Having a home may be considered more of a luxury than ever before, now with the loss of income during the corona virus pandemic being added to the drain on families caused by litigation expenses.
Our hope is that with courts being temporarily closed for health preservation, that more people will stop, learn and listen so that they can avoid further loss and injury related to child custody and divorce litigation. This applies especially to parents who are usually so busy with their child’s school and sports activities to learn what they might be missing in terms of resolving conflict and protecting a child in need of attention.
A few tips:
- Save all of your lawyer’s emails as PDF’s and put in a folder. If you can make searchable PDF’s, that is even better. If there are communications between your lawyer and other professionals involved in your case that you have not been copied on, meaning the entire email exchange was not forwarded to you, this is another issue to raise, and one for which you may need to obtain help.
- Create a sub-folder for emails, letters, pleadings related to financial matters, including costs of litigation and strategy pertaining to homes and other property. Pay attention, especially, to any communication that hints at a trade-off around child custody and property.
- Write out questions about any wording or issue you are not absolutely certain about as to meaning and the effect on your family.
- Print out all billing statements from your lawyer and other other professionals involved in the litigation; compare records for duplicates or any other sign of over-billing. Print your contract with professionals and read it carefully, and compare what you agreed to with what you have been billed for – this is a learning process.
- If your lawyer has not provided you with detailed billing statements and in a timely manner, this may be an issue you want to raise with the State Bar or a local Bar Association in your area.
- Look for and ask about communications specific to your property and how awards around marital division, homes, accounts/debt, and attorney’s fees and other expenses are being handled.
Sometimes, it is what you do not see or do not know (yet) that you need to look for, which may mean asking your lawyer to ensure that you have an unedited copy of every single email/text and document related to your interests and case. With some lawyers, it is not until a specific request is made, for example to have a copy of your entire legal file made, that you do not realize what else may be going on, or not going on, that you should know about. While we do not provide legal advice, we do know which lawyers will give you straight answers and help you fill in missing pieces of the picture.
Examples of Issues to Watch Out for:
- Do you have equity in your home? Involved in marital dispute over division of equity? Learn more from real estate agents and financial advisors so that all of your understanding is not reliant on your domestic lawyer’s perspective.
- Are you at risk for having to file for bankruptcy? Make sure to consult with a bankruptcy lawyer separate and apart from your domestic lawyer, and ideally not with one referred by your domestic lawyer.
- Is your partner/spouse or former spouse/partner at risk of filing for bankruptcy – or in bankruptcy? If yes, then you may want to consult with a bankruptcy lawyer yourself, and also separate and apart from your domestic lawyer.
Could this be you or someone you know? Is your home at risk?
Conflicts have been seen with domestic lawyers where property division and fees are concerned, such as:
- In Cobb County: after three years of convoluted litigation, attorneys discussed with the judge how the court expenses would be covered. It turned out that from the judge’s perspective, there really was no need for all the legal battles that were waged – there was no dispute and no decisions for the judge to make when they appeared in court for a “hearing,” so the judge looked at the lawyers, and both sides (lawyer for the mother and the opposing counsel for the father) flushed red. Before that moment the only focus was on which parent had more equity in their pre-marital home as the attorneys wanted the judge to issue an order about who was paying what attorney’s fees (and guardian ad litem fees). What came out is that the case was not about the children, but about how long the case could be dragged out to increase the fees; clearly the lawyers knew there was equity in the homes to take – and they did. Both the mother and the father appeared to not realize what was going on and neither knew how to protect themselves, or how to avoid losing equity or property.
2. Recently in Gwinnett County: a divorcing couple with children went through marital division of assets and the fees incurred were extraordinarily high, well over $50,000, which is not unusual.
In order to get a judgment in his client’s favor on financial support and fees, the mother’s lawyer decided to falsify the father’s income in pleadings to be higher than reality, an act that set the father on course for bankruptcy; this is also not uncommon. Maybe the mother was so busy managing the children that she did not realize her fees were being unnecessarily driven up by a lawyer misrepresenting numbers to the court, and did not realize this would ultimately cost her more than it helped her and their children.
The mother likely did not learn on her own what using inflated numbers could mean for her, and therein lies the risk. She probably trusted her lawyer to only serve her interests and not put the home in jeopardy.
When her lawyer pursued the father to collect the attorney’s fees of over $50,000 and the bankruptcy court became involved, it was revealed that the lawyer did not protect his client and the marital home could be forced into a sale and used to cover the fees driven up by the lawyer; of course, the mother may have no way of knowing she could lose the house. If she believes that her lawyer’s collection efforts are “normal” and not putting her at risk, she may be caught off guard. In this case, the lawyer failed to have the father removed as owner of the property, so as it is a part of the estate, it can be used to cover debts. This situation and others like it are why our founder, Deborah Beacham, observes lawyers in courtrooms, studies transcripts, billing records and orders, and encourages parents to learn more in advance and to try to resolve as much outside of the courtroom as possible. Situations like this one are also why she engages legal malpractice lawyers in discussions – education and preparation are key to preventing the kind of shock and loss going on in this example.
3. In another metro Atlanta divorce, the mother’s lawyer helped her stage and provoke a stressful situation they called “domestic violence,” so that the father would have to leave his pre-marital home; the litigation was dragged out for years, with multiple professionals involved to run up fees & turn what could have been a straightforward resolution into a high conflict mess.
Not only did positive co-parenting go out the window, putting much greater stress and shame on the child, but because of the way the father was set up, falsely accused and kept from his home office and equipment, his business failed; the total loss that followed resulted in his business partner giving up hope and taking his life. From where we sit, studying hundreds of similar situations all around Georgia and in other states, this loss of life – and the loss of a small business and loss of the father’s home due to attorney’s fees – was avoidable.
What could have been saved if this family learned to get the right kind of help before entering into the legal process? Everything.
Unfortunately, the above examples barely scratch the surface in explaining what families and children are experiencing. In a better, safer world, parents will be more informed and prepared to avoid such outcomes.
Let’s start here. By raising awareness and building legal protection funds, we can guide parents to safety, and stop the current trend of destabilizing families and children.
We can save homes, jobs and health, and most importantly, the parent-child bonds that children need to thrive.