Category: litigation

Six Things Your Paralegal Wishes You Knew

Six Things Your Paralegal Wishes You Knew

 

Many divorce and child custody lawyers use paralegals to assist them in their practice and to provide clients with excellent service.  These paralegals are often the unsung heroes of family law litigation.  Clients sometimes do not fully appreciate the role the paralegal plays in their case.  Therefore, here are six things your paralegal wishes you knew.
  • I can save you money – Many law offices bill for their paralegal’s time at a much lower hourly rate than the attorney’s time.  While a paralegal cannot practice law, they can often explain aspects of the process of your case or answer questions without you being charged the attorney’s hourly rate.  Sometimes, they may even be more up to speed on your case than your attorney because they are dealing with the incoming pleadings and discovery as it comes into the office.
  • I can cost you money if you are not organized – Part of the paralegal’s job is to help organize information on your case and help get it ready to be presented to the court.  If you have taken the time to prepare everything requested of you, organize it in an orderly fashion and provided when it is requested, you will save the paralegal a lot of time and keep your fees lower.  Conversely, if you show up with garbage bags full of bills, old shoeboxes of receipts, and folded up, coffee-stained documents, your paralegal will have to spend additional time wading through all of that to make sense of it.  If your legal team cannot make sense of it, there is no way to make the court understand it.
  • I am easier to reach than the attorney – Admittedly, sometimes you just need to hear your attorney’s voice.  However, most divorce and child custody practitioners are in court on an almost daily basis making it difficult to return calls.  The paralegal is almost always in the office.  If they cannot answer your question immediately, they can usually get you an answer fairly quickly.
  • My time is valuable – The paralegal, like your attorney, is here to help you through your case.  Paralegals are trained in a lot of things, but they are not mental health professionals and cannot be your therapist.
  • I am often just as frustrated with the system as you are – Contrary to what a lot of people believe, good law firms try to move their clients’ cases through the system as efficiently as possible.  Coordinating multiple attorneys’ schedules along with a court docket bursting at the seams can make that task extremely difficult.  Moreover, sometimes the law or a ruling is simply not fair, but there may be very little we can do about it.  We understand your frustrations and try to empathize.  Remember, we are on your side.
  • I deserve your respect – Paralegals work very hard at often thankless tasks.  You make it more difficult when you treat them with anything less than the utmost respect and consideration.
How Can A Parenting Journal Help Your Custody Case?

How Can A Parenting Journal Help Your Custody Case?

If you are facing a contested custody case, one of the best tools you can have in your arsenal is a parenting journal.  A parenting journal is simply a record or chronology of events that happen between you and the other party and/or children.  This may be a computer file, a Google calendar, or simply hand-written notes kept in a pocket notebook or calendar.  Things to make a note of may include:

  • Incidents that occur at visitation exchanges or missed visits
  • Negative comments made by the opposing party
  • School issues
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Incidents of domestic violence
  • Statements made by the children about abuse or neglect
  • Observations about changes in the children’s behavior

It is important that you write in your journal on a regular basis for a couple of different reasons.  The first is because this way you will get in the habit of keeping the journal.  Second, the journal is much more persuasive if it is maintained and entries are made as they occur rather than trying to “rebuild” the event from memory days or weeks later.  Do not use this journal as your private diary.  Keep in mind the entries may be used in your custody hearing and become part of the public record.

Because the entire point of making the journal in the first place is to assist you in your court case, it is also important to make journal entries fairly.  Do not use the journal as an opportunity to bash the other parent; you will do your case no favors.  This includes using profanity, personal attacks on your ex, or other “code” words for your ex.  I had a case one time where a grandparent thought they were extremely clever by referring to their former daughter-in-law as “Tulsa” (read it backwards).  If your journal is completely slanted or never has anything positive at all to say about the other parent, you will lose some credibility with the court or the GAL.  Do not be afraid to mention your own issues as well.  Remember the whole point is to help build your credibility.  You cannot do that without exposing some of your flaws as well.
Finally, organize your journal.  If you keep an electronic journal, this is relatively easy.  Most tablets, smartphones, or computer word processing programs will allow you to “tag” your entries to make them easily searchable.  This will help your attorney later when the two of you are trying to prepare for court.  If you opt for the handwritten paper journal, consider using multicolored tabs to mark your entries.
Finally, keep your journal secure and private.
Photo courtesy of Bev Sykes
Can I Change the Locks on the House?

Can I Change the Locks on the House?

One question that comes up all the time, especially at the beginning of a divorce case, is “Can I change the locks on my house during the divorce.”  The short answer is yes, but please do not stop reading yet.  As with anything else in a divorce, the answer is actually more complicated than a simple yes or no.

In Kentucky, when the parties are married, unless and until the court says otherwise, they each have equal access and rights to marital property regardless of whether it is titled in the name of the husband, the wife or jointly.  In other words, until a ruling from the court, either party has just as much right to the house as the other.

This means that either spouse has the right to change the locks.  Likewise, either spouse has the right to force his/her way into the house and that should not be arrested for breaking into his/her own home.  (Keep in mind that if the house is damaged during the break-in, the party who did so may be required to pay to repair the damage or otherwise be penalized in the final property division.)  As a practical matter, changing the locks on the residence is a fairly hostile action.  It could escalate an already volatile situation and increase tension between the parties.  Increased tension and hostility usually results in more litigation and more attorney fees.

Normally, one of the first motions that is filed in a divorce case is a motion for temporary relief which usually includes a request for exclusive use and possession of the former marital residence.  Once the court has awarded temporary, exclusive use and possession to one party, the other party may not come into the home without the express permission of the party to whom it was awarded or an order of the court.  At that point, it is not only reasonable to change the locks, you are probably stupid if you do not change them.  If the other spouse enters the home uninvited at that point, he/she could be subject to contempt sanctions or possibly even criminal charges.

In addition to changing the locks on the house, do not forget the other points of access.  Security system codes need to be changed and garage door openers need to be secured or the codes changed.  If you have a security company monitoring your home, you may need to provide them with a copy of the temporary order so they know your estranged spouse is not to be on the premises.

As with anything else in a divorce case, before you act, consult with your divorce and custody attorney before taking any steps that may escalate an already tense situation.

Photo courtesy of Matthias Ripp

Is My Spouse Spying On Me?

Is My Spouse Spying On Me?

Probably.  If you are in the middle of a divorce or custody case, you should at least assume you are being watched to prevent you from doing anything you would not later want used against you in court.  What about actual spying?  The fact is, it happens all the time in these cases.  You may feel like it is tinfoil hat type stuff reserved for people with paranoia, but over the years I have seen this happen over and over again.

In one particularly hostile case, we hired a private investigator to inspect a client’s house.  He found enough stuff to equip James Bond.  There were cameras hidden in the house, taps on the phone lines and even a recorder hidden underneath her house.  The husband, who was living a few miles away at his mothers, would go over to the house when he knew she was gone and retrieve the tapes from under the house.  It was crazy.

In another case the husband “just happened” to show up at the same place as his wife.  He would even sometimes send her text messages that obviously showed he knew where she was.  This was unnerving to say the least.  It turns out he had a tracker on her car as well as tracking software on her phone.

So how do you know if your spouse is spying on you?

  • The first thing is assume that your spouse is spying and behave accordingly.
  • Watch out for strange changes in behavior like “coincidentally” being at the same place you are.
  • Listen for clues in texts and conversations that your spouse has been watching you.  People often are not that smart and many times tell on themselves.
  • Does your phone or computer start acting strange?  Is it suddenly running slower or do there appear to be new programs that you do not recognize?
  • Does the home phone make an odd buzzing or clicking noise?
  • Has your spouse suddenly started buying things for the house?  Cameras and microphones can be hid in numerous places, e.g. new furniture, knick-knacks, picture frames, etc.  I knew a private investigator who carried a recorder that was built into a pen to record conversations.
  • Do you share an iTunes account?  If so, you can track anyone else who shares that account with the Find My iPhone App.  There are similar methods with Android phones and there are other apps specifically designed to track people that can be surreptitiously installed on someone’s phone.

So what do you do if you think your spouse is spying on you?  It usually involves hiring someone to check things out.  Often a private investigator or other security consultant can inspect a home or car for bugs or other electronic devices.  A computer expert can scan your computer and hand-held devices for malicious software.  Also check the credit card bills and bank statements for unusual purchases.  Most of these types of devices are bought off of various websites or even Amazon.com.  The important thing is that if you suspect it is happening, do not ignore it.  Talk with your attorney and make a plan for it.  Remember, just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not following you.

Photo courtesy of Mike Mozart

Jennifer Lawrence & Other Celebs Learn – Your Photos Are Never Completely Private

Jennifer Lawrence & Other Celebs Learn – Your Photos Are Never Completely Private

You have zero privacy . . .”
Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems

The latest photo scandal for Jennifer Lawrence, Victoria Justice and other celebrities illustrates an important point to remember in your divorce or custody case.  Your photos and your information are never as secure as you think they are.

I previously discussed the fact that your Facebook and other social media can be used against you in court.  Nevertheless, people often feel much more secure having their own “private” stash of photos, videos, etc.  These “private” images almost certainly will not remain “private” once a civil suit is filed.  If anonymous hackers are able to seemingly routinely get their hands on private photos of celebrities, how much easier will it be for someone close to you (i.e. a spouse or lover) to figure out a password or supposedly secret hiding place?

Unless you wind up with a child as a result of a one night stand, most likely the person on the other side of your divorce or custody case kno
ws you quite well.  Most likely, they can guess your password to your phone without a lot of effort or they know that supposedly super-secret hiding place you use.  Those will be some of the first places they look to dig up dirt on you.

In the years I have been handling divorce and custody cases, believe me I have seen people who felt the need to record, write about or photograph some pretty bizarre things.  The relevance of these depends on the facts of the case and may actually be of dubious value from a litigation standpoint.  However, their value for settlement negotiations can be immeasurable when the writer, video star or photo subject really, really does not want them released into the public record.  The value of these can go up exponentially if you are seeking maintenance and have already started a new relationship and decided to “document” it.  Why put yourself at risk?

Anything that is photographed, written down or recorded has the potential to be used against you in court.  So before you decide to be a star in your own movie or you decide the world needs photos of you in your unmentionables (trust me, we don’t), ask yourself if you would want your grandma to see it.  Unless your grandma looks like this, in which case you should just cut to the chase and decide if you would ever want a judge to see it when deciding if you are a good parent.  The best advice is simply to keep your privates private.

Photo courtesy of Amy Wilbanks

Can Facebook and Other Social Media Be Used Against Me in My Divorce/Custody Case?

Can Facebook and Other Social Media Be Used Against Me in My Divorce/Custody Case?

The short answer is YES!  I love using social media.  I have links to all of my profiles listed on my business cards and I often check Facebook or Twitter before I even roll out of bed.  I enjoy posting snarky and smart alec comments or jokes and embarrassing pictures of me and my family.  It’s fun.  However, during a divorce or child custody case, it is probably a good idea for you to back off of social media for a number of reasons.

The first is that it is probably not going to do anything to encourage settlement of your case.  In fact, it will probably just add fuel to your ex’s anger.  Whether it is veiled statements you are making about him/her, bragging about how much better your life is without the ex, or even posts that you feel may otherwise be harmless; you never know how someone else is going to take something you have posted.

The judge will see your posts.  I do not care what kind of Fort Knox level privacy settings you engaged on your favorite social media site.  It will be seen by your ex or a friend of a friend of the ex and it will get out.  It will then be seen by the judge and it will be considered as part of your case.  I once had a case where I represented a mom and I advised her to back off of her Facebook usage for the duration of the case.  She was resistant because she had all of the privacy settings engaged and besides she “only uses it to share pictures of her kids with her sister in California.”  We get to court and apparently one of those pictures she liked to share with her sister was of her dancing on a pool table while holding a fifth of vodka in her hand while dancing with another woman who appeared to be slapping her on the rear.  At least, that was the picture that was presented by her ex in court.

Do not delete your posts if you already have an account.  If you do, you could be accused of destruction of evidence.  This can have a number of ramifications including that the court will assume there is something in the files you deleted that was detrimental to your case and will, therefore, make a negative inference that you are hiding something.  This is totally legal under the rules of evidence and very bad for your case.  If your attorney ever advises you to delete your posts, that attorney is violating state ethics rules and probably the law as well.  In recent years, I have heard horror stories of attorneys being sanctioned thousands of dollars and even being suspended from practice for advising clients to delete posts from social media.  Do not do it.

Social media is a lot of fun and a great way to share information with your friends and family.  Unfortunately, during litigation it becomes a gold mine of information and evidence for family law attorneys.  While your case is pending, just back away from it and stay offline for a while.  No one is that interested in what you had for lunch anyway.

Photo courtesy of Jason Howie

What Should I Bring to My Divorce Attorney’s Office at the First Meeting?

What Should I Bring to My Divorce Attorney’s Office at the First Meeting?

In actuality, you do not need to bring anything to your initial meeting with your attorney.  However, if you want to be efficient, there are a number of documents that will be needed in almost every case.  The sooner you provide these to your attorney the sooner your attorney can get your case positioned for settlement or trial.  (It also saves your attorney the time of having to chase you down to get you to produce these documents, which ultimately saves you money in attorney fees.)  The following is a non-exhaustive list of what you will need to gather for your attorney:

1.  Copies of your last three most recent paycheck stubs.

2.  Copies of Federal and State Income taxes for the most recent tax year.

3.  Documentation of all other income for the past 48 months, including the source of the income and the amount of income received year to date.

4.  Verification of work-related child care expenses.

5.  Verification of cost of health/dental insurance for children’s portion (e.g. difference between cost of single and family plan).

6.  Most recent statement of each bank account.

7.  Most recent brokerage statement or documentation of purchase and/or value for each investment.

8.  Copies of all deeds, mortgages, liens, etc. including current tax assessments for all property.

9.  Declaration page(s) of life insurance policies and documentation of cash surrender value. (This only applies to whole-life policies.  Term policies do not have a cash value.)

10.  Documentation of benefits accrued in pension, profit sharing, 401(k) or other retirement plans, including most recent statements of each such plan and the name, address and phone number of plan administrator.  If any portion was acquired prior to the marriage, provide documentation of the value as of the date of the marriage.

11.  Payoffs of any vehicles and copies of titles.

12.  For each business interest, list name of business, extent of interest or title in business (i.e., owner, shareholder, partner, etc.), provide a copy of last income tax return filed by business and documentation of income earned (or portion received) through business during last twenty-four months.

13.  Provide a list describing any other assets you have an interest in, including any documentation as to the value of the non-marital interest, date asset was acquired, and source of non-marital interest (trace and document non-marital funds used to acquire each asset).

14.  For each asset in which you claim a non-marital interest, provide the basis and approximate value of non-marital claim.  Documentation tracing any non-marital assets shall be produced if available, and if not currently available, shall be produced when available or as specified by separate court order.

15.  For each debt, provide the last statement or documentation of unpaid balance, or explain why documentation is not available.  A short summary of why the debt was incurred would be helpful as well.

16.  For each debt designated as “non-marital,” list the party you think should assume responsibility for said debt and why.

When you deliver this information to your attorney, the more organized you can make the information, the better.  A neatly tabbed three-ring binder is much, much easier to review than a garbage bag full of documents that may or may not have any relevance to your case.  We have had numerous clients show up with garbage bags and shoeboxes full of documents that we have to wade through to get their case prepared for trial.  They then get upset when we have to charge them to do that.  Save yourself the money and the stress, get organized and help your attorney help you.

Photo courtesy of alborzshawn

I Can’t Possibly Gather All of This Information for the Divorce Lawyers and the Court!

I Can’t Possibly Gather All of This Information for the Divorce Lawyers and the Court!

There are many demands for litigants to gather information for their divorce.  The discovery process is difficult.  From tax returns, deeds, bank records, pay subs, photos, credit card statements to medical records, authorizations, car titles, and contracts; it can be overwhelming.  I have clients routinely cringe at having to wade through all of it.  Don’t panic.

I am reminded of the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant?”  The answer, “One bite at a time.”  The idea is that even large tasks can be broken down into smaller tasks.  The smaller tasks add up and, before you know it, you have completed the large task.  In most cases, you have some time to get everything together.  Perhaps, you could set aside one afternoon to collect your tax returns or meet with your accountant to get copies.  The next weekend, you could sit down with your monthly bills and estimate your monthly expenses.  In this way, you can break the demands down into more manageable tasks.
You also should not feel like you have to do everything on your own.  Let other people help you.  Ask a friend who fancies herself as an organizational diva to bring her file folders over and help you get organized.  The more organized you can get your information before you turn it over to your attorney, the less time your attorney has to spend organizing it and the less you legal fees will be.  I cannot tell you how much I cringe when people show up with garbage bags and shoe boxes full of documents that we have to whip into shape.
Finally, do not forget that your lawyer and paralegals are there to help you.  A skilled family law attorney and staff can offer many helpful suggestions for completing necessary forms and getting organized.  At a minimum, they can help prioritize the information you will need to provide immediately and what can be provided later.  This can be a daunting and frustrating task.  If you have more questions, please contact the Alford Law Office.
Photo courtesy of Brian Snelson