Choosing a Divorce Attorney

By | Divorce

This post is in response to the question I find being asked on Facebook, on Google, amongst friends and to me in confidence. These are my opinions as a 35 year old, 10 year lawyer (5 years in family law) and married mother of three. I say again, these are my opinions, this is NOT legal advice. If you want legal advice, hire a lawyer.

1. First – Do not look for a lawyer who will fix your problems.

Look for a lawyer who will get you a divorce and what you are entitled to under the law. Your problems will work out through therapy, prayer and time. Do not search for a lawyer that will “defend a mother/father’s rights”, that will “stand up to him”, that will “fight for you”. These concepts are marketing plans, not legal strategies. Of course your lawyer will stand up and fight for you, that’s a lawyer’s job period. Looking for a lawyer to represent you strongly is like looking for a pediatrician who vaccinates.

2. Get recommendations from like minded people and interview a few.

That doesn’t mean ask your friend who is all drama for one of her attorney’s names. Ask someone who is like you, who has the same temperament, budget and life goals as you. Then interview those people in person or over the phone. See if you are going to feel comfortable telling this person both sides of the story, including the one you’d rather not admit to yourself. You have to be comfortable, because if you are not, you will doubt the agreements, strategies and decisions you make later in the process. If you do end up doubting the path you’ve chosen in the process, it’s a time bomb waiting to explode and the subject matter of a different post.

3. Reputation = Value. 

There are lawyers in town that will charge $70k-$100k in less than 90 days making an absolute scene at the courthouse, all in the name of “fighting for their client”. Well, their client might feel empowered to hear their lawyer accuse their spouse of this, that, and the other, but they look like a fool to everyones else, including the judge. And, the community estate is wiped out before the ball even starts to roll. Like preschool, you need a lawyer that plays well with others even when they are opposed on a material issue. Its about communication, respect and ethics.

4. Lawyers aren’t like shoes – it’s not “you get what you pay for.”

In Tarrant County, lawyers typically charge between $200 and $750 per hour with a $2,500 to $50,000 retainer. Initial court costs/fees are in the $500 range. In many cases, there isn’t a difference between a $250 lawyer and a $750 lawyer. Don’t feel empowered just because your lawyer is more expensive. I hear spouses accusing the other of being “stupid” in their choice of an attorney simply because of the hourly rate. Don’t feel ill-prepared if your lawyer is less.  When you interview the lawyer, ask if he/she can estimate the range of fees they typically charge in your type of case. A smart lawyer will not guarantee anything, but can at least give you a worst and best case scenario. Board Certification is a great thing and qualifies that lawyer as an expert in the field. But if you ask some of the best lawyers in town, they will say Board Certification doesn’t have anything to do with it.

5. “I’ve never lost.” If a lawyer says that, run. RUN!

This means 1. they’ve never fought over close calls and therefore would be too risk averse to be aggressive when it matters and 2. they are liars. No, liars and lawyers are not synonymous.

6. Know this before you chose: At some point, YOU WILL HATE your lawyer.

That’s because, at some point, you will hear news you did not want to hear. You will find out about debt, you will learn you have to share your kids, you will discover that your lifestyle is out the window, you will find out he or she doesn’t want you back or you will be on the losing end of the judge’s order. Remember that the lawyer you choose wants to avoid surprise. My worst case scenario is when a client is shocked by a bad ruling. My job is to prepare him/her for all outcomes, good and bad, so that he/she can make an informed decision on what they want to fight for. That means, I’m going to sucker punch him/her with the truth so that he/she is prepared to hear it from the judge, when and if that happens.

7. Stop comparing.

Just stop. Don’t. You do not have the same marital troubles, kids, religion, family support, career and so on as the person who said she got $10,000 in spousal support per month and was able to move the kids to Canada. After you have picked your lawyer, tell him/her everything, and then follow his/her advice.

Co-Parenting Tips for the Holidays – It’s the Golden Rule, Duh.

By | Co-Parenting, Custody and Conservatorship, Divorce

Christianity: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12.

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. Udana-Varga 5,1

Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. Talmud, Shabbat 3id

1. Say yes and keep saying yes. “Can I bring him back late?” “Will you pack her Christmas dress?” “Can I trade days?” Say yes every time. Always know what your decree or other order requires but then always say yes. Don’t say, “yes if you will do x, y, z.” You can’t make someone else be kind. You can only make sure you are kind. Look for these opportunities because your kids are watching and will notice. Just say yes. Maybe smile a little too.

2. Buy the other parent a gift from your child. This is such a cheap and easy way to show the other parent you acknowledge and support the relationship between your child and his or her mother or father. If you want halos or you are an overachiever, also buy your co-parent’s significant other a present. Think Julia Roberts in Step Mom.

3. Follow your child’s lead on Christmas/Hanukkah. If your child wants mom to come to lunch but its not her day, invite her! If your son wants to see what his father got in his stocking, drive him by his dad’s house.

4. Include other half and step siblings in all traditions. Every child wants to be equal to their siblings and every child wants love from the mother and father, grandmother and grandfather figures in the homes they live in. All traditions should be evenly shared among the children. Tell your parents to bring a gift for your step son and to make sure if there is a family day planned to see Santa, that it’s scheduled around your step child’s visitation day. The only qualifier should be that the child is a child, not that the child belongs to so and so or doesn’t belong to so and so. Remember that halves and steps are terms and types of relationships children learn. Try to teach them that “halves” and “steps” are like “bonus” and “cool”.

5. Take a family photo. Not photo of your family. Take a photo of your child’s family. Who are important to him? Who is his mimi, her sisi, his mommy, her other mommy, his big brother…? Let that picture be his family photo he shares at school. Show him his family tree and how many people he belongs to. You have plenty of photos of your family, but does your child have one photo of everyone in HER family?

Four Women Who Need a Pre-Nup in Texas

By | Community Property, Divorce, Just and Right, Marital Property Division, Pre-Marital Agreements, Separate Property

1. The Business Owner. A properly created business has exhaustive company agreements, succession planning and creditor protection. Unless you have every confidence in your documents, you may want to consider a pre-nup to set up agreements between you and your spouse. I see many family-owned businesses severely disrupted by divorce, especially by the temporary orders phase. Image a couple in crises and both spouses are signatories on the company checking account. Perhaps each believes he/she runs the business and should be able to continue to run it exclusive to the other spouse. Where does a court begin to do what’s in the marital estate’s best interest? It is much easier on the Court if there is an agreement in place.

2. The Second Wife and Step-Mother. The reason wife No. 2 needs a pre-nup has everything to do with the probate code. When a spouse dies without a will and has children from a different marriage, Texas law requires that the majority of the estate goes to the deceased’s children. This is a huge problem for second wives.

Imagine a second wife who has young children being left with almost nothing. She will have her community interest in property earned or acquired during the marriage except for property her husband inherited, but that’s it.

A pre-nup can avoid this problem in two ways. One, a pre-nup can provide for trusts, bequests and contingent awards in a highly tailored manner. Typically, these provisions satisfy the needs of children from prior marriages as well as the spouse and children from the second marriage. Because a pre-nup is created before marriage, it provides answers to these issues before the challenges of marriage influence decisions. Secondly, a carefully drafted pre-nup can trump a will that leaves out a spouse. Yes, that’s right. Spouses do not have to leave their estate to their surviving spouse unless they have a pre-nup.

3. The Stay-At-Home Mom. As you may have read in previous articles, a stay-at-home mom is the most common penniless woman in the family courthouse. If the plan is for you to stay at home — the flexible one, the one who doesn’t climb the corporate ladder and so on — you won’t have much of a launching pad for a career should you divorce or your spouse pass away.

There isn’t a way to provide for a launching pad in divorce, but you could at least ask for yearly retirement savings in the likely amount you would have earned had your career not been the priority. For example, if you leave your advertising job of $80,000 per year to raise children by your never-home regional manager husband, consider asking for him to agree that the family will deposit 10 percent of your forgone salary into a retirement vehicle that would be considered your separate property upon divorce or death. Your resume may not be prepared, but at least you wouldn’t have to start all over on retirement planning.

4. The young (and dumb). Please do not take offense. I say young and dumb because undisclosed credit card debt is a very big and growing problem. Refinancing, consolidating, co-signing … can be very confusing and often misleading to the young and in love. A key element to pre-nups is that they require full disclosure of assets and liabilities. Younger people simply do not have the skills to confirm the credit worthiness of their fiancé. I suppose a good liar would also lie about their liabilities before marriage, but at least with the majority of people, a meaningful conversation can be started about debt, who is paying for it and how to get out of it.

Going Back to Court Over the Kids

By | Child Support, Co-Parenting, Custody and Conservatorship, Divorce

Even after the fat lady sings, it’s still not over. Half of my business is made up of cases where parents need to change their custodial agreements and orders due to changed circumstances. The agreements that worked at the time of divorce won’t necessarily work even 5 years down the road when parents have moved, remarried, had more children, lost jobs and so on. Despite the fact that these life events are common and you would think parents would not have to go back to court over these issues, I find modifications to be the most contentious.

Child support is probably the most obvious reason to modify a prior order. Just today I represented a child support paying mother whose income is steadily decreasing. Although I am sure the father feels that she is intentionally scaling back to avoid additional support, the income was what it was and the Court lowered her support based upon her reduced income. Keep in mind that child support is generally not based on the needs of the child but on a percentage of the parent’s net income up to a certain point.

Another reason why parents end up back in court is because the child decides they would prefer to live with the other parent. After the child turns 12, the court has to interview the child in cases where the right to determine the primary residence is at issue. Although the court does not have to do what the child requests, the child’s input could play a role depending upon the circumstances.

In some cases, the right to determine the primary residence is not at issue but visitation is. When parents can’t agree on their own, they will come to us lawyers and the courts to handle visitation issues. For example, if one parent lives just far enough to make it very difficult to see mom for 30 days in the summer and train for high school football. Or when a daughter wants to spend Thanksgiving doing missionary work and some other time with Dad needs to be arranged. These examples are minor. What gets to be more serious is when mom or dad’s social drinking devolves into alcoholism or other life events that need to be dealt with.

Parents often move over 100 miles from the other parent. When that happens, visitation needs to change from the standard 1st, 3rd, and 5th weekends during the school year for parents that reside less than 100 miles apart to something more flexible or specifically tailored to the family’s needs.

The problem with all these common occurrences is that modification actions can cost quadruple what you paid in the divorce. Typically, divorcing parents just want the divorce done. They disregard a lot of advice from their lawyers advising them to be very specific and forward thinking in their agreements so that they anticipate future problems and therefore avoid costly litigation. But by the time the divorce is being finalized and the documents are being drafted, parents stop caring. They want it DONE.

The reason why these modifications cost so much more is that more than one hearing is needed to walk the court down the road of explaining the basis for the modification. One hearing for child support, one hearing to have the child interviewed, one hearing to argue over what school records are admissible, one hearing to force a parent to go to specific counseling or other parenting classes. This can go on and on and on depending upon the stubbornness of the other side. This of course only hurts children and destroys pocket books. Unfortunately for others though, it is the only way to make a change.