“Just found out divorce mediation is Tuesday afternoon!!!

Help! I’m nervous

What do I do?!

What do I say?

How do I dress?

How do I act?

What questions should/shouldn’t I ask?

Give me all tips/advice you all have please! ”

— Nicole’s post on Facebook

Advice for Handling Divorce Mediation

Nicole:

Everybody is nervous in a divorce. In fact I’d be nervous if you weren’t nervous. But here’s a tip that will help you calm down and give you more confidence during the mediation.

Write the main categories to be decided down the left side of a piece of paper. These will be your rows. The main categories are child custody, child visitation, child support, alimony, property division, and legal fees. You can expand on this by adding subcategories.

For example, under visitation, you might have subcategories of weekly schedule, holidays and summer vacations. Under property division, you would have the big ones, like house and pensions, as well as bank accounts, automobiles, and furniture.

Next, make three columns labeled best, middle, and showstopper. Fill out your objective in each row and column. This will make you think about what you really want, what you can live with or without, and what will make you walk out of the room if you don’t get. It also help you know what to say.

It doesn’t matter so much how you dress but I would suggest business or business casual will make you feel comfortable. Act firmly but politely. Remember you are there to problem solve, not to blame or assess fault. You can ask any question you want. Let the mediator take the lead.

You don’t have to reach an agreement if you don’t think it is fair. But as the mediator will probably tell you, you will save a lot of time and money if you do.

 

“I’ve never been divorced before,”said the thin man sitting across the desk from me. His dark narrow eyes darted back and forth as he nervously sipped the bottled water my receptionist had given him.  He sank into one of the two wing-back chairs in my office. “I don’t know anything about it.  I have a million questions.”

In my line of work as a divorce lawyer I meet all kinds of people. I tried to put the thin man at ease. I put my fingers together in a church steeple, closed my eyes halfway, and leaned back in my burgundy leather office chair in my best Perry Mason imitation. “Well I’ve been divorced twice, so ask me your questions.”  I then proceeded to give him the following answers to his questions one by one.

Question 1.  I had an affair.  Am I going to lose everything in the divorce? 

Adultery gives your spouse grounds for divorce, not the right to 100% of the house, cars, 401(K), and everything else.  Jointly owned properties are divided equally.  The judge can make a marital award to make sure the division is fair.  In determining the marital award, the judge considers several factors.  One of these is who was at fault in the termination of the marriage.  The judge can also make adjustments for any marital funds you have spent on the affair.

Question 2.  Will the court take the children away from me because I cheated?

Adultery may make you a bad spouse but it does not necessarily make you a bad parent.  In Davis v. Davis, 280 Md 119, 372 A.2d 231 (1977), the Maryland Court of Appeals said

Whereas the fact of adultery may be a relevant consideration in child custody awards, no presumption of unfitness on the part of the adulterous parent arises from it; rather it should be weighed, along with all other pertinent factors, only insofar as it affects the children’s welfare.

The court looks at what is in the best interests of the children, not what is in the best interests of the parents.

Question 3.  Can My Spouse Get a Divorced if I Don’t Agree?

While it takes two people to get married, it only takes one to get divorced.   If you don’t want a divorce, you can slow down the process, but a spouse determined to get a divorce can get one.

Question 4. Do I Have to Have a Lawyer to File for Divorce?

It is not a requirement that you hire a lawyer for your divorce.  The Maryland courts have published divorce forms on the Internet and there is a self-help desk at the Montgomery County, Maryland, Courthouse.  We have do-it-yourself divorce help on this website and we have published self-help divorce books.  However, divorce cases can get complicated quickly.  If your case involves child custody, alimony, real estate, retirement funds or other assets, we recommend you hire a lawyer.

Question 5.  Does the Mother Always Win Custody?

In the old days many judges followed the Tender Years Doctrine which presumed that mothers were the better care taker for young children.  Today, however, the standard is best interests of the children.  Many jurisdictions, like The District of Columbia presume that joint custody is in the best interests of the children.

Question 6.  Can a Husband Get Alimony?

Today, there are many cases where the wife makes more money than the husband.  In those cases, husbands are entitled to the same rights as wives including the right seek alimony.

Question 7.  How Much Is All This Going to Cost?

In most cases of a long marriage, the judges in Maryland, Virginia and DC will divide marital assets equally, but they are not required to.  If you make a lot more than your spouse, or your spouse is ill or requires some training to get back in the workforce, you will probably have to pay alimony.  The judge decides the duration and amount.   Once custody and alimony are determined, you can use online calculators to determine child support.  You may have to pay all or a portion of your spouse’s attorney fees as well as your own.

 *  *  * 

The thin man sighed and said, “Thank you.  It’s not what I wanted to hear but I feel better knowing than not knowing.  I want you to be my lawyer.  What’s the first step?”

“Sign my retainer agreement and pay my retainer,” I replied as I pushed the document across the desk and held out my Mont Blanc fountain pen.  “I’ll start working on your case immediately.

 

Life insurance to protect the alimony payment in a divorce

Recently I wrote regarding using life insurance to assure payment of child support.  Another scenario is life insurance to protect the alimony payment in a divorce – the spouse being the beneficiary of the policy.

This is a straight forward consideration flowing from payer/insured spouse to payee/beneficiary spouse.  The insured wants less coverage and less premium, the payee/beneficiary spouse wants more coverage.

Alimony Payer Benefit

Premiums on a policy of life insurance on the alimony payer benefit the alimony payee.  Payments to a third party on behalf of or for the benefit of a spouse or former spouse can qualify as alimony.  Paying insurance premiums can qualify if the payer spouse is not obligated to pay under the insurance contract – because in that situation he or she is not simply paying his or her own expense.

Generally, the owner of the policy is the person who is obligated to pay the premiums.  So in order for premiums on the life of the insured/alimony payer’s life paid by the insured/alimony payer to be deductible as alimony, the alimony payee must be the owner of the life insurance policy.

The parties’ Agreement should require the insured/alimony payer to pay the premiums on the payee’s behalf and the parties’ Agreement should state that such payments are alimony.

Survivor Annuity

Another situation where life insurance can be appropriate is to replace a survivor annuity if it is unavailable or available only on undesirable terms.  A traditional defined benefit pension pays a lifetime annuity to the retiree.

Federal law generally requires married persons to elect what is known as a joint and survivor annuity payment option, unless the employee’s spouse agrees otherwise in writing. In divorce, the parties can agree to a joint and survivor annuity or the court can order it.  Under this option, if the non-employee spouse survives the employee spouse, the pension payer continues the annuity payments at a reduced rate to the non-employee spouse for his or her life.

The initial payment (during the joint lives) under a single life annuity payment option is higher than the initial payment under the joint and survivor annuity option. Depending on the amount of that payment reduction, it may make financial sense to elect the single life annuity and buy life insurance on the employee’s life to protect the income stream for the non-employee in the event that he or she is the survivor.

The advice of an experienced life insurance professional can be very useful in doing this analysis. For further information see: https://www.consumersadvocate.org/life-insurance.

Life insurance in divorce

Divorcing spouses and parents have varied life insurance needs. Whenever one or more persons are financially dependent on another’s earnings, there is what the life insurance industry refers to as an insurable interest.

In families of two married parents with young children, the primary wage earner often has life insurance coverage equal to several years earnings. The benefit to the financially dependent spouse and the children is obvious. The benefit to the insured party is the peace of mind that comes from knowing your loved ones are provided for in all events.

Often, both spouses carry life insurance coverage because both are employed or, if one is not employed, the stay at home spouse is providing services that would have to be purchased in the event of her, or his, untimely death.

Upon divorce in families with children there is still the same basic economic need for life insurance coverage to protect the child support payments. The children generally would be the beneficiaries of the policy – directly or through a trust. The insured still benefits from knowing his loved ones will be provided for.

Life insurance proceeds paid during the insured’s children’s minority would be needed and would benefit the insured’s children just as they would if he or she died while the children were minors and the insured was married to the other parent at death.

But the dynamic is different in divorce. The insured views the insurance coverage as benefiting the ex-spouse. Often there is hard bargaining around how much insurance coverage there will be, how long it will be in place or how quickly it decreases, and whether the spouse can be the trustee of the trust to which the insurance proceeds are paid.

I’ll explore this further in future posts.

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.

 

 

Wrong Ways to Respond to a Divorce Settlement Offer

Settling your divorce case out of court is almost always better than a divorce trial.  Knowing how to respond to a divorce settlement offer is important.

Many people don’t know how to use principled negotiation techniques to reach a divorce settlement. Here are some examples of the wrong way to respond to an offer:

Give an Ultimatum.

I received a response to a divorce settlement offer last week that was dead on arrival.  It said its terms were “non-negotiable”.  I have never seen that work.  Instead it closes down the settlement discussions.  The same can be said for deadlines pulling the offer, like “You have one week to say yes to this counteroffer or it is revoked forever.”  A lawyer I know expressed a better attitude when he said, “Everything I’ve got is negotiable.”

Respond Indirectly.

If you receive an offer that numbers the issues, like (1) child custody, (2) child support, and so on, don’t start your response by telling me that your spouse won’t agree to a visitation schedule. Respond in the same order, using the same numbers, and propose a visitation schedule that you want.  Save the blame for court.

Throw Out Everything.

I have received more than one letter from opposing counsel that my client‘s offer is ridiculous or unreasonable or unacceptable.   What am I supposed to do with that?  It would be more helpful for them to say which items are unacceptable and propose a counteroffer.

Go Backwards.

The purpose of negotiation to is reduce difference between offer and counteroffer until you reach a settlement.  If you are increasing the difference, you are not going anywhere.  Once you have offered alimony of $2,000 a year, it will be impossible to get your spouse to accept $1,000 a month in the next round of negotiations.

The right way to respond to an offer of settlement is through principled negotiations.  That means you respond specifically and directly only to the items in dispute, state your objections clearly, and propose compromises.

When separated spouses in Maryland and the District of Columbia require the aid of the court to resolve issues of support or custody they know where to file their case – in the local Circuit Court in Maryland and in Superior Court in the District of Columbia. And if they have been separated for less than the period required for an absolute divorce, they can include a request for limited divorce (legal separation in DC) in the support and/or custody suit.

Not so in Virginia. The circuit courts are the trial courts of general jurisdiction, and are the trial courts preferred by lawyers, including family lawyers. But the court with jurisdiction of minors, including custody and support of minors, and support of spouses, is the Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court (“JDR”). The Circuit Court only has concurrent jurisdiction over these matters if there is a divorce case pending. And, unlike in Maryland and DC, when the spouses have been separated for less than the required period (one year in general, six months with a written separation agreement and no minor children), a complaint for limited divorce is often not an option because in Virginia there aren’t any no fault grounds for limited divorce (called divorce from bed & board or, in Latin, a mensa et thoro ).
In this situation, the spouse needing custody or support relief faces a choice. He or she can:

1. File a petition requesting custody and/or support relief in JDR;

2. Assert fault grounds and file a complaint for divorce from bed and board and for the custody and/or support relief in Circuit Court; or

3. Wait the one year period and then file a complaint in Circuit Court for final divorce (called divorce a vincula matrimonii) on separation grounds and for the custody and/or support relief.
Each of these choices has advantages and disadvantages which I will address in my next post.

There are many divorce cases where only one spouse is employed and there are no significant liquid assets or those assets are all under the control of the employed spouse.

In such cases, the financially dependent spouse can seek an award of pendente lite support.  “Pendente lite” is Latin for “pending the litigation”.  It means temporary support until the divorce trial.

Pendente lite support hearings are short and the only issues considered are need for support and ability to pay.  Some jurisdictions have established guidelines for  pendente lite spousal support.

For example the Fairfax County formula is:

When child support is also payable – monthly spousal support equals 28% of the payor’s monthly gross income minus 58% of the payee’s monthly gross income.

When child support is not payable – monthly spousal support equals  30% of the payor’s monthly gross income minus 50% of the payee’s monthly gross income

Child support is generally determined under the child support guidelines. Those guidelines are also used to determine child support pendente lite.

Virginia Courts can also enter pendente lite orders on maintaining health insurance coverage for a spouse or children, responsibility for debt payments during the case, exclusive use and possession of the family residence during the case, payment of attorney’s fees and other costs of the suit, and custody of the children pendente lite . However, most courts are reluctant to rule on custody pendente lite.  This is because custody matters have scheduling priority and will soon be heard as a final matter so pendente lite relief is not necessary unless there is an emergency.  And the judges do not like emergencies, so if you claim you have an emergency it better be a real emergency.

The Court’s ruling on any issue at a hearing on pendente lite relief can be reviewed and modified at the final hearing.

           The Court of Appeals of Virginia answered this question in the negative in Dailey v Dailey, 59 Va. App 734, 722 SE 2d 321, 2012 Va. App LEXIS 57. 

            The parties had an agreement that provided for alimony of $1,000 per month, modifiable upon a material change in circumstance.    The agreement was silent on whether Mr. Dailey’s retirement constituted a material change in circumstances.   The agreement was incorporated in the final decree of divorce entered in September 2009.

            In November 2010, Mr. Dailey retired, Ms. Dailey began receiving her share of the pension as agreed, $2900 per month, and Mr. Dailey moved to terminate or reduce spousal support.  The parties stipulated that the retirement was a material change in circumstances.  Ms. Dailey argued successfully that it did not warrant a termination or reduction of spousal support because while retirement was a material change, it was also one that was entirely foreseeable.  The trial court denied Mr. Dailey’s motion.

            The Court of Appeals agreed that retirement is foreseeable in the sense that most people eventually retire.  The court noted, however, that Mr. Dailey testified that he had no plans to retire at the time of the divorce.  And the Court reasoned that the effect of retirement was not necessarily foreseeable.  It was noted, for example, that the Agreement provided that Ms. Dailey would be paid her share of the retirement if, as and when Mr. Dailey’s pension was paid out, and that this particular pension plan had no survivor benefits if the participant died before retirement.

            The Court of Appeals held termination or reduction of spousal support upon retirement was not barred under the Agreement on the basis that retirement was foreseeable and therefore not a triggering material change in circumstances.  The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether or not to terminate or reduce spousal support.

            Does this mean that in the next Virginia case with a pension with a pre-retirement survivor’s benefit, the spousal support payer’s retirement, and its effect, will be foreseeable and therefore not grounds for a termination or reduction of support?   It is not clear.  Does this mean that a support payer with a pension cannot leave this issue open in the marital settlement agreements because of that risk? Probably so.  It is certainly something we will be looking at very carefully, and in appropriate cases,  negotiating what happens when the support payer retires.  This is especially important in a case like this one where, at the time of divorce, the payer had 29 years of creditable service, and he ended up retiring the very next year.