Thursday, March 26, 2009

2009 Texas Legislative Session and the Conflict and Communication Skills Course

Representative Warren Chisum of Pampa, Texas has introduced a bill (HB 480) that would require the taking of a ten (10) hour course on “conflict management, communication skills and foregiveness skills,” to all parents seeking a divorce. The purpose of the course is to facilitate “marriage restoration.” Thus, the requirement only applies when the divorce is upon the “no fault” or “irreconcilable differences” portion of the statute, and not (for example) adultery or other grounds for divorce. Also, significantly, there is a provision which exempts alleged victims of domestic violence.

As I understand the bill, the person filing the divorce action (or “Petitioner”) would be required to show evidence of having completed the course at the time the Petition is filed (with a certificate attached to the Petition). If the course was not taken, then the divorce case would be dismissed. The non-filing spouse (or “Respondent”) would then have up to sixty (60) days within which to take the course. If the Respondent did not take the course, the Judge could then use this as a factor when awarding property, when ordering spousal maintenance (essentially alimony), when ordering child support payments, and/or when making orders with respect to child custody.

The obvious purpose of this bill is to make it a little more difficult to obtain a divorce, and to ensure that all reasonable avenues for reconciliation are encouraged. Although I don’t necessary think that this bill is a bad idea, I also think that in most of the divorce cases I have handled, the parties have already attended counseling and have tried many of these same strategies to no avail. As a result, I’m not sure that I’m in favor of the “foregiveness” skills portion of the course.
However, because of my opinion that most parents contemplating or going through a divorce do not adequately consider and deal with the very real emotional impact that the legal wrangling, divorce proceedings, and aftermath of the divorce have on the children. As a result, I think that the portions of the course that deal with the children are a good idea. In my opinion, parents who are going through a divorce should be required to learn strategies on how to minimize stress and disruption upon their children during and after the divorce.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Representing yourself in a Divorce Case.

Personally, I would not attempt an engine overhaul in order to get my car back on the road. I might be able to read a book and get all the parts back together. I might be able to figure out how the valves, springs and all the other parts go back together, but it is likely that there will be mistakes. Sometimes reading the manual is not enough. There is a base of engine mechanics and theory that I am missing. So when it comes time to turn the key, will the engine turn over or will the car blow up?

Just as with the engine overhaul example, most pro se litigants (or those who choose to represent themselves) do not have a base of legal knowledge to know when something is missing, when something is incorrect, or when your rights are not protected. Rather than speaking in generalities or analogies, let me give you an example.

Part of the art of practicing law is to make something that appears to be innocuous but that is greatly slanted toward the attorney's client. Sometimes the danger is in what is not said, versus what is said. Here are two examples of things that can be left out of a Divorce Decree that can have a devastating effect on the rights of the unaware.

1) Most divorce decrees are drafted so as to foster a continued relationship between parent and child. As a result, attorneys will advocate for the placement of a geographical restriction in the Decree. Most judges will order a geographical restriction if there is a request as long as it is not unduly restrictive. A commonly used restriction, is that the custodial parent is restricted to their county of residence and "any county adjoining" that county. This type of restriction allows for reasonable movement, but prevents the custodial parent from leaving the State -- or even country -- with the child. As a result, even though it looks reasonable for the custodial parent to have the right to choose the primary residence, it would be view by most non-custodial parents as unreasonable for the custodial parent to move to the other side of the world. However, if there is no geographical restriction, this is just what could happen.

2) Most divorce decrees have a "Standard Visitation Schedule," or similar schedule. There is a reason for this. The Standard Visitation Schedule says that the schedule is what happens when the parents cannot "mutually agree in advance." This means that the schedule itself (i.e. - the first, third and fifth weekends) is only when the parents cannot agree. Sometimes an attorney (or a party) will omit the visitation schedule from the Divorce Decree in favor of a "feel-good" provision that the non-custodial parent will have visitation whenever the parties "mutually agree." Although this sounds good, this provision is basically worthless. So what happens when the parents disagree? Nothing happens. The visits only occur when the custodial parent wants them to happen. So if the custodial parent thinks the non-custodial parent does not need to visit, then no visit occurs.

As a result, if you are a non-custodial parent, and your Divorce Decree omits a possession schedule and has no geographical restriction, your spouse could move to any part of the world and completely deny you visitation. You would need to then sue to try to get the Court to order your spouse to move back. My point is this -- sometimes you read these legal documents and they appear to be fair; however, appearances can be deceiving. Get an experienced family law attorney and be sure.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

What if we can't afford to Divorce?

Many have heard about the statistics that divorces are down nationally. Obviously, when people are stressed out, their jobs have been lost, and their finances are in shambles, it is not likely that they are suddenly happier in their marriages. The most likely explanation is that people believe that they cannot afford to divorce right now.

First, lawyers are expensive. Many people do not want to spend money on divorce attorneys in this economic downturn. People are having a hard time buying groceries and hanging on to their houses -- the last thing they want to do is to spend money on lawyers. However, the truth is that this may be the best time to seek the assistance of professionals - including attorneys.

Second, with the plunging values of homes, people are not able to sell their homes. In many situations the present indebtedness on the marital residence exceeds the value. Only by paying money to the title company at closing will they be able to sell their houses.

Third, the costs of maintaining two households has not dropped appreciably, and usually one spouse (despite the anger and frustration) is not willing to throw the other out on the street.

As a result, many spouses have decided to stay together, despite the realization that they really need a divorce. Here are some ideas to consider if you are in this situation:

1) You should consider going to a see a marriage counselor to make things better, or perhaps more importantly, save your marriage. At one point you likely vowed to stay married "in good times and in bad," and for "richer or poorer," exploring the causes of your unhappiness -- aside from the financial conditions -- might be an excellent idea. If kids are involved, it should be a priority.

2) Consider a post-nuptial agreement (or agreement between spouses) and divide assets and liabilities while things are still amicable. In most states, including Texas, spouses can agree to turn marital property into separate property while they are still married by way of a partition agreement. This way, when times are better, there are less ties between the spouses.

3) If one or both spouses have lost their jobs, and bills or credit card debts have been amassed, consider a bankruptcy. With reduced income levels, you may be able to qualify for more advantageous treatment under the Bankruptcy Code, or this simply may allow you to reorganize your finances to allow one of the spouses to hang on to the house. If your decision is to let the house go, by filing a bankruptcy, you may be able to discharge the deficiency. By discharging debt, the harassing creditor calls and stresses might be relieved.

4) If Bankruptcy is not an option, consider going to a financial planner. Some financial planners specialize in planning in the context of a divorce, others are more generalized. Consulting an expert is a great idea and nearly always worth the money. Sometimes the consultation, can at least crystallize the options so that there is less arguing about what to do.

5) Schedule a meeting to talk to a divorce attorney. Many attorneys allow you to meet with them for free. This is a good way to sort through your options. Many times the realization that this is for real can really help to light a fire under one or both of the spouses to solve the problems that are plaguing the marriage. Even if you decide against divorce, you may be able to spend the time wisely to choose a lawyer that you trust.