Monday, September 28, 2009

How to Handle Your Divorce: Top 5 Dos & Donts

Divorce is unquestionably one of the most difficult challenges people ever face. Because divorce affects every aspect of your life, it can be overwhelming. Here are 5 steps you can take to protect and prepare yourself for a divorce so you do not make the common mistakes.

1. Find a Good Attorney. It is never too soon to seek the advice of a good attorney who can arm you with the knowledge of how to protect yourself (and your children, if applicable) in the event that the relationship ultimately ends in divorce. Finding the right attorney takes some work. Find an attorney who primarily practices family law, has a good reputation, and has handled cases like yours before. Most importantly, you must feel comfortable with your attorney. Ask a lot of questions and share your concerns. It is your attorney’s job to put you at ease and ensure you understand the process and know what to expect. This is your life! So, even after you have retained counsel, if he/she is not responsive or seems unwilling to address your concerns, find a new attorney.

2. Protect & Prepare Yourself Emotionally. It is natural to experience a grieving process during and, even after, your divorce. During this difficult time, take care of yourself! You cannot control the behavior and feelings of anyone else, so focus on what you can control---you! Get plenty of sleep; eat healthy and exercise. In addition to being good for your body, exercise is a great outlet for anger and frustration. Focus on the positive things in your life rather than the negative aspects of the divorce, and surround yourself with a support group of positive people. There are countless books and other reading materials that can be helpful; or you might want to consider joining a local support group. Finally, do not be reluctant to seek the professional help of a counselor/therapist.

3. Protect & Prepare Yourself Financially. First and foremost, know what you have (assets and liabilities). This can be overwhelming for people who have not been responsible for the finances during the marriage. Empower yourself with knowledge. Make copies of all financial documents indicating what you own and what you owe. Do this right away. You might be surprised how such documents “disappear” after the divorce process starts. Monitor the bank accounts to be sure that all deposits are being made and bills are being paid. Check credit card statements for suspicious charges. Review all accounts for suspicious withdrawals, charges or transactions. If you or your spouse have any collection items (e.g., coins), take photographs and research their unique value. Consider taking a room by room inventory of personal property in the event a dispute arises later.

4. If You Have Children… If you and your spouse have children, your divorce will be even more challenging. No matter how angry you may be with your spouse, he/she is the parent of your child(ren). Respect that and keep your children’s best interests as your top priority at all times. Do not, under any circumstances, speak negatively about your spouse in front of your children. It is hurtful to them, it puts them in the middle, and it will ultimately backfire on you. Consult books or therapists concerning age-appropriate ways to explain the situation. Remind them that they are loved by both parents and that your divorce is not their fault. Consider counseling if it appears they are struggling. Be sure to advise their teachers/caregivers of the situation, so that they will be more aware of their mood/behavior and, hopefully, more understanding of misbehavior. Finally, if you believe that custody will be contested, start keeping a journal of the children’s involvement with your spouse. Above all, remember that your spouse will be in your life, long after the divorce is over, and even after your kids are grown.

5. Always Do The Next Right Thing. Whether you have children or not, it is imperative that you make good decisions throughout the process. Regardless of how justified you may feel in such things as contacting his/her employer, friends and family to inform them of his/her wrongdoings—don’t! Act as if the judge who will decide your case will know everything that you do and say. Do not attempt to retaliate or seek revenge. As hard as it seems, take the high road. Matching your spouse’s bad behavior will continue the conflict, result in far more attorney fees, and will prolong the time until you can find emotional peace. Finally, remember that emails are permanent, voicemails and text messages can be saved, and comments or photos on social networking sites can be retrieved. Be smart. A bad decision today can significantly impact your future.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

How to Find the Right Family Law Attorney

You have decided it is time to talk to a family law attorney. Sometimes that is the toughest decision to make. But now that you know you need or want legal advice, who do you hire? It is common to feel desperate to find an attorney immediately after coming to the conclusion that you need or want a lawyer, but do not make the mistake that so many others have made in hiring your attorney based solely on timing and convenience. You need to find the right attorney----which is not necessarily the one whose office is conveniently located on your way home from work; the first one you see in the phonebook; the first one who actually speaks with you on the phone; or, the only one that agrees to meet with you today! You might get lucky using some of these methods, but it is much more likely that you will find yourself frustrated and dissatisfied with the outcome. Much of that frustration can be avoided by finding the right family law attorney to assist you from the beginning. The following are things to keep in mind (and some good questions to ask) when you are selecting a family law attorney:

1. It is personal! The attorney-client relationship is a personal relationship---maybe more so in family law than in any other area of the law. Family law cases involve life’s most sensitive and delicate issues. The issues you will be discussing with your attorney are probably the most personal and sensitive you will ever experience. Your case deals with your marriage, family and/or children---of course it is personal! If you do not feel comfortable talking with the attorney, keep looking! Be selective. This is important! Your attorney should listen to you and to your needs. Every case is different, so an attorney that you feel is not listening to you, but rather makes you feel like you are just “walking through the motions" of any “typical" divorce, is probably not the right attorney for you. Your attorney needs to listen and make you feel confident that he/she is competent and capable or representing you; reassured that your questions and concerns have been addressed; and secure in your “game plan" as to how and when (and even if) the case is going to be handled from the time of initiation until the final resolution. You should feel comfortable talking to your attorney and asking questions of your attorney. If your attorney makes you feel like the questions you ask are “stupid questions," keep looking! There are no stupid questions…you should have lots of questions for your attorney. The only way questions can be stupid is if you choose not to ask them.

2. Concentration on Family Law: If you needed a heart transplant, you would not go to an optometrist…and you wouldn’t go to a general practitioner or “family doctor," either. You would go to a specialist---a cardiologist. The same is true with lawyers. Any attorney can claim to be competent to handle your divorce or help you with a custody case, etc., but you need someone whose practice is concentrated in family law. Find out the attorney’s level of concentration on family law by asking the following questions:
· What percentage of your practice is dedicated to family law?
· How many cases have you had like mine? With my specific issues?
· Are you a member of the local (city or state) family law section of the bar association?
· Have you practiced in this particular county/court in the past?

3. Does your attorney have time for you? In your first meeting, if the attorney seems “too busy" to give you 100% of his/her attention, does not take time to answer all of your questions, or just does not seem to be listening to you--- keep looking! If you are still unsure of what the attorney’s commitment to your case will be at the end of your initial consultation, ask the following questions:
· How many cases are you actively working right now?
· How many cases would you take at any given time? How many cases would you consider to be a “full workload?"
· Do you have a policy on returning phone calls/emails?
· How often will you communicate with me?
· Is it your policy to send me copies of all correspondence and/or documents you receive from the opposing counsel and/or the court?

4. Piranha or Peacemaker? Ok, so piranha is a bit extreme…but the idea is very important.
Many clients are very angry when they first meet with family law attorneys, and they might believe that they “need a real fighter" on their side who will promise to legally “punish" the opposing party. If that is what you believe you need or want, you can certainly find a “piranha-type attorney" who will infuse more conflict into your case and will refuse to resolve even the simplest of issues without a battle. If you think that is the type of attorney you want to represent you, consider the following:
· The only people who win in high-conflict cases are the attorneys…the more you fight with your spouse, the more money the attorneys make.
· Even though you might have to compromise to reach an agreement, you are in control of your future. You can determine what circumstances you can “live with." Do you really want your future (and the future of your family and your children) to be determined by a judge who only has a few minutes to hear your life story before making a ruling?
· The negativity that is created during family law cases will make it extremely difficult to have any future dealings and involvement with the other party after the case is over. Civility cannot be underrated.
· If you have children, you have no excuse! Minimize the conflict in all ways possible for their benefit.

5. Let’s talk fees: Even though it might be an uncomfortable topic, it is absolutely necessary that you talk to the attorney about fees. You should have a fee agreement in writing from your attorney explaining in detail how the representation is going to work, how you will be billed, etc. If you do not understand something about the fee agreement, ask! Remember, this is your money! You have every right to understand completely how you are agreeing to spend it! If you have concerns about the written fee agreement or find that it is not specific or clear, be sure to ask the following questions, at a minimum:
· What is your hourly rate?
· What is the minimum time increment for recording your time?
· Will there be any other people in the firm that will be billing time on my case?
· What are the billable rates of any others that could potentially be working on my case?
· How often will I receive an invoice?
· If I have a question about an invoice, to whom should I direct my question?
· What methods of payment do you accept (i.e., credit cards, etc.)?
· What can I do to help keep my fees to a minimum?
· How much is my retainer? And, when my retainer is gone, what is your policy for additional payments after the retainer is gone?