little effort.  Maybe there were some fun family events or travel, or maybe you learned some fun or useful skills. Maybe you helped someone else.  Whatever it was, it will help you now to focus on those good times rather than the bad aspects of your relationship. Acknowledging your successes will help reinforce your confidence that you can do good things with your life.

2.  Make a few goals.  You can improve your focus by planning for the next year, two or three years or five years.  If you have difficulty with that much time, plan the next 30, 60 or 90 days.  Make some plans and have something positive to work on that you will enjoy and which you can look forward to. The planning can help you change your attention away from the negativity of a divorce.

3.  Be optimistic.  Work on changing your expectations.  Instead of thinking of all the bad things that can happen, start thinking about the good things that can come your way.  You will see a lot more happy things if you are looking for them. Also, don't hang around with or talk to friends who constantly focus on how bad things are. I'm not suggesting you ignore reality, but I am suggesting you should put most of your attention on good things that are happening or which can happen. It will help make your life happier!

Going through a divorce makes you start over in many ways. You can choose a lot about your outcome in the divorce.  Make it a positive, fresh start!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Why Does Mediation Work?

In almost every family law case in Tarrant County, TX, and many other places, the Court will require the parties to attend mediation before they can go to trial.

Mediation, as you may know, is a dispute resolution process outside of court. A neutral 3rd party works with both sides to help them reach an agreement on the issues they disagree about. The mediator does not make any decisions or rulings like a Judge. Instead, the mediator asks questions.  The mediator helps the parties look at things differently and helps them focus on solutions.

Mediation is almost always successful.  It sounds like a very simple process, but there are special reasons why it works.  Here are some of them.

1.  Neutral Expert.  The mediator does not represent or work for one side or the other.  The mediator seems to have more credibility with both parties because the mediator is neutral and has special training to gain skills needed to help people compromise and reach agreements with adversaries.

2.  Quicker Answers.  One reason why mediation can be successful is that it speeds up the negotiation process. Either the parties are all in direct communication in the same room or the mediator goes back and forth between separate rooms. Either way, the negotiations go much faster than discussions between attorneys in their own offices in different locations. It is much easier to keep the discussion going when there's little or no delay in waiting for a response.

3.  Focus. Mediations are usually limited to a certain amount of time.  Here, most mediations are for a day or a half day.  As time passes, momentum seems to increase. When people realize they are running out of time, they often get more agreeable and are willing to compromise.  Having the time limits does motivate people to get serious about settling.

4.  Informality.  Mediations are usually very informal.  Most family law mediations in Texas are done with the parties in separate rooms.  We don't follow the strict rules of evidence or procedure that are used in court. The informality allows the participants to be more comfortable and maybe more agreeable.

5.  Controlled by the parties.  There's no agreement unless both sides agree and accept the terms.  The parties can create unique solutions and have results very different from what would have probably happened in court.  The ability to fashion their own terms of agreement is one of the most important reasons why the process works. For most people, that is greatly preferred to just turning everything over to a Judge who doesn't know or care about either party.

These reasons explain part of the basis for mediation being so successful.  If  you have a family law case, you should plan for and look forward to your mediation!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Should I Wait...?

Sometimes the first step is the hardest to take.

Even if you have been considering divorce for a long time, or even if divorce suddenly seems like a necessity, you may have trouble deciding to start a divorce.  We all tend to stay with the status quo unless we become highly motivated to change.

This is a major, life-shaping decision and you should carefully consider the pros and cons.  You certainly shouldn't be forced into deciding to divorce.

Here are some considerations on either side of the start or stay decision.

Why Stay?

  • You saw value in this relationship in the beginning.  Can you still find value in it now? Can you can re-build the benefits to you?  Maybe the good still out-weighs the bad.
  • You have invested your love, energy and material possessions in the relationship.  You may not want to walk away from it.
  • Leaving may be damaging to your children or other family members. Ultimately, the decision comes back to you, but you shouldn't ignore the "collateral damage".
  • It might be bad timing right now.  Maybe you're not working or your finances are in really bad shape.  With a little time, you could get a job or save up some money.  Your health also might be bad right now.  You may need to time to heal or recover.  Also, there could be some family obligations, such as a wedding, birth or health crisis for someone else. All of these are legitimate reasons to wait.
On the other hand...

Why Now?

  • You can control the initial timing.  You can choose to start now and not give your spouse time to prepare or cause further problems. You wouldn't have to scramble in response to your spouse's surprise move.
  • You are able to plan and prepare.  You can set aside money and resources. You can get control of things that you want from the divorce.  You can plan your living arrangements and figure out what you want to start out with.
  • You can start on a peaceful basis.  If you want to minimize conflict, you can start with a peaceful, even Collaborative, gesture to try to keep the divorce on a less-destructive path.
Ultimately, you have to decide which path makes more sense to you.  However, if you are seriously considering divorce, you probably should take the first step now so you have more control over the process and the atmosphere that develops. A peaceful divorce is certainly a lot better than a surprise, antagonistic one. 

Whichever way you go, good luck!

Monday, January 1, 2018

How to Simplify Your Divorce

About this time of year, many people start evaluating their lives and come to the conclusion that they should get divorces. Or, maybe their spouse has come forward and announced that he/she wants a divorce.  If there's not immediate war, in many cases the spouses can choose a course of action that saves money and time, not to mention stress.

For those of you who don't want to spend your assets on fighting, here are some pointers on how to simplify your divorce.

1.  Don't start a war.  Be respectful and cooperative with each other. Carrying grudges and trying to exact revenge, even in small ways, will lead to anger and fighting.  That costs money and will make for a slower divorce as you end up arguing over more and more small points.

2.  Plan ahead.  How do you want things to end?  You might start off thinking everything will be divided 50-50, but that's often not the case.  If you have special needs, like temporary support or retirement assets or job training or insurance, you should work on an overall plan that helps you end up with what you need, rather than an arbitrary 50%.  Of course, that means you need to be considerate of your spouse's needs as well.

3.  Do it right the first time.  Unless yours is a very short marriage with no major assets and no kids, you need to work with a lawyer.  You may not want to spend the money and you may think you can do it yourself, but you really should at least consult with an attorney and probably hire one.  There's a lot a stake when you are getting divorced.  Like it or not, divorces are usually complicated.  You can avoid a lot of problems down the line by getting help as you go through the divorce process.

4.  Choose the right attorney.  I have written extensively in this blog and the Texas Collaborative Law Blog about how to choose an attorney.  Be sure the chemistry is right and the attorney communicates effectively with you.  Both attorneys and clients have different personalities and strengths.  Make sure the attorney you choose is the best for you and your case. One size doesn't fit all!

5.  Be willing to compromise.  It really helps if you spend some time looking at the case from your spouse's perspective.  It takes two to agree and normally neither of you can force the other to concede. Neither of you will get everything you want.  Work with your attorney to come up with a negotiating strategy that is respectful and strategic. To get most of what you want, be ready to compromise.

If you follow these tips, you can simplify your divorce and avoid getting bogged down in a really bad experience.  In fact, you should be able to have a good result, your spouse is more likely to be cooperative and maybe both of you can be friends (if that's what you want) post-divorce. Good luck!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Planning Ahead

People think about getting divorced at various times during the year.  It's usually good advice for people to take their time and make sure divorce is the right decision for them.  Once they reach that conclusion, then they need to decide on when to take the first step.

If pros and cons of divorce are being considered in November or December, timing can become an important factor, especially when there are children in the picture. Here are some topics to ponder when facing a possible divorce at the end of the year.

1.  Delaying the filing until January or February may be best for the children.  If you have children, you should think about how the stress of separation and divorce proceedings will affect their holidays.  No matter what age they may be, it is often better to delay filing until later, if you can.

2.  You need some time to consider the alternative processes for getting a divorce.  You shouldn't assume that litigation is the way to go.  In most cases, Collaborative Law is a better alternative. Mediation is also a great way to work out agreements. Do a little investigation, on line and by consulting with an attorney, before you jump in.

3.  Sometimes discussing the situation with your spouse can be effective.  Some couples are able to act like civilized adults and work out reasonable agreements informally at home.  If you are one of those couples, that's a great start.  Then you need help with the paperwork.

4.  Take time to learn about your finances.  In the near future, you will be living on your own and you and your soon-to-be-ex both need to have the financial means to survive.  While you have time, review your living expenses, debt and income possibilities.  Figure out a budget and think about how you would like assets divided.

5.  Consider attorneys.  Ask friends and professionals for referrals.  Research on line to find out as much as you can so you can decide who you might be comfortable with.  Look at the attorney's web site and blog (if he/she has one).  Check directories like AVVO, Yelp and Google+ for reviews. You can also find information about Collaborative attorneys on the web sites of Collaborative Divorce Texas and the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.  It helps to research before you go meet a prospective attorney.

If you have the time to think about a divorce before you file, you should carefully consider the issues listed above.  Meet with several attorneys and find out who you would like to work with and what to expect.  Mainly, don't rush in,  Educate yourself about the possibilities.  Good luck.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Can One Attorney Represent Both Parties in a Divorce?


Attorneys are trained to see both sides of an issue. Experienced attorneys have represented someone on each side of most common issues, but not at the same time and not opposing each other.

Here's a simple example.  If the parties own a house and each one wants it, there's no way to simultaneously help both parties try to end up with the house.

That happens on all the issues:  Custody, visitation, child support, dividing the assets, dividing the bills, who pays the taxes, and on and on.

Why does the issue come up? 
  • People want to save money. 
  • They think a divorce is simpler than it is.  
  • They may have agreed on all issues, except one or two. 
  •  Or, sometimes one spouse will approach the other spouse and suggest that they can both use the first spouse's attorney who is a nice and friendly person.  It doesn't matter how nice the attorney is, the attorney cannot represent both parties.

An attorney can tell you what a Judge might do in a certain situation, but that might not be satisfactory to at least one of the parties.

Bottom Line:  An attorney cannot ethically represent both parties against each other.  If you think you and your spouse hired an attorney to represent both of you, you are mistaken and someone will probably end up unhappy.  The attorney will only be working for one of you. You need to make sure you hire your own attorney.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Do You Have a Common Law Marriage?

I am writing this to be Texas-centric. I recently read an article in a national publication which confidently stated that there is no common law marriage.  That's probably true in about 42 other states, but not so in Texas.

Common law marriage is an old concept that has withstood many attacks over the years.  It has changed is some ways, but it is still in effect and it can lead to problems or benefits, depending on your point of view.

1.  Is there common law marriage in Texas?  Yes.  It's even spelled out in the Texas Family Code, the statute that governs family law issues in Texas.

2.  How does someone become common law married?  There are three requirements which all have to be met.
  • A couple must live together as spouses.
  • They must have an agreement that they are married.
  • They must hold out, or represent, to others that they are married.   
All three events must be present for there to be a common law marriage.

3.  Things that alone don't automatically create a common law marriage:
  • A couple living together.  The most common mistaken belief about common law marriage is that if a couple lives together for "a certain period of time" (the length varies from story to story), they are common law married.  Not True. You need all three requirements.
  • Giving the partner a ring.  It's not one of the three requirements.  It could be some evidence of the agreement, but it's not conclusive.
  • Having kids together.  It's not one of the three requirements. It happens all the time outside of marriage.  It could create some sympathy, but it doesn't do much for a case.
  • Having joint bank accounts. It's not one of the three requirements. 
  • Sharing expenses. It's not one of the three requirements. 
  • Buying a house together. It's not one of the three requirements. Engaged and non-engaged couples buy houses frequently.  It doesn't do much for the case, unless the paperwork mentions that the couple is married.
  • Photos showing the couple together at various events. It's not one of the three requirements. 
  • An agreement that the parties will get married in the future. The agreement must be that they are now married, not in the future.  Also, both people must agree that they are married, not just one of them.
 4.  Facts that can support a finding of a common law marriage:
  • Filing joint tax returns.
  • Buying real estate or other major purchases where the paperwork refers to the couple as married.
  • Any signed affidavits stating the couple is married.
  • Statements to third parties about the couple being married.
  • Job applications and other important documents where the marital status is designated as married.
  • Insurance records showing a marital status of married.
  • Retirement asset paperwork referring to a spouse or indicating a marital status of married.
There are a lot of misconceptions about common law marriage.  If you think you may have a common law marriage, you should meet with a lawyer to find out if you have a case.  A trial about common law marriage can be complicated and difficult.  You definitely will need a lawyer to help if you get into litigation about common law marriage.

Bonus Information:  If you have a common law marriage, you can use Collaborative Law to do a divorce.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Lessons From a Day at Court

I have heard innumerable people say that the one thing they want the most is to have their "day in court".  They want to spill the beans and tell the truth about everything.  They believe that they will feel better and justice will be served once they have their day in court.

I hear the comments from people who are in slow-moving litigated divorces.  To most of these "day in court" people, the issues are simple and crystal clear, and they are convinced the outcomes must favor them.  No other view is conceivable.

For the people who are anxiously looking forward to their day in court, I would like to share some reality. I recently spent all morning and into the afternoon trying to work out temporary orders on a case.  It was not a unique experience; I have done it many times before.

Here are some observations from that "day in court":

1.  It can take a long time.  This one was from 8:30 a.m. to about 2:00 p.m., five and a half hours.  I have have had some go all day.  My average is about three hours. We usually work through lunch on those cases.

2.  People can become very irritable. Hanging around and negotiating or being in a hearing or just waiting can be very stressful if one or more of the players is upset.
  • Clients:  You and your spouse will probably be under high stress.  Many people are nervous and don't sleep well the night before.  It is very common for both sides to get angrier as the day goes on. Think how well you and your spouse act when you are tired and hungry!
  • Attorneys:  Sometimes they maintain control, but sometimes they don't.  The other day, the other attorney acted very irritated and that did not help settle the case.
  • Judge:  Often they are very busy and they express annoyance if they are asked to resolve issues like splitting up pots and pans.  Judge prefer making decisions on significant issues and not spending time on issues that mature adults should be able to resolve.
  • Bailiff:  Usually, they are very even-keeled, but sometimes they get snappy.  They don't like wasting time and they don't like seeing their Judge having to deal with insignificant issues.
3.  Both sides may be very unhappy with the results.  The other day, I saw both parties after the hearing/negotiations.  They both appeared to have lost everything! Here are some reasons why that can happen.
  • The facts may not be what someone expected or believed.  People are often mistaken, but they come to believe in an incorrect version of the "facts".
  • There may be stronger resistance than expected on some issues.  Where someone expected a quick agreement, there could be a huge disagreement. The result often is that someone doesn't get something that they had counted on.
  • Someone may be greedy and unreasonable.  It would be great if everyone approached negotiations with an attitude of cooperation and fairness, but it doesn't usually happen.
  • The Judge may have very different ideas about how things should be resolved.  Guess how that comes out!
  • Usually, there's not enough to go around.  Instead of meeting the needs of both sides, Judges or agreements often only partially meet the needs of each side.  Everyone gets less than they wanted or needed.
  • Both sides can't have the same thing at once.  Usually, there's sharing or one side gets less and feels "cheated".  
4.  It's still not over.  Even when you spend a long day at the courthouse, the case is still not finished.
  • Normally, there must be a written order, which may just be a temporary order. The written order will usually take several weeks to finish and get signed.
  • Often, there will be further clarifications needed.  Even though the attorneys and Judge may have spent hours putting together an order, some things may need to be more specific.
  • There are often changes with new provisions.  The attorneys and Judge may not have anticipated everything.  It is normal to make some changes after the fact to cover some issues that were overlooked.
5.  It's expensive.  Think about paying $400 to $800 per hour, or more, for three to five or more hours, for attorneys to be negotiating or in a hearing, or even waiting around to get into court, which is not uncommon.  Can you think of any more efficient or less expensive way to get issues resolved?

Sometimes, you have no choice.  The other side demands a hearing, the Court may schedule a hearing or you may be forced into Court because the other side won't work with you.

Most of time, though, you do have a choice.  At the outset, you should consider using Collaborative Law where you negotiate and agree to not go to court.  Another option if you are in a litigated divorce is to go to mediation which is a great process that is almost always successful. You can also try having the attorneys informally negotiate an agreement.

If you are tempted to want to go to court, think back on these Lessons from a Day at Court.  Having your Day in Court is probably not a good way to get your issues resolved.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Should I Wait or Can I Do it Now? A Short Quiz for People Going Through Divorce --Part 2

Many temptations come up when people are facing divorce.  Many opportunities also come up then.  Depending upon timing, some things are good ideas and others are not.

If you are facing divorce, or already involved in a divorce, here are some situations that commonly arise, along with some suggestions for you to think about when you are deciding whether to do something now or wait. 

Part 1 of this Quiz dealt with property or financial issues.  Part 2 has some financial matters, but it's more about personal relationships.

1.  Should  start dating?  NO!       That also includes:
  • Don't list yourself on a singles dating web site, 
  • Don't get engaged, 
  • Don't have a boy friend/girl friend move in,
  • Don't move in with a romantic interest, and
  • Don't set a wedding date.
Those actions can cause emotional upset to your still-current spouse, which may damage relationships, slow down the divorce and make it more expensive.  They can also open additional financial issues to fight over.  It's not worth it.

2.  Should I introduce the kids to my new dating interest?  Hopefully, you're not dating while the divorce is pending.  Generally, you need to be very cautious about this.  Probably, you should wait until you have dated for at least 6 months and you should also coordinate this with your ex-spouse. Ideally, you and your ex would work with a family therapist to coordinate the timing and wording of how to make that introduction.

3.  Should I change my will or beneficiaries on insurance, retirement plans or anything else?  Normally, there will probably be a court order saying you can't make those changes.  Judges like to keep everything the way it has been.  They would probably order you to change those documents back to the way they were before you changed them. Consult with your lawyer on this, and don't do anything on your own.

4.  Is it OK if I buy gifts for my new girl friend or boy friend?  No.  I know it's not good for your new relationship, but spending community funds on a new romantic interest is always going to cause problem with your spouse and with the Judge.  At the least, the expenditure will probably be added to your column as an asset in the property division. Your spouse will be angry and less cooperative than if you had not done this. It's also possible the Judge could sanction you for violating a court order.  It's not worth the trouble that follows when you get found out, and you will get found out.

5.  Should I give away things I don't need or want?  Talk to your attorney.  The answer will likely be No! You would probably violate a court order and you would probably be disposing of community property.  Don't take a chance on it.

If you are thinking of taking some financial or relationship actions while the divorce is pending, do as our British friends would do.  Stay Calm and consult your attorney.