Why An Attorney Should Prepare Your Uncontested Divorce

Unsurprisingly, I have a vested interest in the topic of this post.  I’m an attorney.  I earn my living in family law.  I offer flat rate plans for uncontested divorces.  There are a number of experienced family law attorneys in Spokane to choose from.  Some of those attorneys also offer flat rate plans for uncontested divorce.

Don’t get me wrong – I value and appreciate paralegals.  I was one myself (for 20+ years). I worked under the direct supervision of an attorney.  Many times I observed said attorney being quite dense.  In spite of these observations, I always believed the intensity of earning a law degree and passing a bar exam Meant Something.  And it does, indeed Mean Something.  I am an attorney and I am incredibly dense at times.  I like to think my J.D. adds flair to my density.

Previously, as a paralegal with a firm grasp on civil court rules and the domestic relations statute, I could not give legal advice.  No matter how brilliant the paralegal, the paralegal is not competent to give legal advice.  Law school takes apart the student’s brain and puts it back together again.  The bar exam tries to demolish the newly reassembled and fragile brain. Those who survive this macabre process are licensed to give legal advice in the licensing state.  (As an aside, most paralegals have much more common sense than lawyers.)

There are many advertisements out there for “licensed paralegals” and “certified paralegals” who will prepare divorce documents very inexpensively.  There are also online document preparation services out there which charge a small fee to prepare divorce documents.  Lincoln County allows divorcing parties to prepare their documents and handle everything by mail.

However, the paralegals and form preparation websites, cannot give legal advice.  The following is just a small list of common questions that a paralegal or website cannot answer (because the answer is legal advice):

  • We lived together for a couple of years before we got married, does it matter?
  • We own property in Idaho.  Can Washington distribute that property?
  • What if I get a job in another state – can my parenting plan be modified?
  • My spouse is in the military.  Am I entitled to a portion of his/her military retirement?
  • I pay child support to my first spouse.  How does that affect my child support in this marriage?
  • My spouse is going to keep the house and make the house payment.  What happens if he/she does not make the payments?
  • I have a pending insurance claim for an auto accident last year.  Is this my separate property?
  • How will we pay for our kid’s college expenses after the divorce?
  • How do we divide our 401(k) plans?
  • Should I ask for spousal maintenance?
  • If I agree to this settlement, what am I giving up that I am legally entitled to?
  • If I agree to this settlement, am I getting more than I am legally entitled to?
  • My company may be laying off employees in the next six months.  What effect will that have on my child support payment?
The above list is just a smattering of questions that come up routinely.

Also, aside from not being able to have your questions answered by a paralegal or website, each case is unique.  Having mandatory divorce forms in Washington leads many to erroneously believe that all cases can be handled in cookie-cutter fashion.  This is far from the truth!  The mandatory forms are geared to handle the jurisdictional and statutory requirements.  However, each case has issues that the mandatory forms simply cannot address. Many, many times I have been hired to “fix” problems in a decree that the parties had no way of predicting at the time they prepared their documents. For instance,  some agencies and entities require certain “magic words” in the decree to divide up retirement accounts. Suppose five years down the road a former spouse tries to access the funds per the decree and finds out that the decree is not sufficient.   What then?  Will the Court allow the decree to be clarified to meet the standards of the retirement administrator?  What if your former spouse is collecting maintenance, but starts cohabiting with someone else (but doesn’t get married).  Is there a way to handle that possibility in the decree?

Sometimes a client walks into my office intending to hire me to prepare an uncontested divorce.  Often, if the case is truly uncontested (i.e. the spouses are in agreement on each and every issue), everything goes smoothly and 90 days later final paperwork is entered.  Sometimes, the paperwork is presented to the other spouse and lo and behold, the other spouse really did not understand the agreement. The other spouse contests some of the terms.  What happens then?  Well, my client has the option to keep me on the case and we convert the flat fee agreement into an hourly rate agreement.  Is it more expensive?Yes.  Paying me by the hour is more expensive than a flat fee agreement.

The above scenarios are offered as food for thought:  Is it really worth saving money by throwing your documents together online or hiring a non-lawyer?

This web site and these articles are not legal advice and are not intended as legal advice.  This web site and these articles are intended to provide only general, non-specific legal information.  This web site and these articles are not intended to cover all the issues related to the topic discussed.  The specific facts that apply to your matter may make the outcome different than would be anticipated by you.  This web site and these articles do not create any attorney client relationship between you and Tamara C. Murray.  This web site and the articles contained on this web site are not solicitations.

Divorcing Parties Ordered to Exchange Facebook Passwords

This is timely.  I just received an article from the ABA in my e-mail inbox referencing this Forbes article.   According to the sources, a Judge in Connecticut ordered divorcing parties to exchange their Facebook and dating website passwords.  Not only did the judge compel production of the information, but also issued an injunction preventing either party from deleting content.

This web site and these articles are not legal advice and are not intended as legal advice.  This web site and these articles are intended to provide only general, non-specific legal information.  This web site and these articles are not intended to cover all the issues related to the topic discussed.  The specific facts that apply to your matter may make the outcome different than would be anticipated by you.  This web site and these articles do not create any attorney client relationship between you and Tamara C. Murray.  This web site and the articles contained on this web site are not solicitations.

Social Media and Divorce

Orders pertaining to child custody (parenting plans, temporary orders) typically contain the following clause or something similar:

Neither parent shall make disparaging remarks about the other parent or any other remarks that might cause diminishment of the child’s respect for the other parent either to the child or in the presence of the child, nor shall they allow the child to make disparaging remarks about the other parent.
In this age of social media most parents have Facebook, Twitter and/or Google+ accounts.  A handy way for parents to monitor their children’s use of these accounts is to add their children as online friends.

In a moment of frustration, it is not out of the realm of possibility for someone to post “my crazy ex was late again” or something along those lines.  Or perhaps a parent can’t resist the urge to post “I’m going to fight for my children.  The truth will come out!”  Posts such as these to social media sites are usually followed by gratifying messages of support from other online friends.

But here’s the kicker…those posts can be viewed as being disparaging to the other parent.  Also, if the child is in the friend’s list, the disparaging remark just happened in the presence of the child.

Parents oversharing online is becoming a common stumbling block for family law litigants.  Most divorcing spouses promptly “unfriend” their soon-to-be ex and then bask in the mistaken belief that their online content is private.  Just type “there is no such thing as internet privacy” into Google and marvel at the number of hits.

This web site and these articles are not legal advice and are not intended as legal advice.  This web site and these articles are intended to provide only general, non-specific legal information.  This web site and these articles are not intended to cover all the issues related to the topic discussed.  The specific facts that apply to your matter may make the outcome different than would be anticipated by you.  This web site and these articles do not create any attorney client relationship between you and Tamara C. Murray.  This web site and the articles contained on this web site are not solicitations.

Spokane County Family Law Court Video

The Family Law Department of the Spokane Superior Court quietly added a great resource to its website.   A video was posted which explains the most commonly encountered steps in a dissolution of marriage.  The video is hosted on the Superior Court website here.  The video also plays non-stop in the first floor of the County Courthouse and is required viewing for anyone taking advantage of the Family Court Facilitator services.

I’ve viewed some of the chapters of the video and it’s a great resource for both my clients and for individuals filing their own dissolution action without attorneys.    Although the case depicted is fictional, the video is filmed in the actual courtrooms featuring the local judges and commissioners.

Emails Between Attorney and Client, Part 2

In Part 1 of this topic I discussed the reasons I like to use email to communicate with clients. Although there are many good reasons to use email for attorney-client communication, one major drawback is the potential lack of confidentiality and loss of your attorney-client privilege. Here are some things to keep in mind for clients who want to use email to communicate with their attorney:

Do not use your email account provided by your employer. If you use your work email account chances are your employer can view your emails as well as whomever your employer uses to maintain the computer network – whether that be outside contractors or fellow employees. Also, you may be violating company policy by using your work email account for personal reasons.

Do not use an email account your children have access to at home. Children of all ages are naturally curious – especially about matters involving their parents. If your password is automatically “saved” by your desktop software (Outlook Express, Outlook, etc.) change the settings to require the password to be entered each time you access your account (and make sure it isn’t a password your child can easily guess).

Do not save attachments to the hard drive your children have access to at home.If you are swapping drafts back and forth, save them to a separate drive or upload them to storage sites online that can be protected with a password.

Do check the recipients of the email before hitting send. If you are forwarding along an email from the opposing party to your attorney, make sure you don’t inadvertently use “reply to all” or “cc” the opposing party – this is particularly worrisome when you are including commentary to the attorney.

Do seriously consider setting up a new web-based email account. A great way to communicate with your attorney from anywhere you have internet access is to use a web based email account. You can start fresh with a new account with a new password and you can also use the email account to store those bothersome attachments referred to above. My personal favorite is Gmail. Other great free services are Yahoo and Hotmail.

Emails Between Attorney and Client, Part 1

I’d estimate about 85% of my communication with my clients is through email. Communicating by email is actually my preferred method for a number of reasons, some of which I’ll list here:

Comprehensive: Writing and sending an email is an opportunity to get a bunch of questions or concerns out of the way and off of everyone’s mind. I understand the “brain blank” phenomenon – I have it all of the time after I end a conversation with a doctor or dentist. The second I hang up the phone or get into my car in the parking lot, the questions I meant to ask come raining down on my head.

Quick response: I have a Blackberry. My Blackberry is my Joy and the Bane of My Existence all in one. Regardless of my feelings for my Blackberry at any given time, it is a great tool for getting right back to a client and either answer the question(s) or giving he client an estimate of when I can get back to him or her. There is a lot of downtime in Court that I can use quite effectively as e-mail answering time.

Efficency: The majority of my e-mail correspondence can be read and responded to in ten minutes or less. This generates a bill for .20 and also gives each party a nice paper trail to refer back to if needed. On the other hand, a phone call can be very inefficient. I generally need a few moments to gather my thoughts and switch reels from whatever I happened to have my nose buried in when the phone rang. If the client is calling from work, there are distractions on he other end of the phone. The conditions usually lead to a longer phone call with issues missed.

24/7: I’m not going to answer your e-mail at 2:00 a.m. on a regular basis. However, don’t be surprised if that actually happens. I am always on e-mail and chances are good that you will get a reply in the evening hours and over the weekends.

Searchable Information: I save all of my correspondence with clients in their own folders on my hard-drive. Many a time I’ve wanted to look up the make/model of a car, a child’s doctor’s name, a client’s vacation schedule, and it’s as easy as running a search to pull up the email containing the information. This is a far better system than the other system which is me flipping through scrawled notes.

Oversharing Online

Social networking and blogging is booming. It’s a great tool for people to connect or keep family and friends up to date. However, it can also be a stumbling block for folks embroiled in a family law case.

One of my routine techniques of informal fact gathering is to check the names of opposing parties on mySpace and Facebook. It always amazes me how much information I can gather with a simple search.*

A lot of folks either (1) don’t realize how simple it is to track down their personal websites; or (2) mistakenly feel anonymous or safe because a nerdy lawyer couldn’t possibly think of checking mySpace. (Note: There are a lot of nerdy lawyers who own mySpace and Facebook accounts – we’re aware of the phenomenon.)

It’s a simple matter to make your accounts private and to block unwanted users from viewing your information. It’s also not a bad idea to keep sniping at the ex or sniping about the ex off topic, even if your site is private. Also, be aware that your “friends” who are allowed access to your account could suddenly switch sides and start reporting on your posts.

Before hitting “publish” or twittering or even sending that IM, ask yourself if what you are about to publish would embarass you if it shows up attached to your ex’s declaration. If the answer is “yes”, hit delete instead. Less said, less mended.

*There are a plethora of evidentiary issues with admissibility of websites or print-outs from websites. However, whether or not I can admit the information I find on a website, it can still be very useful as part of the information trail.