Friday, April 30, 2010

Satisfying Both Parties -- Collaborative Law

An excellent article by Teresa McUsic appeared in the venerable Fort Worth Star-Telegram today discussing Collaborative divorce. In particular, the writer referenced a recently-published book by Scott Clarke, Melinda Eitzen and Vicki James. The book called, Divorce: The Collaborative Way, is available through Amazon and various book stores.

The three authors are from the North Texas area. Scott is a financial planner in Colleyville, Melinda is a Dallas attorney and Vicki is a therapist in Dallas, although they all practice in multiple counties in North Texas. I have worked with Scott and Vicki and I know Melinda, so I can confirm that they are real authorities on Collaborative Law.

Ms. McUsic discussed various aspects of Collaborative Law with the three co-authors and explained how the three professionals work together as a team in Collaborative cases in Texas. Her article is a great brief introduction to Collaborative Law.

If the article tweaks your interest, you should find the book and read it. With explanations of what the paperwork means, how the process works and the roles of each of the professionals, the book gives you an excellent overview of Collaborative Law. It also contains examples that illustrate how the Collaborative process can be beneficial to both parties in ways that standard litigation can't. The authors make it easy and fast to read, and the book is inexpensive. If you are investigating Collaborative Law and thinking of using it, this would be a great resource for you and your spouse.

Disclaimer: The authors are friends, but I have no financial interest in the book.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I Want to Know What My Legal Rights Are

One of the most common requests I get is to tell a potential client what his/her rights are. Unfortunately, I think that focuses attention in the wrong direction.

Instead of trying to find out black and white, clear rules that say "this is all you can get" or "this is what everyone gets", why not focus on what you would like to have? We shouldn't be limiting the outcome to some preconceived standard rules or guidelines. Why not try for more or something different, if that's what you want?

When someone asks what his or her rights are, I usually make two preliminary points:

1. First, there's no checklist of rights.
To find out your rights, we need to start by defining the subject somewhat. What kind of rights are you wanting to know about?

  • Child support
  • Alimony
  • Property division
  • Allocation of debts
  • What happens to retirement benefits
  • What about the house I had before marriage
  • Grandparent rights
  • Changing the name of a child
  • Being able or not able to move out of state with the child; and many other rights issues ...

2. The second consideration is that rights aren't clearly defined in Texas. There aren't a lot of absolute rules. A lot of those topics or issues don't have specific "rights" in Texas. There are possibilities, but some facts are needed to provide a context because there are almost always alternate ways to accomplish what you want. For example:

  • Property division isn't always 50-50.
  • Joint custody doesn't necessarily mean equal time sharing.
  • There are some limits on alimony in Texas, but there are many ways to work around them.
  • Child support is pretty clearly defined, but sometimes there are some variations.
  • Guideline visitation (possession schedules) is pretty standard, but it can be adjusted.

Because of those factors, a better question to ask is: What do you want? It's better to focus on what people want rather than limit their vision to what the law may allow. Of course, there's no guarantee that they will ever get what they want, but it's certain that people won't get what they want if they don't ask for it.

For example, if a wife wants some funds to pay for a career training program or to finish college, she should come up with a way to pay for that out of the assets and possibilities that the parties possess. Her husband might support that effort, possibly because it could provide a better home in the long term for the children, or maybe he feels guilty, or maybe for some other reason. No matter the reason, the wife might end up with funds for training, even thought there's no "right" to such funds.

Another example that sometimes occurs is when a parent wants a different possession schedule for the children. In Texas, there is a basic standard possession schedule that most people consider to be their "rights". If a dad wanted to switch nights every week because of work or other commitments, the parents can easily change the schedule, if both parties agree. But that won't happen unless at least one parent will ask for something other than the standard rights.

So, what can you do? Sometimes, it's a good idea to follow the example of children. If you have been around kids for even a short time, you will recognize their negotiating style.

  • First and foremost, they ask for what they want, whether it's food, going somewhere or buying something when they're in a store.
  • Second, they are persistent. They keep pounding away and it becomes easier to give in than to fight it.
  • Third, as they mature, kids learn more sophisticated arguments and find things that appeal to the adults.

Those techniques are not copyrighted. Even adults can use them. Many people going through a divorce would benefit greatly by focusing on what they want rather than finding out their "rights" and then ignoring what would really help them. It's better to aim high.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tips for Managing Documents to Save Money on Attorney's Fees

Two perennial topics for most people going through a divorce or dealing with a family law issue are how to best manage the documents that are inevitably required and how to cut down on their attorney's fees. For many reasons, we always seem to deal with a lot of documents in any case, although some cases are naturally worse than others.

The answer for some clients is to "Do It Yourself". This won't work for everyone, but for people who have time, understanding and some organizational ability, they can save time for their attorney and save money for themselves. Here are some ways this can work:

1. Background information -- In most divorces, the parties will need to produce a lot of financial records. Why not start early? When you are getting ready to meet with your prospective attorney, gather and organize whatever financial records you can find. Such things as tax returns, bank statements, retirement account statements, deeds, loan agreements and records, credit card statements, etc. are the types of records that can be important in your case. Instead of tossing them into a handy grocery sack or black plastic trash bag, spend a little time separating the records by source and put them in some appropriate order, such as chronological. You can get bonus points from your attorney if you put tabs or labels on the documents or put them in a notebook or set of folders.

2. Discovery -- This is the single most paper-intensive step in the divorce or litigation process. In most non-Collaborative cases, each side sends the other side long lists of questions and requests for documents. It can take a long time to gather up the paperwork and an even longer time to review and organize it. Your attorney will tell you what is needed and you will have the initial responsibility of gathering and organizing the documents. The more complete and organized the records are, the more you will benefit. You probably have a good idea of what your records are or should be, so it makes sense for you to assume the responsibility to get the information together in an understandable and organized fashion.

3. Messages -- Occasionally, you may have letters that are relevant and important to your case. More often, there will be
emails, texts, tweets, wall postings, direct messages or other forms of written communications. These can really be voluminous. The initial problem with these is getting a paper copy or a good electronic copy. Then, the messages need to be organized so that your attorney knows what you consider to be the importance of each message. It's also good to have date and time information on each message.

As you gather information for the purposes discussed above, please keep in mind the following "Don'ts".

  • Don't write on the documents. Some people like to write their response or their side of an issue on the document. That can cause problems for your lawyer in authenticating the document and avoiding objections in court (your comments are "hearsay").
  • Don't change anything on the document or record. The paper must be a true and correct copy of something. Don't change the content or the appearance of the document. Let your attorney worry about the appearance and whether the information is helpful or not.
  • Don't give partial documents. Most of the time, your attorney will need the complete document to make it admissible in court.
Bonus Tip: You may be able to save money and time by making extra copies before you deliver documents to your attorney. However, you may waste some money if you copy everything before your attorney has confirmed that the paperwork is useful. It's best to coordinate copying plans with your attorney's staff before you get started.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Did You Notify the State Case Registry?

An often-overlooked part of a Texas divorce decree or other order involving children is a brief requirement, usually close to the end of the order, that the parties keep the State Case Registry apprised of their current:

home, mailing and work addresses,
the name of their employer,
home and work phone numbers, and
driver's license number.

All of that information should be sent to the following address:

State Case Registry
Contract Services Section
MC 046S
P.O. Box 12017
Austin, Texas 78711-2017

Plus, the information should also be sent immediately to the other parties in the case and to the Court. You can usually send the Court's information to the Clerk of the Court.

Any time there is a change in any of the listed information, the updated information should be sent to the Registry, the other parties and the Court.

If you have questions about whether to send in changes in the listed information, you can contact your attorney or you can just send the information.