Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How to Prepare for a Peaceful Divorce

Often, people become hurt and angry when it becomes clear they are facing a divorce.  In most cases, the divorce should not be a surprise, but sometimes it is.  While some people can overcome their anger at the situation and their spouse, others can't.  Attorneys will tell the parties that if one person wants the divorce, it will happen eventually.  Many times angry people seem determined to make life difficult for themselves and their spouse as they go through a divorce.

On the other hand, there is a large number of people who have had time to process the emotional issues of their divorce and are more interested in having a peaceful divorce.

For the people wanting to have a peaceful and civilized divorce, here are some suggestions to follow:

1.  Try Collaborative Law. Ideally, if there are issues to be resolved, the parties should use Collaborative Law.  I have written many other posts in this blog and my Texas Collaborative Law blog about how Collaborative Law works and the advantages of it. If there's any way to get your spouse to agree to use Collaborative Law, you will both benefit.

2.  Think about, identify and define your goals.  Figure out what you would like to end up with after the divorce is finished. What would you want your life to look like? There's no automatic plan in the Texas Family Code for dividing property.  Even issues around the children have room for some variations. You will be much happier at the end if you are constantly thinking about your goals, needs and interests while you work on finding or creating solutions.

3.  Be realistic.  Don't ask for more than is even possible.  Consider that your spouse has needs also, even if you are angry at him or her.  If you are realistic and reasonable, you will have a greater chance of reaching agreement and avoiding an expensive battle in court.

4.  Get professional help.  It's no admission of weakness to talk with a counselor and get help with the stresses and emotions of a divorce.  It can make your life easier if you will get counseling and follow through with their advice.

5.  Pause and think before you speak.  You will have many occasions to speak to and about your spouse.  What you say can result in anger, hurt feelings and retaliation.  Holding your tongue and not responding to provocation can pay off in the end.  You don't need to escalate things.

6.  Avoid pushing your spouse's buttons.  You know what you can say and do that will trigger anger in your spouse.  You don't need to strike back like that.  Everything can escalate quickly and that's not good for either of you.

7.  Look for common ground.  It may seem hard, but you can find things you can agree on.  If you start with a few small agreements, it makes it easier to agree on bigger issues.  That's true for both sides.

8.  Gather and share information.  You can try to withhold information, but it will normally come out eventually.  Courts are geared up to enforce the production of information.  They aren't foolproof, but they can sure eat up a lot of cash as the attorneys fight over documents.  Save yourself time and money by being cooperative. It will also help generate goodwill.

9.  Think outside the box.  Don't limit yourself to mechanical, by-the-guidelines solutions.  Be open to completely new ways to work things out.  Get whatever help you need and be creative. A solution doesn't mean someone has to lose.

10. Leave your ego out of the picture.  You don't have to "win".  You can decide what would satisfy you and your needs.  There are always different ways of looking at things.  If your spouse feels like he/she "won" and you are satisfied with the result, that's great!

If you follow these tips, especially the one about choosing Collaborative Law, you will have a peaceful divorce. By the way, a peaceful divorce will be a lot cheaper than a hotly-contested one!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What Does it Take to Finish?

A couple of days ago, I got a call from a woman who was upset because her divorce was taking a long time to finish.  She had an attorney (not me), but was thinking about changing because the divorce wasn't finished up. She thought by now, it should be over.

I found out that she had filed, temporary orders had been made, they had completed discovery by responding to the requests of each party and both parties wanted the divorce to be over with.  I guess she thought everything would easily fall into place.

The missing ingredient seems to be "agreement".  Without that, it will take longer to finish.  

Here's what people in that situation should expect:
  • The attorneys will go to Court and prepare a scheduling order with deadlines and a final trial date.  Normally included in the schedule is mediation, a very effective way to settle the case.
  • Mediation can be set up soon since discovery has been finished.  If they were still missing some information, the attorneys would probably hold off setting the mediation until the information is produced.  It's hard to mediate and settle with incomplete information.
  • Reach agreement.  This is usually accomplished at mediation or in follow-up negotiations.  
Then as they say on TV, "but wait, there's more":
  • Paperwork.  There's a final decree or court order.  It's usually very detailed, so it's enforceable.  There may be a wage assignment form and some other forms the attorneys prepare that you don't have to deal with.  There may be a deed or deeds, a power of attorney to change a car title and some other miscellaneous papers to be signed.  Even though attorneys deal with these documents all the time, it is still time consuming to produce and proofread them.
  • Prove-up.  One or both parties, with attorneys, will appear at court to briefly prove-up the divorce.  It's a simple hearing, but the Judge needs to hear testimony in most cases to be able to sign the papers.
If you don't reach agreement in mediation, you will have to wait longer for resolution.  Your trial date is very often 9 months to a year after the date of the scheduling conference at Court. After a trial, you still have to do all the paperwork and then get it signed.

By the way, her divorce had only been on file for about 3 months when she called me.  I had to tell her that her divorce was still a very young one, that if they didn't agree, it would probably take another 6-12 months to get to trial.

If you're in a hurry,  you need to settle. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

What's My Worst Possible Outcome?

In almost every attorney-client relationship, there needs to be more and better communication. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), attorneys can't read their clients' minds.  We can sometimes anticipate questions, but we can't always provide reassurance and information without being asked questions.

At some point in almost every case, a client will wonder what the worst outcome could be for their case.  Some people think if they know what the worst is, they can prepare for it, while hoping for a better result.  They don't want to be surprised.  While it seems like a reasonable question, it's really the wrong question.

What's the worst that could happen in a divorce?  You could lose all your assets, including things you inherited or had before the marriage; you could be saddled with all the debt; you could lose custody of the kids; you might have to pay exorbitant child support;  you might have little or no visitation; and you might have to pay everyone's attorney's fees.

What's the worst that could happen in a suit to modify a prior order?   Your request could be denied; you might end up with an order limiting your time with the children, paying exorbitant child support and owing money to the other party.  You can also be ordered to pay everyone's attorney's fees.

What's the worst that could happen in an enforcement case?  You could go to jail.  You could owe the other parent a lot of money.  Your access to the child could be restricted.  You could owe everyone's attorney's fees.

Do you see the trend here?  Asking for the worst outcomes will get you some very scary outcomes.

The better questions are something like: 
  • What is the realistic range of options for what can happen in my case? 
  • Given the facts of my case, what is the Judge likely to do?
  • What can I expect if I go to Court?
  •  How does a case like this usually work out in this Court?
  •  What do you think you can work out with the other attorney?
After you get information from your attorney, follow up with questions about what can be done to get you closer to your objectives.

Finally, keep up the conversation as you go along.  Don't make this a one-time request.  Outcomes may change as the facts change or are developed.  Keep in touch with your attorney so he/she can better help you.  Good Luck!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Don't Forget the Kids!

In divorces, children are often fought over and fought about.  Sometimes there are responsible parents and often one or both parents are not responsible.  As a reminder for parents going through divorces, or starting to think about going through a divorce, here are some of the major concerns that children may experience when their parents are divorcing. You need to be prepared with reassuring responses.

1.  Where will we live?  Will we have to move?  Can we stay in this house?

2.  Who will I live with?

3.  Will I still have the same friends?

4.  Can I still play with ________?

5.  Will I get to see (my mother, or father)?

6.  Do I have to go see ________?

7.  Will I stay in the same school?

8.  Will there be enough money to pay the bills?

9.  What if I don't like the new house, neighborhood, school, etc.?

10. How will I get around?

11. Will my parents stop loving me?  Will they leave me, too?

12. Will my parents move away?

13.Did I do something wrong and cause the divorce?

If you are approaching a divorce, or going through one, think about these concerns.  You should do your best to minimize the problems for your children.  It would be a good idea to get a counselor for your children, as well as for you. No one is really prepared for the emotional and other issues that crop up during a divorce.

Do yourself and your children a favor and get some help from a professional counselor, in addition to the legal help from your attorney!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Can I Have My 12-Year-Old Child to Talk with the Judge?

The quick answer:  Yes.  

This is one of the most common  questions for Internet  searches that bring people to this blog, so I want to update my previous response. 

The Texas Family Code has been revised  -- no more written statements or battles of affidavits by a child.  It used to be that a parent who wanted his/her child to come live with him/her would talk it up over time with the child and then get the child to sign a statement saying he/she wanted to live primarily with a certain parent.  Naturally, the original parent would then pressure the child and get a similar written statement signed favoring the original parent.  Thankfully, that is no longer allowed.

Now, we can have a child talk directly to the Judge in most cases.  Hopefully, people will stop and consider whether that is a good idea.

Why do it?  People think it will help their case.  If their kid chose him/her, surely the Judge will go along with that.  It might work out that way, but it may also backfire and the Judge may figure out some undue influence has been exerted, or the Judge may figure out that the child has been manipulating everyone.  In any event, the Judge is not bound to do what a child requests.

Another problem: Stress.   Having to talk with a Judge will put a lot of stress on the child, not to mention the stress of having to choose one parent over the other.  Children often tell  each parent  that they want to live with  them.  Kids generally don't want to chose one parent over the other. They want to live in peace and usually want good relationships with both parents.

A different type problem is sometimes created:  empowering a child who then believes he/she can call the shots.  Some children realize the power they have and take advantage by holding out for rewards like a car, phone, video games, computer or other expensive item that the other parent won't or can't provide.

Finally,  when either or both parents try to influence the child, Judges have been around the block a few times and they can usually sniff that out.  If Judges detect that activity, they don't appreciate it and they will probably hold it against whoever chooses to do it.

Better choices: try a Collaborative approach and work together, or work with a counselor to generate ideas, or go to mediation, or have both parents go to a counselor (maybe include the child)

My bottom line:  Keep the kids out of the middle!  The adults can pursue their preferences for custody without trying to get the kids to take sides.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Why an Aggressive, Mean Lawyer will Cost More Money

The other day, I was visiting with a highly educated man who started to tell me about his experience with divorce.  That's not an unusual situation.  Everyone has stories from their own experiences or their family or friends' experiences.

Anyway, as it turned out, he was happy with the second attorney he used.  It seems the second attorney was a "barracuda" and the man is now convinced that's the way to go.  The first attorney wasn't aggressive enough.  I know and respect both attorneys, but I would rarely ever agree that the barracuda approach is the best.  Let me explain.

1.  Reasons for wanting a mean lawyer.  The most common reasons I have heard are the following:
  • For revenge or out of anger:  In a divorce, emotions can be raw and revenge is quick to appeal to someone with hurt feelings.
  • To get a more favorable result:  Some people think the only way to get a great result is to "beat up" or overwhelm the other party.  Those people assume that the aggressive lawyer will have the client's goals in mind and will attain them.
  • To counteract the lawyer on the other side:  Many people believe that it takes fire power to fight fire. That may be true if the other attorney is a mean, aggressive attorney, but there's no need for that approach if the other attorney is just a regular, reasonable attorney.
2.  How does it work?  The mean, aggressive lawyer will be constantly attacking.  The attorney will file motions and set numerous hearings.  Conducting a war in discovery is a common tactic.  The aggressive lawyer demands a lot of information and is very stingy in giving out information.  The attorney tries to focus on what the other side has failed to produce or failed to do.  The idea seems to be to batter the opposing party and wear them out so that they will settle on terms favorable to the aggressive side.

3.  What are the results?
  • Many times, a party will get some revenge and work out some of the anger.
  • Almost always, there will be a smaller pot to divide.  The constant battling is very expensive, which means the attorneys get a good share of the community property and the parties divide a significantly smaller amount.
  • The process will take extra time.  Fighting takes time.  To do a good job, the aggressive attorney will generally set the case for trial, about a year away, and spend the interim time whaling away at the other side.  Plenty of attorneys' fees get earned in that year.
  • The fighting is pretty stressful on you.  At first, it might seem wonderful, but after a while, it just feels tiring and stressful.  Keep in mind that the other side will always fight back.
  • Financial pressures rise.  So much time and effort are devoted to the fight, that the attorneys' fees keep rising.  In almost every divorce, there are financial problems because suddenly there are two households trying to live on a budget that often barely covered one household.  Then, add two attorneys and various experts, and you will really begin to feel financial pressures.
 4.  Consequences
  • Cost -- at a time when cash is in short supply, it gets burned quickly in attorneys' fees and the estate to be divided between the parties is greatly reduced in size.
  • Destruction of relationships -- if there are children, there will be future occasions when both parents need to be near each other and be civil or even friendly.  That can be hard to do if really nasty things are said and done during a divorce.
  • Lost opportunities -- oftentimes, people will cooperate and sacrifice voluntarily in a divorce if they are treated respectfully.  Working with the other party, compromising and listening to the spouse can all lead to cooperative efforts to settle a case and try to salvage relationships and assets.
5.  Are there alternatives to going into battle mode and using a really mean, aggressive lawyer?  Of course! Almost every case ultimately settles.  There can be direct 1-on-1 negotiations between some parties. In most litigated cases, a court will order mediation at some point.  That's usually successful, but it often occurs late in a case, just before trial.  Finally, there's Collaborative Law, a relatively new process where the parties agree to not go to court.  Instead, they have a series of direct discussions with the help of a lawyer for each party and a neutral therapist and neutral financial advisor who work with both parties.  Collaborative is my preference, but if we can't do that, mediation is certainly a good option.

If you are facing a divorce and someone tells you that you need to hire the meanest lawyer in town, think about whether you want to spend that money and whether you want to further damage or destroy relationships.  You owe it to yourself and your family to at least talk with a trained Collaborative lawyer to find out if Collaborative might work in your case.

Just so you know, in my opinion, Collaborative Law could work in almost any case, as long as there are two trained Collaborative lawyers representing the parties. For more information, see my Texas Collaborative Law blog.


Monday, May 20, 2013

What NBC 5 D/FW Didn't Show about Do-It-Yourself Divorces

Last week, a reporter on the local North Texas NBC Channel 5 TV station had a glowing story about do-it-yourself divorces.  The reporter talked to a lot of people and showed how and where people can get forms to do an "uncontested divorce".

Disclaimer:  I don't do low cost divorces, so the story doesn't directly affect me.  It will not take away any business.  I work primarily on cases where the parties don't agree on some major issues, but still want to have a civilized or "friendly" divorce.  I do many Collaborative divorces where people need to come to agreements and don't want to engage in ugly litigation.

The main way the TV story could affect me is having to repair damage people will do to themselves in  doing their own divorce, and in some cases I will have to explain to the client  that the damage can't be repaired.  I would prefer for people to get it done right the first time.

Here are the problems with the report:

1.  Do-it-yourself really only works well if there are literally  no kids, no assets and a very short marriage.  The Texas Supreme Court created a form for a very limited purpose, but people are already misusing it. Many people try to use the forms even though they have assets and issues that aren't intended to be covered by the forms. The form doesn't define or explain some terms and that creates confusion for the users.  Some people end up guessing and making wrong assumptions.  Sometimes problems can be fixed, but sometimes they can't be.  If you discover a problem, contact an attorney right away.  Timing is important.

2.  If there are kids, you need very clear and specific language on the powers, rights and duties of each parent, and on visitation, child support and insurance.  You also have to make sure all the proper children are covered.  With blended families and children born out of wedlock, it becomes a little complicated.  If the proper language isn't used, the orders won't be enforceable.  People will become very frustrated and angry.  Then the Texas Attorney General or a private attorney will have to come in and correct order.  Visitation or child support that was missed because of an improperly drawn order may not be able to be recovered.

3.  If there are assets, you must identify all of it and divide it properly.  That includes retirement benefits of many kinds, employment benefits, QDROs, real estate ownership and documents, investments, bank accounts, debts, tax issues and separate property, among other things.  Many people don't understand what some of those things are and they may miss out on dividing them.  Some property may be hidden by the other side and included in the divorce.  Once a divorce decree is final, you may not be able to change or undo it, so you have to get it right the first time.

4.  Uncontested divorces are really rare.  Uncontested means that everything has been agreed upon. We get calls all the time from people wanting to do an uncontested divorce.  After asking just a few questions, it becomes clear that both parties have agreed to get a divorce, but don't agree on much else.  There's always at least one or two difficult issues remaining.  That requires negotiation or litigation.

5.  The results of do-it-yourself divorces:  people have to spend money getting repairs.  Many times, judges look over the paperwork and refuse to sign an obviously improperly drawn Decree.  That wastes time in court, not to mention the wasted time off from work by the person trying to get the divorce granted.  There is no public agency that will prepare or correct or supervise the production of divorce papers for do-it-yourself filers.  If you try to prepare your own, you will probably end up hiring an attorney to fix your work.

Solutions:  Contact Legal Aid of North West Texas for help.  Depending on your circumstances, they may take the case for you or they may refer you to an attorney who can help.  There are also some legal clinics occasionally that have special events to help people who want to handle their own divorces.  Also, if you want to find low-cost attorneys, consider hiring a young attorney just out of law school.  Those attorneys can do a good job for you and won't charge as much as more experienced attorneys.  Do some research on line and check with friends or other attorneys for recommendations.

Not Solutions:   Don't waste your time calling around and asking attorneys to answer questions on the phone for free.  Likewise, don't expect to get a free consultation with an attorney to find out how to do things.  Attorneys have to make a living, just as everyone else does.  They cannot give away their time and expertise to everyone who calls.  Most attorneys do some pro bono (free) work, but only under limited circumstances.  For example, I accept referrals for pro bono cases only from 2 or 3 agencies.  I don't do it for people contacting me directly.  Looking for something free will be frustrating and a time waster for you.  Instead, follow the suggestions in "Solutions" above.

Monday, May 13, 2013

How to Encourage Fighting in Litigation

Let me be clear.  I think it is a really bad idea to encourage fighting in litigation.  Still, there are many attorneys who do just that.  Sometimes, it's because that's what the attorneys think their clients want.  Other times, it's because that's how the attorney was trained.  Some attorneys believe that fighting it out in court will lead to the right result.  I don't subscribe to that point of view, but there are many attorneys and some judges who still believe it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I strongly advocate using Collaborative Law, wherever possible.  Where it's not used, the parties should at least use mediation.  I am a mediator, also, so there's some bias there as well.

Part of the reason why I got into mediation and Collaborative Law is that I saw, through years of practice, how people wasted lots of money, got stressed out and angry and damaged family relationships by battling in court.  It is rarely a satisfying experience for anyone, even the "winner".  Usually, both parties lose a great deal.

If you want to avoid the pitfalls of destructive litigation, here are some signs to watch for and avoid.

1.     Encouraging unrealistic expectations.  If a client is angry and has been hurt by the ending of a marriage, getting revenge, getting even or getting a pound of flesh are natural, emotional responses.  A good attorney will suggest getting help, such as counseling, for such an upset client, but will not encourage a client to put a lot of effort into a revenge-type strategy because ultimately, courts usually don't pay attention to that.  If an attorney is encouraging a client to make extreme demands, and I have seen that, it will not benefit the client in the long run.  It will result in substantially higher attorney fees, however.

2.     Encouraging more fighting.  Some attorneys will follow a client's emotional responses and allow and encourage actions that extend the fighting between the parties.  In the end, it usually doesn't improve the settlement or judgment for the client.  It does shrink the assets because attorney's fees keep adding up as the fighting continues.  Even wealthy people reach a point when they don't want to keep paying the attorneys to fight.

3.     Encouraging positional bargaining.  The most common type of bargaining that we instinctively use is "positional"  bargaining.  If you buy a car, you may start off with a low offer because you know the sales person has given you a high, but negotiable price for the vehicle.  Going back and forth, you and the seller work toward a middle trying to find a number you both agree on.

 In contrast, in Collaborative cases, we use "interest-based" negotiations.  In that approach, we identify what's actually important to each party and try to meet the important needs.  Rather than demanding 65% of the assets, we talk about the need to have some interest financial help for a spouse going back to school and the need to have some retirement security.

With interest-based bargaining, there are always more settlement options than with positional bargaining and we focus on the most important needs, rather than just using arbitrary numbers to divide things.

4.     Focusing on winning -- all or nothing.  There are so many issues to be considered in a divorce that it is hard to actually define winning.  There's also the problem that a party who gets an arbitrary percentage of the assets may not have a way to support himself or herself later on or they may end up with assets they really can't use and don't want.  The results may not help them at all.  On the other hand, focusing on meeting the needs of both parties can result in satisfaction for both, if they are willing to compromise and try new approaches.

5.     Focusing on the negative.  While emotions often run high during divorces, they don't have to dominate the process.  Some attorneys encourage and support their client's efforts to prove blame or fault in the breakup.  In almost all the cases where there's fault, there are many other reasons for a court to grant more assets to one party than the other, such as health issues, greater earning capacity, etc.  Arguing those issues will not generate the fight that trying to prove fault in the breakup does.  Focusing on negative issues will run up the attorneys fees for both parties, and that means less to be divided in a settlement or judgment.  When it's all over, it's little comfort that the other party has been blamed when both parties end up with less money and less assets.  You have to wonder if the fight was really worth it.

If you or your attorney engage in any of the above practices, be prepared for the consequences.  I predict that you won't feel as good as you expected when the dust settles.  There's still time to switch tactics.  If you don't want to be fighting, tell your attorney to stop.  If your attorney won't stop, get a second opinion.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

7 Easy Tips for Successful Divorce Mediation

Here in North Texas, if you have a contested divorce or other family law issue, you will almost certainly be required to go to mediation before you go to a trial.  The main reason for that is that most cases (about 90%) will settle in mediation and that saves time for the courts.

If you get a divorce in Fort Worth/Tarrant County, you should expect to go to mediation.  Your divorce lawyer will attend with you.  Most attorneys have done a number of mediations and can easily explain what to expect and how to prepare.  In case you have concerns about the process and want some additional information, here are some tips for making the most of your mediation experience.

1.     Use your mediator to gain a different perspective.  The mediator is neutral and doesn't represent you or your spouse.  The mediator undoubtedly has a lot of experience in mediation and in family law.  Feel free to ask questions of the mediator.  Be sure to listen to suggestions and consider any questions or criticisms raised by the mediator.  You can get some new and different approaches from a mediator.  Having a three-way conversation with your attorney and your mediator can open up your mind to new ideas.

2.     Aim for solutions, not winning.  You may have already figured out that there are no real winners in litigation.  Decisions, deals and compromises are made, but there's a cost to everything.  That applies to both sides.  Stopping the fighting can feel like a win.  Don't keep score, just try to find a solution that works for everyone.

3.     Be flexible.  Don't come locked in to a specific plan.  I had a 5 minute mediation that ended because the wife insisted that she would only accept 80% of all the assets.  The husband obviously wouldn't agree.  The case was tried later (about $50,000 in attorneys fees later).  The judge gave the wife 60%, which was what the husband offered at mediation.  Unless you just want to continue to burn money on attorney fees, be willing to look at new and different solutions.  You can't be forced into agreement, but you can  usually find something you like.

4.      Listen.  You should pay attention and respectfully consider what your spouse says.  There is time to think about what the other side is saying.  Your attorney will probably have some suggestions, and the mediator will have some comments and questions about possible settlement terms.  Take your time.

5.     Come prepared.  Bring all the relevant records.  Get updates.  Have a spreadsheet with values.  Think about the issues in advance and consider different ways to solve the problems.  If you need to gather more information or documents, do so ahead of time.  If you need to talk with someone, go ahead and do it before the mediation.

6.     Don't try to discuss the difficult issues with your spouse in advance. Generally, you are in this situation because you can't reach agreements.  Sometimes, preliminary discussions just make the situation worse.  People start to think there's no hope of reaching a settlement because they couldn't do it on their own without the mediators and attorneys.  You can make things much worse by trying to save time and money by negotiating on your own.

7.    Remember to relax.  This is a slow process which has time for reflection.  Don't be in a rush.  There will be some down time, but I can tell you the mediator is using the time for your benefit.  Take it easy. You don't have to make instant decisions. You can think about proposals and carefully look into new ideas.  This is a lot less stressful than being in court.

Mediation is a great and efficient process for settling divorces.  Divorce courts will almost always order you to attend mediation, so plan on it and take advantage of the opportunity to reach an acceptable agreement.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Do You Need an Attorney for a Temporary Orders Hearing?


This will be a short post.  I hear from people all the time who have gotten served with papers and went to a Temporary Hearing without an attorney.

Why without an attorney?  It usually is a lack of money, short notice or not knowing who to contact. 

What can happen?  You can be kicked out of the house.  You may lose custody even if you have been the primary or sole care provider for the children.  You may not get the child support or spousal support you need.  You may get stuck paying a lot of bills.  You may have restrictions put on you relating to the children or where you live or what you get to use while the divorce is pending.   And many other bad things can happen.

Why does that happen?  Because you don't have someone to speak for you who knows the law, the court rules and the procedures.  Judges try to be fair and helpful to everyone, but they have very little time for each case on their docket and there's no time to explain everything to you.  Also, Judges have to be impartial, so they can't do things for you.

Can you get the problems changed later?  Maybe, maybe not.  The sooner you act, the better.

What can you do?  You really need to hire an attorney.  Even if your spouse says he/she wants to work everything out, you need an attorney. You should hire an attorney before the first hearing.  If you don't have time, ask the Judge for more time.  They will often give you a week or so to hire an attorney.  You should take the process seriously because there are serious consequences.  This is not a good time to do it yourself.

What if you can't afford an attorney?  The stakes are so high, you need to find a way.  Courts generally won't appoint an attorney for you.  You should borrow money from friends, relatives, a bank or wherever else you can think of.  You can usually put attorney's fees on a credit card.  This is so important, you need to find a way to pay for an attorney so you really don't lose out.

When you are going to court, please don't try to do it without an attorney!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Be Informed About Alternatives

If you are facing a potential divorce or other family law issue, you should be considering what legal approach you will use to resolve it.  You actually have several choices.  Here are some comments about different options.  Fort Worth divorce and family lawyers should be able to discuss all of these options with you.  If an attorney tries to limit your choices, you should get a second opinion.

1.  Litigation.  The old standard approach is to use litigation, where one side files in court, sets a temporary hearing and serves papers on the other side.  That starts a cycle of hearings, motions, negotiations, conferences with the Judge and the gathering and exchange of information ("Discovery"), and then more hearings. Sometimes you have no choice.  Litigation is the default system that is used.  If the other attorney isn't trained in Collaborative Law, then you can't utilize it.  Your best approach is to search for a trained Collaborative lawyer who can help you decide whether Collaborative or litigation is the better approach.

2.  Collaborative Law.  This process is a way to stay out of court.  Both parties have to agree to be able to use this process.  We normally bring in a neutral mental health professional (MHP)and a neutral financial professional to work with the parties.  This approach is cost-effective because a lot of basic work is done without the attorneys present.  The parties will each meet with their attorney to discuss the financial and child-related issues.  Then the parties meet without their attorneys present with the financial professional to gather and organize financial information and with the MHP to discuss options on taking care of the children.  With information gathering and preliminary work done, the parties then meet again with their lawyers in joint sessions.

Collaborative Law turns out to be a very efficient process.  We use lower-cost, but more qualified experts to lead the effort on the financial and child-related issues, and then the attorneys help everyone consider the legal ramifications of the different options.  There are more choices and better quality decision-making.

3.  Mediation.  In Tarrant County, and most of Texas, parties do not generally go through mediation without lawyers.  In California and some other states, it is common for unrepresented mediations to occur.  In some cases, it may work out, but the more complicated the facts, the greater the need for lawyers is.  When there are retirement benefits, stock options, various investments with different tax considerations  and other substantial financial issues, the parties need more help than they can get from just a neutral mediator who is on neither party's side.  People with significant or complicated assets or liabilities should not attempt to divorce without legal advice.  A mediator cannot give legal advice to the parties.  A mediator only helps the parties come to an agreement, regardless of what the terms are.

4.  Direct negotiations.  This approach can save a lot of money.  All of the people mentioned in 1, 2 and 3 above don't participate.  On the other hand, someone is probably going to be taken advantage of, or someone will make a serious financial mistake because of ignorance.  Unless there's nothing at stake, this is probably not a good option.

5.  Using forms from the Internet.  There are a lot of bad, inaccurate or inappropriate forms out there.  Even the forms recently published by the Texas Supreme Court are not properly drawn, and are actually intended for a very small number of people.  Forms are often misused.  The results can be loss of assets, unenforceable orders and problems in collecting child support or getting to see the kids.  Unless you have no assets, no debts and no kids, you should avoid using forms to do your own divorce.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Don't Fear Mediation

In most divorce or family law cases, at least in Tarrant County, the courts encourage or require the parties to go to mediation.  There's always a line on a scheduling order to put a deadline to complete mediation.  The main reason for doing that is that the process works and very few cases actually have to go to trial.

Sometimes, attorneys don't do a good job of explaining how and why mediation works.  In case you are facing a half or full day of mediation and are wondering what to expect and how to act, here's some information that may help you.

1.     Voluntary process.  Although most judges, will require mediation, there is no compulsion in reaching an agreement.  No one can force you to agree to something you don't want to accept.  There will certainly be attempts to persuade both parties to come to agreement, but the bottom line is -- you don't have to agree to anything.

2.     Confidential process.  Whatever you say and do in mediation is confidential (with some very narrow criminal law exceptions), so both parties are encouraged to think and speak freely.  If you make settlement offers, they can't be presented in court against you.  Neither party can testify about what was said in the mediation, so you can make whatever offers and arguments you believe will help your case.  You can make a better offer in mediation than you might in court, if you wish.  That freedom can lead to creativity or more effective negotiations.  You also can feel safe in the process.

3.     Mediator neutral.  The mediator doesn't take sides or make a decision.  A good mediator will often play the role of "the devil's advocate" by questioning each party's positions and arguing like the other party might.  It helps both parties understand each other and can help break through deadlocks.  Dealing with a neutral whose job is to help both parties reach an agreement provides a safe and productive arena for settlement.

4.     Gaining information.  During a mediation, both parties tend to learn more about the other party's positions and motivations.  Mediation often provides a way to get quick and direct responses and information about issues.  That normally doesn't happen in court.  Almost always, mediation helps both parties understand more about each other.  That's helpful even if you don't settle.

5.     Cheaper than a hearing.  Mediation is somewhat costly since you have to pay for your attorneys and the mediator. Still, there is greater preparation required for trial and a greater time commitment for you and your attorney if you go to trial.  A trial is infinitely more stressful than a mediation.

If you have mediation coming up, or your attorney is talking about mediation, you need to prepare for the mediation, but you should welcome the opportunity to come to an agreement in a relatively pleasant environment.  Good luck!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How Do People Find Us?

We have made suggestions previously in several posts about how to find and choose an attorney.  After some analysis, I figured out out that these methods seem to be the most common used by clients to find us.

1st Method:  Start with names. Potential clients regularly ask others for recommendations.  They talk with:
  • attorneys, 
  • counselors, 
  • religious advisors/leaders/ministers/rabbis/priests, 
  • relatives, 
  • friends, 
  • neighbors, 
  • physicians, 
  • CPAs, 
  • realtors,
  • and others.  
Basically, they talk to people they trust or ones they think would naturally know the best attorneys.  Or they may just go to someone they know has had some experience in the legal system.
Once potential clients get some recommendations, and before calling for an appointment, they usually will check up on them on line to see if the information there is consistent with what the client has been told.

2nd Method: Research on line.
  • Potential clients will start by searching on line, using Google, Bing, Yahoo,or some other search engine.They may start generally, such as "Fort Worth Divorce Lawyer" (or some other locale).  
  • Once clients get some possibilities, they usually will investigate on line to find out about the attorneys' experience and whether they are a Board Certified Specialist in Family Law.
  • Clients will also usually look at the attorney's web site.  They want to be sure that the attorney communicates well and can speak understandably in plain English.  They also want to see if the attorney answers questions and provides information in his/her web site.  Of course, if there's a blog, that's bonus information!
  • Final step before calling-- check with trusted friends and advisors to get their opinion of the quality of the potential attorney.
As you can see, our experience is that people will generally research on line and ask for recommendations, which is a smart strategy.  It doesn't matter which order the search is conducted.  The main concern is that you check on the attorney and sample his/her written materials before you make the important in-person visit.

Note:  Please tell the attorney who recommended him/her.  Most attorneys are interested in that and like to thank their referral sources.  The sources will be pleased that you trusted their advice as well!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How Not to Start a Divorce

There are many articles about how to do various things, including getting divorced.  This is a "what not to do" article: 10  things to avoid that will save you a lot of grief when you start a divorce.

1.  Don't destroy records, including emails and other electronic information.  Emails and website postings are becoming more and more important in divorce litigation, and you can't destroy information like that. Helpful or hurtful, you need to not delete information. You will get in trouble with the Judge for that.  Check with your attorney if you think you need to delete things.

2.  Don't hide the kids.  A common concern of judges is whether parents are willing to cooperate with each other and share children.  If one parent runs off with the children, that is normally held against the hiding parent.

3.  Don't clean out all the bank accounts.  Each party needs some money to pay bills and survive.  If either party starts to empty bank accounts, the judge will often take money away from the money grabber, and the judge won't be happy with that person.

4.  Don't blow up and get angry with your spouse or make threats.   That will probably only lead to more conflict.  Anger and threats don't lead to compromise and reasonableness.  Fighting costs more money.

5.  Don't hide assets.  Most of the time, the assets will be found.  If a judge suspects you have hidden assets, he or she has ways to even things out, and you can be punished.  It's not worth the effort in the end.

6.  Don't hire the meanest lawyer in town unless you just want to spend a lot of money and reduce the community estate.  Sure, you can whip up on your spouse and make him or her miserable, but it will end up costing you a lot more money than if you tried to work things out.  Fighting is expensive and your aggression will likely lead to aggression in response, which won't be fun for you.

7.  Don't try to represent yourself.  Like it or not, Family Law is complicated.  If you have no assets, no kids and a fairly short marriage, you might get by without a lawyer.  Otherwise, it will cost you a lot more in the long run when mistakes have to be corrected or when you realize you gave up something, or paid for something, that you didn't have to do.

8.  Don't lie to your lawyer.  You may be embarrassed or you may think you can sneak something by, but lies almost always come back to bite you.  Save yourself some time and money and be honest with your attorney all the way through.

9.  Don't lie to the judge or another court official.  Worse than lying to your attorney is lying to the judge or other court official.  When that is uncovered, you will really be in trouble.  In addition to potential criminal liability, see the last paragraph below.

10.  Don't try to poison the children against the other parent.  Keep them out of the middle.  Judges hate to see kids used as weapons.  More importantly, it's damaging to the children.  For their sake, don't do it.

Very Important!  You may have noticed the refrain above about the judge getting mad or unhappy or not liking something.  That's an important factor because judges have a lot of discretion about how things will be divided or allocated or awarded on both a temporary basis and at final hearing.  That gives the judge a way to even things out, or favor someone who the judge may believe was mistreated by the other spouse.  Think about whether you want the judge to be making rulings if he or she is mad at you!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What to do if Your Spouse Files for Divorce

Sometimes you are happy, and sometimes you are mad or sad or in shock or in denial.  People react differently when they find out that a divorce is about to start up.  No matter what your initial reaction is, you need to start preparing right away.  Here are some quick tips you can follow to get ready.

1.  Gather basic information.  You will probably need statements for all your bank accounts and credit cards for at least the past 12 months.  If you can get up to 3 years easily, without a great cost, go ahead and get them.  You should also get copies of your income tax returns for the last 3 years.  Be sure you get all the attachments.  Computer records, such as emails, can be helpful, but only look at and copy ones that you have authorized access to.  Don't hack into your spouse's private or business accounts if you have not been given access to them.  Collect whatever documents you can and put them in a safe location, probably not at home.

1. (Tie)  Contact an attorney immediately.  Find someone who is qualified and experienced for the issues of your case.  If you want to use Collaborative Law, make sure the lawyer is trained and experienced in Collaborative Law.  You need to have a way to pay for the attorney.  That usually can be by cash, credit card or money borrowed from family or friends.  Make an appointment right away and hire a lawyer.  Don't try to represent yourself.  A good lawyer will probably charge for a consultation because the initial consultation is usually a substantial amount of time and the lawyer will discuss strategy and analyze the facts of the case -- it's not a social visit.  Be prepared when you meet with your prospective lawyer.  Bring a list of questions and concerns.

3.  If possible, make sure you have control of some cash.  That's to pay your living expenses, attorney's fees and other costs that may come up right away.  Don't clean out the accounts, but take half or whatever you reasonably need to get by. Make sure your spouse still has some resources to pay bills.  If your spouse has already cleaned out most of the assets, then take control of what's left. However you start, make sure you can account for how you have spent money and where the remaining funds are located. Don't give money away or hide it.  Judges often get mad when someone takes all the money or hides it.  You don't want to start off with the Judge mad at you.

4.  Stay on good terms with your spouse, if possible.  It's usually a good idea to try to cooperate and be amicable, but take steps to get out if it's dangerous to stay.  If you can keep a cordial working relationship, it will help your divorce be less stressful and less costly.

5.  Figure out your needs and what's important to you, so you can discuss those things with your attorney.  You will probably need a budget, so it would be helpful to start on that right away.  Do you need to pay certain bills, or will you need to purchase some furniture or other things for starting over? Think both interim, while the divorce is pending, and long-term.  Don't worry about getting all needs listed perfectly.  You will probably change priorities and needs as the divorce progresses, but you need the basics to start out.

Whenever you find out that a divorce is in the works, don't sit still.  Get active and take steps to protect yourself.  Delay can lead to problems and missed opportunities.  Moving quickly can give you some advantages as you get started.  Good luck!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Why You Should Use Mediation

Mediation is a common process used in the Family Courts system in Texas.  It involves having a neutral third party meet with the two sides and their attorneys.  In North Texas, we use mediation in most Family Law issues.  Here's why.

1.  It's effective.  Probably close to 90-95% of cases mediate will settle.  That means that the parties finally figured out a way to compromise and resolve a case before trial.  Mediation facilitates that.

2.  Mediation saves time and money.  It is much quicker and cheaper than going to trial.  Normally, mediation will take place weeks or months before a trial date.  It is much easier to find a good mediator who has time available than it is to find an open setting date on a court's docket.  Mediation also normally takes less preparation than a trial, so that saves money as well.

3.  You and your spouse (or other party) control the outcome.  Most people find that preferable to letting the judge make the decision.  A judge's decision usually makes both parties unhappy.  Your choice is to make your own decision or turn it over to the judge who doesn't know you and probably doesn't care about you.

4.  Most local judges require it.  Because the court dockets are so crowded, most judges require the parties to go to mediation before they can go to trial.  Sometimes, judges want mediation even before a trial date is set.  The reasons:  mediation works and it saves time and money.  Pretty simple.

5.  Mediation is a safe, private and peaceful process.  The discussions are confidential.  A mediator manages the process.  In North Texas, most of the time, the parties are not in the same room.  Peaceful solutions can be found in the mediation process.

Why mediate?  Judges don't have time to hear everything, and the process produces good results.  It's not 100% effective, but it generally beats going to trial.