Don’t Take Your Ex’s Word for Everything

D-College-CostsI received a call this week from “Tony,” a fictitious name for a man I represented in 1998, when he and his first wife had a 3 year old son together.  He has been a generous and involved father to his child from that marriage for the entire 15 years since his divorce. He paid child support on time and in full even when he was diagnosed with Leukemia and had to take a medical leave of absence from his job for two years. He never missed a payment. In fact, he was never even late with a payment.  He has since remarried and has an 11 year old son with his current wife.

We’ll call the first son John and the second son Jacob.  John came on every vacation with Jacob and their dad and his wife.  John has played as many sports as Jacob, he has gone to as many ball games and concerts and family picnics with their dad as Jacob has.  The dad never lost his connection to John, never let the new family exclude John. John and Jacob know that they are half-brothers, but they feel that they are brothers.

In all his years of paying more than the court ordered by staying current with child support, and adding whatever extra-curricular activities he could, of making sure that John and Jacob both had health insurance, glasses, braces, cleats, and haircuts, Tony and his second wife always knew that once John turned 18, the child support payments would end.  The love, and care, of course, will never end.  But they were able to budget their lives knowing that in July of 2013, they would essentially get a pay increase.

Imagine Tony’s surprise, then, when he received a phone call in August from his ex-wife (let’s say “Tina”) telling him that he needed to start paying for John’s college tuition room and board.  Tony and Tina both have copies of the same divorce agreement they signed in 1998.  They both read the same words.  Tina saw it and read, “Tony has to pay one –half of full tuition, room and board at a state University.”  She figured that meant that if those costs are now about $12,000 per year, that it was time for Tony to start paying her $6,000 per year.  If John goes away to college, or stays home with her should not influence (in her interpretation) how much money Tony owes her.  She figured she could take $6000 from Tony, and have John take out student loans for anything else he needed.  She just saw that paragraph as another pay day for her.

Luckily, Tony called me.  I have to admit that I could not at first recall the specific language of the agreement.  When we discussed it by phone and he said that he was obligated to pay half of John’s college, I thought that might be true.  But I asked him to bring me a copy of the agreement anyway, so I could read it myself.  It seemed like a bigger commitment than Tony would have made.

I told him that because of his illness, if necessary we could move the court for a modification, but that is a last resort.  Remember, if Tony had to pay me to represent him in court, and Tina got an attorney, too, all of that money would be directed away from John’s education and into lawyer fees and court costs.  The worst possible scenario, if you ask me.

Sure enough, he brought me the signed agreement and court orders and as soon as I had a chance to read them, I could see the confusion.  The agreement is that both parties will help John get as much financial aid as he can get, and then the two parents will pay equal shares of what is left; but not more than the cost of a state college. If Tina pays $5000, Tony has an obligation to match it.  But if John only needs $5000 from his parents; then Tony is only responsible for half of that amount.   The best part, to me, and to Tony, is that none of this money will go to Tina.  John will continue to have his dad helping him get through life and do what he needs to do; but all of Tony’s money will be going directly to John’s benefit, not by way of Tina – and not to lawyers’ fees.

What We Love:  It is always worth having an attorney read a legal document for you.  It might cost you an hour of the lawyer’s time, but it could save you thousands of dollars in mistakes.

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Whose divorce is this, anyway?

D-familylawI had a surprising phone call today with an old friend.  He has been in the divorce process for almost a year, and could not see a way to conclude the process and get on with his life.  The reason, sadly, is because his wife won’t let him.  After all of these years of letting her call the shots, he is still thinking that what he needs to do is follow her orders and she will cooperate with him.

He is mistaken.

When the wife told him that she wanted a divorce, he hired a mediator and filed the papers.  They went through the financial discovery process and decided what the state guidelines would most likely order him to pay on support.  The wife told him that the number was too low, so he increased it by $500 per month.  Then she told him to move out, and he did.

So, the situation became a perfect one for the wife:  her bills are paid, she does not have to live with her husband, but neither is he free to move on.  Every time the two of them have been scheduled to appear in front of a judge to report on their progress, the wife has declined to attend.  When the husband has tried to encourage the wife to go to court, to meet with mediators, or to sign an agreement, she has declined.  When he insists, she threatens to hire a lawyer.

Now, we all know why he would rather not push her. Hiring an attorney is an expensive and daunting  proposition. The only thing worse than hiring your own lawyer is paying for the opposing party’s lawyer.  So, out of fear, he backs off.  And stays married.  And pays more than a judge would likely order.  Because he is waiting for his wife to act reasonably.  For the first time in 20 years.  I told him I thought that it was an unlikely scenario.

The truth of the matter is that sometimes the good guy just has to be the bad guy.  It is not fair to my friend, or his children, or even his wife, for their divorce to drag out this long.  They are living in a state of perpetual limbo and no one is truly happy.  I walked him through a little of the procedure for what he needs to do to get in front of a judge, without lawyers, and ask for a divorce.  My friend is looking for a reasonable breakdown of assets and liabilities, and – frankly – so is the judge.  The court is not trying to punish anyone.  In a no fault state, the job of the judges is to help everyone who needs a divorce get the most fair and equitable divorce possible, in a reasonable time frame.

I hope my friend uses the advice I gave him as an opportunity to take the power away from his wife and let the divorce finish.  He will be happier, and so will his family.  He will have to wait a very long time if he wants to wait for her approval.  I just don’t think it is coming.

What We Love –  The laws are in place to protect society’s interest in everyone getting a fair and equitable outcome in their divorce, as much as possible.  You do not have to wait for your angry spouse to come to her senses.  There is a court system in place to do that for her.

Getta’ loada’ THIS guy!

D-moneyI rarely do this, but – you think your ex (or soon-to-be-ex) is a jerk?  Getta’ loada’ THIS guy!

Mr. and Mrs.  “Michaels” were married while Mr. Michaels was finishing his education at a prominent New York law school.  Mrs. Michaels worked two jobs so they could afford a decent place to live while her husband started his own litigation firm and built a clientele.  After about 10 years of marriage, a decent nest egg accumulated, and a respectable law practice in full-swing, they moved to the suburbs and had a baby.  Mr. Michaels kept working, but moved his practice to the town where they lived.  Mrs. Michaels made child-rearing and house maintenance her new career.

Shortly after their son graduated high school, his father announced that he wanted a divorce.  He told his wife that if she cooperated with him, he would “always take care of her,” so she cooperated.  They sold the marital residence, and split the profit without her ever seeking any legal advice on her own.  She moved into a small apartment and put the rest of her share into a savings account, waiting for her husband to give her half of their retirement accounts and savings.

She took a job working in retail to make ends meet, because he never gave her any money at all and she needed to pay her rent.  When she would ask him about alimony for rent payments he would tell her that since they were still married he could not pay her alimony.  She should just pay her own bills to the best of her ability and he would pay her back once he settled their accounts.

18 months after they separated, Mr. Michaels called his wife and told her that they were “automatically divorced” by the laws of the state because they had been living apart for 18 months.  He further told her that there was no money left in their accounts, he had spent it all on his own needs, and furthermore she was making more than he was on their tax returns, so he would be looking for alimony from her.

I am not making this up. A bright articulate woman in her 50s walked into my office and asked me whether she was automatically divorced, what had happened to all of their money, and whether she would be responsible to pay her ex-husband-the-lawyer alimony from her minimum wage job. The answers are:  there is no such thing as an automatic divorce, I did not know where the money went but I was about to do my best to find out, and the circumstances would have to be pretty extreme for her to have to pay him alimony.

Here is what we found out.  He declares income of about $500 per week, and rent of $750 per week.  His restaurant charges alone are more than $500 per week.  He just doesn’t report any of it as income.  He has no credit cards or other debts, purchased a new motorcycle for himself over the summer, and goes on monthly vacations out of state.

Last time we went to court he told the judge that he could not defend himself against my motion for alimony because he is “indigent” and could not afford an attorney.  The judge looked as if she was about to give him some time to hire a lawyer when I interrupted. “Excuse me you honor, but the Plaintiff himself is an attorney,” I told her.  The courtroom full of people gasped and chuckled at his audacity, and we were given our hearing.

The fact that this woman wants to trust her husband is one thing.  He is a lawyer and she has spent almost 30 years trusting him.  But as soon as she began to understand that he is lying to her, and apparently trying to defraud the court and the IRS into the bargain, she was smart to get her own legal counsel.    There is an old saying, “Trust, but verify.”  It is okay to believe what people tell you, but there is no harm in making sure it is true, and a good lawyer is just the person to verify when things look sketchy.

WHAT WE LOVE:  Divorces have an objective discernible truth, and given the opportunity to look for it most judges will find it.

Don’t underestimate the value of your in-laws…

inlaws

What is the value of keeping your in-laws in a divorce?

I recently heard a woman make an argument that she should be entitled to increased alimony because she lives closer to her in-laws than to her own parents.   Many states use a rubric of factors to determine alimony. Factors may include  length of the marriage, causes of the breakdown of the marriage, each party’s education/station/ability to earn a living, age and needs of the minor children.

One factor I have never seen listed in an alimony calculation, however, is geographical location of grandparents.  I don’t believe it is something we will see any time soon.  We live in a time when it is common place for people to relocate far from family for work, exploration, curiosity, advancement, and countless other reasons.  So there is no special attention paid to how close or far one lives from one’s parents.

But, the woman does have a point.  Her parents happen to live in Mexico, and she lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. They are in the process of getting divorced and she is keenly feeling her lack of support system.  If she lived close to her parents and siblings and cousins, there would likely be someone around to take the kids for a few hours; or help her move into her new apartment; to drop by uninvited and unexpected with a pizza and a bottle of wine.

Sure, friends may be able to pick up some of this slack.  But only very good friends, and not necessarily without strings attached. Not the way family would.  But what makes her situation more difficult is that up until very recently, she did have family in town – her in-laws.  She was used to the informal, always at each other’s disposal, give-and-take of family.  When you have spent a certain number of years not having to pay a sitter for every little night out, each annoying errand, or when you just need to go away overnight, there is a shock factor that comes along with suddenly having to shell out $10/hour for each of those “meaningless” excursions.

What about family holidays?  Until now, every major holiday included her children looking forward to aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins laughing together at someone’s house.  They knew there would be gifts and favorite foods, “inside” jokes, and familiar arguments.

Now, she will have to choose if her children will spend holidays with their extended family or with her. She might need to take her kids to a restaurant for a Thanksgiving dinner, or cook her own Christmas feast to make them feel like things are still as good as they used to be.  Or she might want to fly herself and the kids down to Mexico, so that she can be with her own family during the holidays.  But, while being with her own parents and siblings might make her feel comfortable, it will likely have the opposite effect on her children, for whom everything will feel foreign and new.

Or, if she believes the best interest of her children is to keep having holidays the way they always did, then she might spend every holiday all alone, watching the clock until it is time to go pick them up again.

Instead of increasing her alimony, which might not even solve most of these issues, there is a less expensive and more obviously available solution:  keeping her in-laws.  Those people who are inextricably linked to the last person in the world she wants to see right now may hold the ticket to her salvation.  But, depending on the details of the divorce, they might not be particularly interested in seeing her right now.

They have likely heard her husband’s side of the story. They might believe that she alone is at fault in the breakdown of the marriage.   They may have been willing to keep an open mind in her regard at the beginning of the divorce, but by now might feel that she is being stubborn or greedy or hostile in the divorce proceedings, even if it is her attorney calling the shots instead of her.

How, then, could she bridge that chasm?  Is there any hope for her of replacing her far-away family for herself and her children with the people she knows best in New Jersey?  Yes. There is a chance. That chance is in her hands.  It is up to her to reach out to her in-laws.  Individually, if necessary, to mend any broken fences, and say things as simple as, “I hope that we will still be family, and that my children will always feel as close to you as they do today.”  And, of course, she could take advantage of every opportunity to be kinder and more generous than she needs to be – both when her in-laws are watching, and when they are not.  In matters related directly to the divorce, and in unrelated matters. She could make a point of always something positive about her ex-husband, so that everyone knows there are no hard feelings. And so that no one is worried what will happen if they are both at the same dinner.

This might sound difficult, especially if she has just cause to be truly angry at her husband.  But we do the same thing in dozens of social situations all year long at parties, work, and school: pretending to be nicer, more forgiving, or more generous than we really are.  And sometimes, if we are very lucky, those good feelings catch up with us and stop being pretend emotions. Sometimes acting as if you are a benevolent person actually makes you become one – inside and out.

What We Love: The loving family you seek might be closer than you think.

The Pennsylvania Alimony Chart (Or – Why to Hire a Good Attorney)

Attorney Jones and her client Mr. Bob walk into the conference room at Attorney Jones’ Connecticut law office. They are expecting to take Mrs. Bob’s deposition today; and they have hired a court stenographer to record the proceedings.  Mrs. Bob is sitting there, alone, with a manila folder of papers on the table in front of her.

Attorney Jones asks Mrs. Bob, “Where is your lawyer?”

Mrs. Bob has decided to represent her self.  She is angry and she is not putting up with any malarkey, she tells them.

Mrs. Bob does not wait to be sworn in, or for the deposition to begin, she just starts telling Attorney Jones what she wants to say.

It is a long rant.  He was never a good husband.  The house is not big enough; the cars are not new enough. She suspects him of an affair, although she has no evidence. There are no minor children, fortunately.  They have been married five years and have both had jobs the entire time.

Under Connecticut law, Mrs. Bob is probably not entitled to alimony, although she might be allotted some, depending on each party’s earning capacity.  There should be an equal asset split/debt split, depending on the circumstances.  Mrs. Bob doesn’t know any of this.  All she knows is she has a friend who gets a lot of alimony and child support every month, so she wants alimony.

Finally, Mrs. Bob gets to her point, “I want him to pay me $1000 per month in alimony for 5 years,” she says.

“What?!”  Attorney Jones and Mr. Bob both say in unison, shocked because they both know what the law in Connecticut recommends in this type of matter.

“I looked it up on the alimony chart,” Mrs. Bob says as she starts fumbling through her folder.  “Here,” she adds as she pulls out a complicated looking chart full of numbers.

Attorney Jones takes the chart and points out that it is a Pennsylvania Alimony chart – there is no such thing as an alimony chart in Connecticut – and that Mrs. Bob has read it wrong, anyway, since the numbers she used did not include her own salary.

They cancel the deposition.  Attorney Jones gives Mrs. Bob a list of attorneys she knows who are reasonable and fair in helping parties mediate an uncontested divorceThey decide to wait two weeks and try again once Mrs. Bob has a chance to get some good legal advice.

What We Love:  There is a real fear of attorneys in the world:  ravenous sharks who want nothing more than to increase the length of your divorce to line their own pockets.  And, yes, those sharks exist.  But, happily, they are only one species of attorney. Plenty of reasonable people graduated law school with the purpose of helping make the world a better place. Get an attorney – they know the law! Just find one who wants your divorce to be a small blip in your life; not a catastrophe.

 

When the Divorce Turned Ugly

 The minute she found out he has a girlfriend.

 Here is a phone call I had this week with a new client.  We’ll call him Burt.

Burt:  I need a new lawyer. The one I have been using ruined my divorce.

Me: That’s terrible!  What happened?

Burt: I have no idea.  My wife threw me out 6 months ago, but we were planning to have an amicable divorce. Minimal fighting, shared custody, lots of agreements.  Then, out of nowhere it is bitterly acrimonious. She doesn’t want me to see my kids, she keeps threatening to call the police if I call the house, it’s just a nightmare.

Me: How is it the lawyer’s fault?  What caused the change?

Burt: I can’t figure out what made it all go so bad. I haven’t changed, so it must be the way the lawyer is handling the case.  I even asked my girlfriend if she thought it was the lawyer’s fault.

Me:  Wait.  What girlfriend?

Burt:  Well, after my Wife threw me out, I met someone new.  Now, my Wife won’t even let the kids meet my girlfriend.  She doesn’t want them sleeping at my apartment anymore. It is just a mess.

Me:  Get rid of the girlfriend.

Burt: No.  That’s not what’s making problems. My wife had already kicked me out. She doesn’t care if I have a girlfriend.

ATTENTION: All divorcing men. New or old, girlfriends make your divorce cost more, take longer, and destroy any good will.  Honest. They do.  No matter what was wrong in the marriage, you just made it much worse by getting a girlfriend.

Things that can get worse:  Suddenly, she wants alimony, because it turns out that YOU are the only reason the marriage went wrong.    Visitation decreases, because she doesn’t want her kids hanging around with you and “that slut.”  With less visitation, she will want higher child support, because she suddenly feels even more like a single parent.  Legal fees increase exponentially as you try to fight all of this craziness.  And, worst of all – she has a mean story to tell everyone about how you had already moved on while she was still struggling to try and save your marriage. Everyone in this case likely includes your mutual friends, her family, your family, your boss, and especially your children.

ATTENTION:  All women dating divorcing (i.e. married) men – you are doing yourself a disservice.  His divorce, and therefore his life – your life together – will be negatively impacted by your relationship.

PLEASE let the divorce conclude quickly and amicably first.  Then begin your lifetime of new-found happiness.

I have absolutely no evidence that this works both ways. I can’t be sure if a divorcing woman’s new boyfriend has any impact at all on her divorce.  But I am certain that girlfriends ruin perfectly good divorces.  I have never seen it fail.

What We Love:  Love. Love will find you again when this mess is all over.  But men who rush into the next relationship frequently leave deep scars in the old one.