Most of us realize that divorce – especially one in which children are involved – is best faced with the assistance of an experienced family lawyer. This is equally true when self-employment, substantial assets or –just as important — substantial debt complicate finances.
Still, while divorce rates reportedly fell in the depths of the Great Recession, marriages held together by nothing more than inadequate cash flow cannot last forever. Proof of this is the skyrocketing percentage of divorces being prosecuted and defended without benefit of counsel.
If you find yourself in a situation where divorce is both inevitable and urgent, and the funds to retain a lawyer are completely out of reach, there are still steps you can take to protect your interests at minimal cost as a pro se litigant. Here are 6 ways to survive divorce without formal legal representation:
1.) Visit your state’s judicial web site. You can usually find it easily by searching your state’s name and the word “judiciary” or “official web site” There you will find a wealth of information on a variety of subjects many of them specifically created for do-it-yourselfers. The judicial web site will also provide you with links and templates to forms that will be needed in your divorce action. Simply browsing these forms may alert you to options you hadn’t considered. If your spouse has access to funds that are out of your control, one such option is to file a motion asking the court for an allowance from your spouse sufficient to secure legal representation once the case is underway. While not in such an immediate way, a temporary order of alimony might also help level the playing field.
2) Ask for fee waivers. Filing fees and fees for process servers can run into hundreds of dollars. If you qualify, you may be granted waivers of these fees by simply filing the appropriate application and supporting financial information.
3) Become a smart observer. Don’t wait until your hearing is scheduled to visit the courthouse. Learn when motion sessions are being held and when contested divorce cases are being heard. These sessions are almost always open to the public. Once you have sat through several contested hearings and a few uncontested divorces, you will know much more about the process and you will also be alert to some of the hurdles you might otherwise not have anticipated.
4) Find out whether your courts have dedicated pro se assistants. If so, these individuals may be able to help you sort through the paperwork to make sure you have all the documents the judge will require in order to go forward with your hearing. Be careful though. Pro se assistants, just like other judicial personnel, are not allowed to offer you legal advice. This means, for example, that while they can tell you whether your written agreement is in proper form, they cannot advise you about whether it is fair or whether you have covered all of the issues.
5) Don’t skip the discovery process. Although non-lawyers cannot sign subpoenas, court clerks generally can do so on your behalf. If you are counting on your estranged spouse to provide you with full information about income, bonuses, overtime, retirement accounts, spending history and more, you are making the most common and, in the long term, costly mistake that pro se litigants make –one that handily outstrips any short-term savings realized by foregoing legal assistance.
6) Consider engaging a lawyer as coach. This can be a win-win situation for both lawyer and client. The lawyer’s risks are minimized when he or she remains in the background and is not attorney of record. This is because once a lawyer becomes attorney of record in a case courts can require the lawyer to continue working on the case even if he or she is not being paid. Even if the lawyer is eventually allowed to withdraw from representation, losses have already accrued that may be uncollectible or, at best, difficult to collect.
From the point of view of the litigant, using a lawyer as coach has a number of benefits. While a lawyer acting in this capacity cannot attend hearings or negotiate with others on your behalf, he or she can help with any and all other aspects of preparing for negotiation or trial. What’s more, since a lawyer acting as coach is not responsible for the ultimate outcome of the case, she has the freedom to assist in limited ways according to your own needs and budget. For example, one client may want legal assistance just for preparing documents and for guidance in gathering financial information about the other party. Another individual may feel comfortable sorting out the numbers but need assistance in preparing for a hearing by organizing exhibits and questions for witnesses, or by planning overall strategy and argument to the court. Still others who have reached a tentative agreement with their spouse might simply want a lawyer to review the financial affidavits and draft agreement and offer an opinion about whether it is fair and complete. Finally, it is not unusual for litigants to seek legal assistance – either coaching or full representation only after they have run afoul of procedural rules and feel that they have reached a roadblock in their case.
Some lawyers charge their normal hourly rate for divorce coaching but others may be willing to charge a substantially lower hourly rate for these so-called unbundled services. Lawyers are quite accustomed to discussing fees; so never feel shy about asking. Our own firm charges less than half our regular hourly rate for divorce coaching services.
While self-representation – at least at the outset of a case – might be unavoidable, it is no cause for surrender. Every new challenge brings with it the possibility for ingenuity and growth.
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 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
A new Connecticut Appellate Court case provides us with a window into what may be a shift in judicial attitudes on the issue of whether to look at earning capacity vs. actual or reported earnings in alimony and support cases.
In 2009 when Sandy and Scott McRae — both small business owners — were divorced, the trial court entered an alimony award based not on the couple’s respective financial affidavits, but instead on what the court estimated their real earning capacities to be — a higher number for both husband and wife. Based on those assumptions, the court entered an order that, in theory at least, equalized their incomes.
Mr. McRae wasted no time petitioning the court to reduce the award. On his third attempt in 2011, he finally met with success. Judge Trial Referee Herbert Berall reduced Mr. McRae’s weekly alimony obligation from $250 to $150 per week. Better still, from Mr. McRae’s point of view, the court allowed one half of that amount, $75 per week, to be treated as payments toward a substantial arrearage Mr. McRae had accumulated by unilaterally reducing his alimony payments without the benefit of a court order. At that rate, Mr. McRae’s arrearage would not be fully paid for approximately 7 years and, meanwhile, even the remaining $75 — the new current order — would drop away before long under the terms of the original decree.
Sandy McRae appealed the order on a number of grounds. The question that interests us the most was whether the court erred by comparing apples to oranges — 2009 earning capacity to 2011 reported earnings. The court made it clear on the record that it considering Mr. McRae’s financial affidavit and tax returns in deciding whether to modify the 2009 alimony rather than looking beyond those numbers as the first court had done to consider, instead, Mr. McRae’s earning capacity.
The point is a technical but important one. Under Connecticut law and the law of most other states as well, courts cannot modify alimony without first finding, as a matter of fact, that there has been a substantial change in the financial circumstances of one or both of the parties. There were two sides to Ms. McRae’s argument. If the trial judge had looked at earning capacity rather than his actual reported earnings, then the judge hearing the motion for modification should have done the same thing.
Conversely, she argued, if the court was considering Mr. McRae’s reported income in 2011, it should compare it, not with his 2009 earning capacity, but with what he had reported his real earnings to be in 2009 — about the same number he reported in 2011. Effectively, her argument was that if the court had compared apples to apples — reported earnings with reported earnings — it should not have modified her alimony because Mr. McRae was reporting about the same level of income in 2011 that he had reported in 2009.
The appellate court disagreed even though the judge who modified the order clearly said that he was basing the new order on Mr. McRae’s financial affidavit and recent tax returns. The judge said this about the 2009 finding that Mr. McRae had higher earning capacity than his real earnings suggested: ” Well reality set in … [s]o much for predictions. I will tell you, this court, certainly in the last year and a half, has made no decisions finding people’s earning capacity.”
The appellate court rejected Ms. McRae’s arguments finding essentially that the modifying judge based his decision on an assumption that Mr. McRae’s earnings and earning capacity were one and the same so the order was still based on a comparison between past and present earning capacity. This despite the lower court judge’s own words.
So what does all this mean? In part that depends on how many other judges agree that lower incomes are more likely to be the result of economic reality than of divorce game-playing. The case-law in Connecticut makes it clear that courts have the right to consider a person’s earning capacity if they believe that the individual is under-employed. We often encounter clients who insist that their spouses are deliberately under-reporting income or keeping his or her earnings artificially low in order to achieve better results in divorce court. Now it seems, convincing the court of that may be harder in a bad economy than it has been in years past.
This does not mean that earning capacity is lost as a concept in divorce law, but it does mean that the standards of assembling proof, including the use of expert witnesses where appropriate, are higher than ever.
We see it all the time — divorced or divorcing parents who see every compromise on issues of visitation or custody as a loss and who return to the courts time and again to settle everyday disputes.
In a case to be released next week, Lori Hibbard vs. Tony Hibbard, the Connecticut Appellate Court upheld the decision of a trial court to pick a side in such a case, and to do so in a big way.
The couple divorced in 2007 returning in less than a year with disputes about money and visitation. In the next 4 years, the parties filed a total of 30 post-judgment motions between them. According to the appeals court, the disputes increasingly involved access to their daughter –only two years old at the time of the divorce.
Initially, it appears from the decision that the plaintiff mother had a fair amount of success managing to limit the defendant father’s access more and more. At various points, this even involved requiring that visits be supervised and that overnight visits be suspended.
By the time they returned to court to litigate their last set of four motions — two filed by each party– visitation by the father had been whittled to one weekday afternoon and two 7-hour weekend visits every other week together with some specified holidays and birthdays.
The mother’s two motions sought further restrictions on the father’s access, the father, for his part, asked that the mother be held in contempt of court for failing to allow him several scheduled visits and –more importantly –asked that custody of their child be granted to him.
The mother defended against the contempt motion claiming that although she had not allowed the visits it was because her daughter had reported being touched inappropriately by a friend of the father during an earlier visit.
The trial court did not find the mother’s claim to be credible noting in a detailed 20-page decision that, in the past, the mother had made various other unrelated claims that had not been substantiated by investigators or by the child’s therapist. She had argued that the child was afraid of her father, but again was not backed up the child’s therapist. The judge further noted that the mother had terminated therapy for the child when the therapist asked to meet with the father and had terminated longstanding daycare arrangements after a worker shared information about the child with the father’s current wife.
Concluding that the mother’s strategy was to eliminate the father from their child’s life, the judge awarded sole custody to the father, granting the mother visitation rights. Considering that she had originally been awarded custody and had historically succeeded, at least to some extent, in controlling the father’s access, it is a fair guess that this was an unexpectd result.
The mother appealed and lost.
In this blog, we have commented before about the toll that contentious and protracted custody and visitation litigation takes on families, and especially on children. The adverse effects of serious and prolonged parental wrangling on children — not just while it is happening but well into adulthood — has been amply documented.
For most families, the financial toll taken by the cost of serial court appearances makes a difference in the quality of life of the entire family and colors the attitudes of the adults towards each other. This, in turn, makes it even less likely that the children who are at least the official subject of the fighting, can enjoy a carefree, guilt-free and happy childhood.
We do not claim to be in position to judge or evaluate the merits of Ms. Hibbard’s attacks on Mr. Hibbard’s parenting. What we can say, however, from many years of experience, is that once custody and visitation issues have been addressed and decided — whether by agreement or by trial — future efforts to change the deal become subject to increasing skepticism. As lawyers, we must always respect the obligation of parent’s to do what they believe to be in the best interest of their children. At the same time, however, we must always counsel our clients — as the experienced lawyers in this case no doubt did — to consider at every step, whether they are motivated by genuine concern for their children or by relationship issues between the adults. At a minimum, they should be made aware that this will be a question that the court will consider in every instance.