Saturday, July 23, 2011

Five Red Flags that Your Divorce Attorney is on the Wrong Road

Divorce lawyers are expensive; far too expensive for what most families need in a divorce proceeding.  If you are involved in a divorce, here are some warning signs to help you determine whether you are getting your money's worth for this important service.

1.  Lack of Communication.  A breakdown in communication is the number one cause of client dissatisfaction with their divorce attorney.  If a lawyer does not return your call within a reasonable time, she is either too busy or does not care about your case.

We all know in this era of smart phones that our lawyers get our calls, emails, and text messages within minutes of pushing the send button.  Has your lawyer provided a cell phone contact; do you have access to her staff?  If not, then you are not a priority in their office.

2.  Does not know your case.  Any engaged lawyer will have several cases going at one time.  Every family is different.  But a good lawyer will be sharp enough to master the basic facts and dynamics of your family.  The next time you have a status meeting with your lawyer, listen carefully to the lawyer to determine whether he speaks in general terms; or whether he has a specific plan that applies to the facts of your case; your family.

3.  Excessive Billings.  Do you get sticker shock each month when you examine your divorce attorney's invoice?  More troubling: do you even get a monthly invoice?  Although many lawyers will have you believe that family law is "rocket science", it is not.  If you are being billed more than $250 per hour for non-court related tasks such as preparing "summaries", checklists, or budgets, you are getting fleeced.

One trick unethical lawyers employ is to bill your file at the end of the proceeding, after you cut your deal, and after they see what's available for their fees.  Often in such cases, a premium is baked into the final fee.  Get your fee agreement in writing at the beginning of the process and insist on monthly invoices.  When you receive the invoices, open them immediately as you would any other bill and examine them for accuracy.  If you do not agree with items on the invoice, call the lawyer to discuss it right away; it is more difficult to raise fee issues several months down the road.

4.  Arrogant and Antagonistic.  The "old-school" image of a classic lawyer is that she holds herself above everyone else; is smarter than everyone and not afraid to prove it over and over again.  These lawyers carry themselves with a certian touch of, er, arrogance.

In the trenches of family law, however, the real trick is to find a reasonable solution to your specific issues that works for everyone, particularly if there are young children.  Arrogance is not a trait that gets this done.  Does your lawyer show condescension toward you or does he repeatedly become antagonistic toward opposing counsel?  If so, this is a sign of weakness, not strength.  You may want to consider changing counsel.

5.  Too Many Excuses.  If your divorce lawyer lacks candor, fire him immediately.  Unless he can effectively communicate with you on time regarding your specific issues; unless she follows through and does what she says, delivering service in your case on time, you have a big problem.

We hope these tips help you identify whether you are on the right road with your divorce attorney.  After all, your life is in their hands.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Proposed Divorce Legislation Distinguishes Marital From Separate Property

Two new bills pending in the Michigan legislature attempt to address a long-perceived problem in Michigan family law: how to classify property [separate or marital] in a divorce proceeding.  This legislative proposal has judges and divorce attorneys up in arms.

The tie-barred bills, 4672 and 4673, introduced by Livonia Republican John Walsh, propose standards for the division of marital property, and comingled marital and separate property; create a presumption of non-division for separate property; and revises the procedures by which a family court could "invade" one spouse's separate property and award it to the other spouse.

In Michigan, a family court judge's power to apportion property in a divorce comes strictly from statutes; a confusing patchwork of four separate statutes, to be precise.  Because of this legislative patchwork, a significant body of common law has developed over the past 30-years addressing the classification and division of property.

Although every divorce case is decided on its own merit, the present state of divorce law allows the distinct possibility, if sufficent and compelling factors are proven, for the invasion of separate property.  The new legislation is largely viewed as making such an invasion more difficult, if not impossible.

Birmingham divorce attorney James P. Cunningham summarized the problem in a 2008 Michigan Bar Journal article, calling for legislation to "fill the gap" between the cases.  Cunningham was on the floor of the house in Lansing last week to testify as an expert about the need for this legislation and, presumably, to endorse the content of Walsh's bills.

So why such a fuss from the family court bench and bar?  First, they contend that Walsh is fast-tracking the legislation without input from their professional organizations.  Second, these groups also assert the proposed measures are grossly unfair to the non-propertied spouse.

When cornered by a reporter at the Capitol last week, a lobbist for the bills denied they were being fast-tracked but wryly noted that the family court bar was a veritable "graveyard" for good ideas.

Is this going to be a case of the rich getting richer?  The so-called "missionaries for the family" certainly think so and are determined to quash the measures; you should have seen the chatter about these bills appearing on the State Bar of Michigan's Family Law listserve...