“Simplify.  Simplify.”  — Henry David Thoreau

Divorce negotiations can feel like Whack-A-Mole. There are so many issues. And they are interconnected so if you change one the others change. For example, if alimony goes up, child support goes down. One tool I have in my divorce toolbox is liquidated damages. That means reducing disputes to a dollar amount.

A Typical Scenario

Let’s say I represent a husband in a divorce. He moves out of the marital home into an apartment and the wife still lives there. She wants to know who is going to pay the bills until they reach an overall agreement or the divorce judge decides at trial. She worries he will cancel her health and auto insurance.

The husband has his own expenses to pay now and wants the wife to pay her own living expenses.

Each spouse is angry and feels the other is to blame for the separation.

Liquidated Damages Offer and Demand

After some back and forth with opposing counsel, I suggest we convert the various disputed issues into a single dollar amount.

I ask opposing counsel how much money the wife is requesting each month. This is the “demand” because it is the amount the wife is demanding the husband pay.

Then I ask my client how much he is willing and can afford to contribute to the wife’s expenses until we settle or go to trial. This amount is the “offer” or the amount he is offering to pay the wife to settle.

Ceiling and Floor

Now we have established a ceiling and a floor for settlement negotiations.

Next we try to negotiate a liquidated damages number somewhere between the offer and demand.

This simplifies the dispute and takes some of the emotion and blame out of negotiations. The parties are also able to bring more certainty and stability to the future and plan their budgets accordingly.

You don't have to have contempt for the other in a divorceAs I watch the President refusing to shake the Speaker’s hand, and the Speaker tearing up the President’s State of the Union address, they remind me of my divorce clients who have nothing but contempt for their soon-to-be-ex’s.

When I was in the army, there was a saying. Respect the uniform even if you don’t respect the man (or woman.) Both the President and the Speaker need to show respect for their offices even if they don’t respect each other.

These are not the role models I want for my children. I remember my father taking me to his job one day and teaching me how to shake hands with someone I meet.  “Always stand up,’ he said. “Look them in the eyes and put out your hand. Give them a firm handshake and smile.”

I’m from Missouri, where people are friendly and say “Howdy, neighbor” to strangers. If you refuse a handshake, you will get a bad reputation and people will not do business with you.

I worked for an older lawyer who was unfailingly polite to everyone he met, from the president of the bank to the janitor for our offices. He would smile, look them in the eye, put out his hand, and inquire about their spouse and children.

One day we had a deposition. The lawyer on the other side was young, handsome, and articulate. He wore an expensive suit, with cuff links and a tie pin. The older lawyer put out his hand toward the younger lawyer and introduced himself. His hand hung there in the air for several awkward seconds. I suppose the younger lawyer wanted to prove to his client that he was an aggressive advocate for him, but to me it just proved that he lacked basic civility.

It is possible to be both polite and aggressive at the same time. There are studies that show you get more in negotiation if your opponent likes you.  You actually can get more bees with honey than vinegar. A kind word (or deed) turneth away wrath.

 

My son was still smarting this morning from the lecture he got from his mom for playing computer games last night.  I told him that his mom is not angry at him and she just wants the best for him.  So he should not let it get to him. Then I told him some stories to illustrate my advice.

The People Manager

I have a friend who has 200 employees reporting to him. I call him whenever I have a staff problem.

He tells me that when his employees have a problem at work, the reason they give usually turns out not to be the real reason.

For example, Jane is complaining that she does not feel appreciated. Upon further investigation, he learns that Jane has just broken up with her boyfriend.

The Little Old Lady

A lawyer is in a hurry to get to court via the subway system in DC. He pushes his way onto the crowded car. As the doors close and he pulls away from the station, he sees his briefcase sitting on the bench outside the car where he left it.

When he exits the car, a little old lady in tennis shoes is walking up the escalator in front of him. She stops and bends over to tie her shoelace.

He kicks her and mutters to himself, “little old ladies. Always tying their tennis shoes.”

The Restaurant Manager

There is a restaurant manager I know who deals with complaints this way: When he is called to a table, he imagines the patron has a gun pointed at him and the complaints are bullets.

Bang! “The coffee is cold.”

He leans to the right and the bullet passes over his left shoulder. It missed!   “Yes, sir, I’ll get you a fresh cup right away.”

Bang! “And the bread is too.”

He leans to the left. Another miss. “We’ll bring you some warm bread.”

You are Never Upset for the Reason You Think You Are

A Course in Miracles says you are never upset (or angry or fill in the emotion) for the reason you think you are. So when someone is upset or angry with you, don’t take it personally. They are probably just mad because they left their briefcase at the station.

 

 

Country road

The red pickup truck raised a cloud of dust as it hurtled down the dirt road toward us. “When he gets here, yell, ‘Howdy Neighbor’ as loud as you can.” said my friend. We were two boys camping out on Jerry’s grandfather’s farm in rural Missouri.

I thought this was crazy but I got ready to yell as the pickup reached us. But before I could, an arm waived out the window and yelled, “Howdy Neighbor!” I yelled the same back as it zoomed past.

Having grown up in a small town in the Midwest where everyone is your neighbor, it was cultural shock to move to Washington. DC. As I walked to my first day of work as a lawyer for the FCC, I naively said hello to everyone I passed on the sidewalk. Most of them looked at me like I was crazy or going to rob them. There are just too many people in a big city and life is too fast-paced to make small-town small talk to every passerby.

My law firm eventually moved to the suburbs and I walk to work at 7:00 am so there are not as many people on the sidewalks at that hour. I passed four of them this morning. I made sure to give them a smile and a warm Midwestern “hello” as I passed by. All of them reciprocated.

You also try this at home. Greet your spouse with an enthusiastic and energetic “hello” when you come home.

Small gestures have big consequences. You may not save the universe but you may just make it a better place. We can all use a “Howdy Neighbor.”

 

 

 

 

A review of acquiescence in divorce appeals

Here’s a look at the acquiescence defense in divorce appeals.

Say you’ve done everything right on your appeal from a divorce order that didn’t go your way.

  • You filed the notice of appeal on time and in the right court.
  • You ordered the transcript.
  • You filed the index.
  • You wrote the brief, kept it within the word limit, formatted it correctly, cited the right standard of review, used the right font, had it printed with a cover page in the right color, and filed it by the deadline.

Then your spouse deposits $100,000 in your bank account, which is the amount of the monetary award. You need the money so you keep it. You may have just waived your right to appeal.

Exceptions to Acquiescence Defense in Divorce Appeals

There are exceptions.  In Dietz vs Dietz, 241 Md. 683 (1998), Mrs. Dietz accepted and deposited a check for a portion of the martial award after she filed an appeal. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals held that was not inconsistent because she was seeking an increase in the marital award on appeal and the husband had not appealed. So the only issue on appeal was an increase in the martial award.

The Court of Special Appeals held otherwise in Chimes v. Michaels, 131 Md. App. 271 (2000), cert denied, 359 Md. 334 (2000). There the appellant accepted the entire monetary award and filed a statement of satisfaction with the court.

Another exception to the acquiescence defense in divorce appeals is waiver. In a recent case we argued, the husband waived the right to raise acquiescence on appeal, then filed a motion to dismiss the wife’s appeal based on acquiescence. We presented the waiver as  Exhibit Number 1 and the husband’s motion was denied. Abdullahi vs Zanini, Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, No. 2390, September Term 2017.

a journal can help with the feelings of divorce

We are always happy to hear stories of people turning divorce into a positive experience and helping others along the way. In this case, an interesting divorce journal is the result.

A Journal for the Divorce Experience

Alisha Strattman says she created Life Goes On Journals when she realized her marriage was over. “I was feeling all these emotions and needed help and really couldn’t find what I needed. I realized I needed to create something for the next person going through that same experience,” she said.

So she created Life Goes On Journals with the goal of moving forward with a happy life after divorce. The journal includes a daily guide with self-care tips, prompts for journaling, a rating for the day, a place to name your emotions for the day, and a space to list daily gratitudes and victories.

“Divorce can seem really shameful and make a person feel guilty,” Strattman says.  “You’re not a failure. You aren’t worth less because you’ve experienced it.”

Next, she’s working on a journal for men.

A Caution from Your Divorce Lawyer

Just a caution from your friendly neighborhood divorce lawyer.  Until your divorce is over, don’t write anything in your journal that could become Exhibit Number 1 at your divorce trial.

There is strength in small gestures

Our law, for the most part, comes from England.  England has rather complex rules and pleadings which we have inherited.  Courts have published Rules of Procedure.  Each state has different rules and the federal courts and the DC courts have the Federal Rules of Procedure.  There is even a class in law school called Rules of Procedure.

Motions?

Motions are like a letter to the judge.  Only a Motion is more formal than a conversation.  Maryland Rule 2-311 is the rule that governs Motions.   It provides that if you want to ask the court for an order, you have to do so in writing by way of a Motion.

Say you file a Motion in a divorce.  Then your spouse may file a Response to your Motion.  You may want to reply to the Response.  The Rules do not provide for anything further than a Motion and a Response.

But in actual practice I have seen a Reply to the Response to the Motion, and then a Sur-Reply to the Reply.  A judge once told me “In my court we have Motions and Responses.  There is no such thing as a Reply or Sur-Reply.”

Why Not Reply to a Response?

You have already said what you need to say in the Motion.  So a Reply would just be repetition and repetition is not persuasion.   Saying something twice doesn’t make an argument stronger.  In fact, it may work against you.  The judge will think you’re an amateur and give less weight to your argument.

The One Time You Will Want to Reply

There is one time you will want to file a Reply.  That is when the Response raises a new issue that you forgot to address in your Motion.

Hate to drive to therapy? Hate to tell your secrets to a stranger? Hate paying for therapy? Just download the LifeCouple app and you will have couples therapy on your cell phone available 24/7.

The app will first ask you to rate satisfaction in different areas of your relationship. If your partner and you report levels that are different, then this is an area that needs work. The app will lead you through exercises designed to improve that area of the relationship. LifeCouple has other features like an emotional bank account where you can earn points set by your partner.

Eventually, you’ll have to pay for a subscription, but for now, the app is free.

In a divorce, what you call something can make all the difference in the world. It’s like the wall being discussed by the President. It turns out that the wall may not be a wall after all.

Our President says he will build a wall between Mexico and the U.S., or a fence or metal slats, or a barrier.  Maybe he just means a better security system. Maybe it’s just a symbol or metaphor for an anti-immigration philosophy.  Maybe it’s an imaginary wall.

The President is following the advice of Lewis Carol’s Humpty Dumpty.  “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

It reminds me of the Mark Twain story where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were digging a tunnel under a cabin wall to get inside.  Huck wanted to use the shovel that was leaning against the cabin but Tom insisted they use his Bowie knife like the Indians did.

After much digging and little progress, Tom turned to Huck and asked him to hand him the other Bowie knife.

“What other Bowie knife?” Huck asked.

“The one leaning up against the cabin,” Tom replied.

Words make all the difference in a divorce, too. Visitation is more palatable if it is called access or time-sharing or parenting time.  Alimony may be more agreeable if it is called transition payments.

 

 

Getting divorced? We're all human and we'll help you get through it.

A client missed a hearing in his divorce. Fortunately, it did not affect the outcome of his case.  He said he just forgot to put the divorce hearing date on his calendar.  He was profoundly apologetic.

I could have criticized him and added to his misery or said nothing.  But I knew exactly what to say. I used the magic words that Judge Cline said to me 50 years ago when he was the county public defender and I was his law clerk.

Cullen Cline was the best boss I ever had and my picture of the ideal lawyer.  He looked like Steve Dallas in Bloom County.  He was smart, funny, and charismatic.  He was a pilot and wore a leather jacket and aviator glasses.

The magic words he used when someone made a mistake in his office were profound.  They were forgiving and healing.  I’ve never forgotten them and have used them many times.

I said to my client who missed his divorce hearing, “It’s ok.  You just proved you’re human.”