Settling your divorce case out of court is almost always better than a divorce trial.  But so many people don’t know how to use principled negotiation techniques to reach a 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.