As the result of our bad economy, more and more divorcing couples are attempting to act as their own lawyers. While this may save money in the short run, the long run consequences can be both devastating and irreversible, especially when it comes to how the parties divide their property. This is because, under the laws of Connecticut and many other states, once the court has approved an agreement to divide marital property, the agreement can never be changed.
One of the biggest mistakes so-called pro se litigants make in handling their cases is failing to take advantage of a process known as “discovery”. Discovery is the mechanism by which lawyers collect evidence to use in lawsuits. In the case of divorce, lawyers routinely file formal requests for documents, not only directed to the adverse party, but also directed to employers, unions, banks, and others who might have financial information relevant in the divorce. Divorce lawyers then use the information they have gathered to prepare for negotiation and trial.
If they did not perform this crucial step in the litigation process, they would be forced to rely upon the notoriously inaccurate information provided by the adverse party on a single document known as a “financial affidavit”.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what the majority of pro se litigants do. This can result in serious miscalculations of the amounts of alimony and child support that should be paid and can also result in the over or under valuation of assets. It can even mean overlooking marital assets entirely.
When balanced against the cost of giving up a fair share of a lifetime pension, for example, the savings realized by going it alone in divorce court can be insignificant.
There is no reason why pro se litigants cannot conduct their own discovery if they first educate themselves about the types of discovery available and the rules for conducting it.
While non-lawyers do not have the right to issue subpoenas on their own, court clerks generally can sign subpoenas on their behalf.
Some requests for discovery do not even require subpoena power, notably when the request is addressed to the adverse party. Just by formally requesting items such as bank and credit card statements, tax returns, and more, pro se parties could potentially do a far better job in representing their own interests. Sadly, though, most are either unaware of the process or unable to maneuver the system in order to collect the information they need. Still others don’t know what to ask for because they are unaware of what assets are divisible in a divorce
Courts in Connecticut and in most other states are making great strides in providing assistance to pro se litigants through programs that provide do-it-yourselfers with the forms that are required to process a divorce, but rarely does the assistance go beyond that. In fact, court personnel from clerks to judges are generally prohibited from offering legal advice at all. Nevertheless, people who have been provided with a set of necessary documents by a court official are often left with the illusion that they have received the range of legal counsel and assistance that they would have received from a lawyer.
Others feel comfortable trusting their spouse to provide full and adequate financial disclosure and therefore see no need for discovery. Any experienced divorce lawyer will tell you that this is a mistake. This is not necessarily because the other party is dishonest, but because neither spouse may fully understand how to report income and assets. Many honest people also make the mistake of believing they don’t have to disclose occasional income like bonuses or regular overtime simply because those kinds of income are not guaranteed.
If you find yourself forced to act as your own lawyer in a divorce, you should, at a minimum, visit your local law library and spend an afternoon reading the statutes covering divorce, paying special attention to those related to the discovery process.
If you can’t afford to retain a lawyer to provide full representation in your case, you may be able to hire one on an hourly basis for limited purposes such as preparing discovery requests for your signature, or reviewing proposed divorce agreements before a final hearing. When you consider how much it will cost in the long run, to inadvertently forego an extra $50 a week in child support, or $1000 a month in future retirement income, it’s easy to see that working your way through the discovery process is a rewarding task.
Discovery is a process through which parties to a lawsuit collect evidence and information to prepare their cases for settlement negotiations or trial.
Often, parties squabble over whether certain documents or areas of questioning are ‘discoverable’. Usually the dispute over whether a discovery request must be honored is based on a claim that the document or information is either too burdensome to produce or is protected by laws concerning personal privacy.
Lately, more and more of those squabbles concern whether an individual’s Facebook password is discoverable. For anyone who hoped that their Facebook privacy settings were enough to keep their online discourse private from enemies or adversaries, that hope is fading fast.
Most often, Courts deal with demands for Facebook access in the context of personal injury litigation where the defendant wants to use Facebook photos or posts to show that the plaintiff’s injuries are not as serious as he or she claims. Let’s face it – photos of your golf swing or dance moves will shoot serious holes in your disability claim.
Courts increasingly agree that Facebook postings are fair game in the discovery process.
Laws that prevent Facebook, itself, and other social media sites from disclosing member’s private information are of no help if you are the one being asked to allow access. For example, a Pennsylvania court recently found that the federal Stored Communications Act, which would have prevented Facebook from honoring a subpoena of documents, did not apply to the Defendant, himself.
Personal injury litigation is not the only area of law affected by this trend. In a recent pretrial ruling, a Connecticut court paved the way for a divorcing couple in a child custody case to examine each other’s past and current Facebook posts following an attempt by the wife to change her password and delete posts.
Conventional wisdom has always dictated that we shouldn’t post anything on Facebook that we wouldn’t want a potential employer to see. What this growing body of caselaw shows us is that, when you share too much information with your Facebook friends, you risk losing more than just a job.
In a case set to be released on May 21, 2013 the Connecticut Appellate Court has overturned a lower court’s ruling that lowered the child support of a visiting father from a presumptive amount of $100 under existing guidelines to $75 as a result of the mother’s relocation within the state.
The trial court in Kavanah vs Kavanah found that Leo Kavanah’s costs in traveling back and forth between Southington, Connecticut and Monroe, Connecticut were ‘extraordinary’ within the meaning of Connecticut’s child support guidelines as they address reasons for deviation from presumptive support amounts.
The higher court held that the trial court had not sufficiently explained the basis for its conclusion that Mr. Kavanah, who had been ordered to do the driving for visitation, would be incurring extraordinary expenses — as opposed to normal expenses — as a result of his wife’s relocation.
This, alone, would not necessarily affect future cases assuming that parents seeking deviation for this reason were careful to present evidence of their visitation costs and that judges ordering deviation were careful to make specific findings about why they were reducing support.
However the Appellate Court did not stop at finding fault with the thoroughness of the lower court’s decision. In addition, they cited with approval another Superior Court decision, Weissman vs. Sissell, in which the court had observed that “[m]any non-custodial parents have some transportation costs to see their child—for parents living within driving distance of each other, for example, the non-custodial parent is likely to pay for fuel and other costs picking up or dropping off the child,
but these ordinary expenses usually do not warrant a deviation from the presumptive amount.’’
Appeals are expensive and, in the case of family law, difficult to win, so it is relatively rare to see a support case with so little at issue reach the Appellate Court.
This is not to say that the difference between $100 and $75 was insignificant to the parties in this case or to other divorcing parents. Certainly the Kavanah case has not closed the door on deviations for low-income individuals for whom in-state or other short-distance travel costs are burdensome, but it raises the bar for how the issue must be presented to the courts and makes it imperative that the court be reminded to make appropriate findings to justify why — in a particular case — transportation expenses that might be normal for some people are extraordinary in the context of the individual circumstances of the family before the court.
In a decision released this week, the Connecticut Appellate Court upheld a ruling by the trial court that the court did not have authority to allow one member of an unmarried couple to buy out the other in order to separate their interests in a jointly held home — a solution routinely applied in divorce cases.
Dean Fusco and Robbin Austin had been in an almost 40 year relationship and for many years had shared a home that they had purchased together. When they broke up, Dean moved out of the home they had owned together for about 23 years and Robbin remained in the house but ultimately, like many estranged couples, they were unable to see eye-to-eye on a fair way of dividing their possessions including the equity in their house.
Since they were not married, Dean and Robbin could not take advantage of the relatively short process of divorce which typically takes between 5 and 12 months to accomplish except in the most hotly contested cases. Instead, they were relegated to the ordinary civil docket which often moves even more slowly. In order to receive his share of equity in the house, Dean had to file an action for partition — a procedure designed to separate joint ownership in real estate.
Not only is the procedure more cumbersome and, in most cases, more drawn out than divorce litigation, the remedies available are also limited.
Because Robbin was living in the home and wanted to remain there, she asked the court simply to determine what the house was worth and to award Dean his share based on the evidence of what he had contributed over the years both financially and in labor and management. That was, after all, what any divorce court could do and probably would if the parties were already separated.
The court said no. Historically, partition in Connecticut can have only two results. One is called ‘partition in kind’ . That means the property is literally divided up and each party walks away owning his or her part of the whole. That may work fine with open land or a farm, but can hardly work in a single family home.
The other option is ‘partition by sale’. This is used when the nature of the property doesn’t lend itself to a line drawn in the sand. So, because this was a single family home, that is what the court ordered.
Robin, who didn’t want her house sold, appealed the trial court’s decision.
There is a statute she pointed to that does allow the court to order one party the option of buying out the other even when they are not married and must go the partition route.
The statute did not apply here. The problem, according to the Appellate Court who denied the appeal, was that this third option only applies in a small class of cases in which the party to be bought out has an interest deemed to be “minimal”.
Even though Dean had contributed less than Robbin financially, he had worked on the house over the years and the trial court had not considered his interest to be minimal.
The lesson of this case is not that anyone considering buying a house with a significant other outside of marriage or civil union should marry. The lesson is that partners in real estate purchases, whether or not they are in love, need to have a clear written agreement about how their interests will be determined in the event that their partnership some day ends.
In a decision to be released next week, Keller vs. Keller, the Connecticut Appellate Court has overturned a hefty order of alimony and support entered by a Superior Court judge.
The Defendant husband held a law degree from Columbia University and was licensed to practice in two states. After a brief practice, he had gone into finance and most recently had owned a hedge fund that had , at first, done very well but had later turned sour. At the time the order entered, the fund was closed. The evidence showed that Attorney Keller had no income and the family was living on borrowed money and the last of their liquid assets.
In Connecticut and elsewhere, judges may make orders of alimony and support based on a finding that the payor has earning capacity even if he or she is unemployed or underemployed. Tn the Keller case, the judge did just that, finding that Attorney Keller had a gross earning capacity of $25,000 per month. Based on that finding, the court ordered him to pay combined alimony and support of $9,000 per month during the pendency of the case.
The Appellate Court overturned the order, not because the lower court did not have discretion to consider earning capacity but because the court failed make a finding as to Attorney Keller’s net earning capacity. Under Connecticut law, orders of alimony and support must be based on net income whether that income is real or merely imputed.
The lesson for litigants hoping to obtain orders against their unemployed or underemployed spouse is to present evidence specifically on the subject of what they believe their spouse could earn after taxes.
A new article on Forbes.com by Attorney Jeff Landers gives a nice overview of the reasons to gear up early once you sense that divorce may be one outcome of your marital problems.
While Jeff seems to suggest that divorce dirty tricks are the exclusive province of men, in our experience the risks and considerations he outlines in this otherwise informative article apply to both genders.
Landers points out that consulting an attorney early can not only provide you with a crucial checklist for contingency planning, but can also assure that your spouse won’t beat you to the punch by consulting several of the best area lawyers simply to disqualify them from representing you. He also notes that starting the action assures that if the matter goes to trial down the road, you will be the one, as the plaintiff, to present your case first.
Our clients in Connecticut should also know that by filing for divorce certain Automatic Orders take effect the moment the divorce papers are served on their spouse. These orders prevent the other party from doing a number of things including moving out-of-state with children, hiding assets, taking sole ownership of joint assets, changing locks on the marital residence, changing beneficiaries on existing insurance policies and more. The full text and a summary of the Automatic Orders can be found here on the Connecticut Judicial Website.
Bottom line? While you’re hoping for the best and working on your marriage it also makes sense to prepare well for the worst
Saw this post this morning.
Wondering what my clients and neighbors in Stonington and surrounds think
In a decision released this week, the Connecticut Appellate court once more addressed the issue of whether and to what extent a divorcing couple can agree to make child support and alimony non-modifiable. It has long been clear that absent clear and unambiguous written language to the contrary, both alimony and child support may be changed by the court as the circumstances of the parties change. This language is normally found in the terms of a written separation agreement, i.e., a contract, between the parties which is adopted by the court at the time of the dissolution and made a court order.
Historically, it has been easier to put a lock on an alimony award than on a child support award for reasons of public policy. The courts have always ruled that only under certain very limited circumstances may the parties to a divorce limit the rights of their children to receive support from their parents.
This week’s decision in Malpeso vs Malpeso involved a situation where the husband was to pay $20,000 per month to the wife as” alimony, or separate support for the minor children” . The ambiguity of that language alone, stated in the disjunctive, made the agreement unusual. The agreement went on to provide that this sum, which it now referred to as simply “alimony” would not be modifiable for 8 years. An exception the parties had agreed on as part of the contract was a calamitous circumstance affecting the economy of New York and similar to the events of September 11, 2001. Clearly such an event had not occurred. Still, the husband argued that his circumstances had changed.
In response to her former husband’s motion to modify the order before the 8 years had expired, the wife objected citing the language of the agreement and the trial court agreed. The appellate court reversed saying the agreement was ambiguous as to whether by “alimony” the parties meant to refer to the order that the agreement had earlier characterized to include child support. Based on that ambiguity, the court held that the longstanding presumption favoring the modifiability of child support prevailed.
In an earlier post, we discussed another recent case in which the parties had agreed, at the time of the divorce, on an ending date for alimony. In that case, the court held that selecting a termination date alone did not make alimony non-modifiable as to term. Both of these cases underscore the need for careful drafting of agreements regarding both alimony and child support. In the event of any ambiguity at all, the courts do not look to the original intent of the parties, but instead to the policies that favor modification.