Some issues that arise in Connecticut Divorce Cases

If you are considering filing for divorce in Connecticut, there are some basic issues to consider aside from the question how best to proceed. Here are some basic issues you should be aware of to prepare for a meeting with an attorney.  This is not a comprehensive list of all issues that arise, but represents some of the more common questions asked.
Residency
  • One of the the couple must be a resident for at least 12 months for the court to grant a divorce.  However, the divorce case can be initiated during that 12 months if one of the couple moves to Connecticut to live here indefinitely. After 12 months of residency the court can then grant the divorce

Grounds

  • Connecticut is a no-fault state.  Only one of the couple needs to file and claim irreconcilable differences.  The other spouse has no legal means to stop or block a divorce proceeding.  This does not mean that the traditional grounds have no bearing on a case, but that the court does not need to have something like adultery or intolerable cruelty to grant a divorce.

Alimony

  •  The court may grant alimony to either spouse.  There are a number of factors that bear on the amount and you should consult with an experienced attorney if you are considering asking for alimony in the final dissolution.
  • If the court does not award alimony in the final judgment, neither spouse can return to court in the future and request alimony due to a change in circumstance. A divorce judgment in Connecticut can include $1 a year in alimony to allow a spouse to revisit alimony in the future.
  • The final decision regarding amount and duration of an alimony award is at the discretion of the court. Generally, the court may consider the length of the marriage, the age, health, income, education, and needs of each party.

Distribution of Property

  • Connecticut requires “equitable distribution” of property. This means that all property of the couple may be subject to distribution. When dividing property, the court may consider the length of the marriage, the cause for the breakdown of the marriage , the age, health, occupation, and employability of each party, the needs of each of the parties, and the contribution of each of the couple to the property.

Children

  • Connecticut believes that it is in the best interest of children to have both parents involved in a positive, caring, nurturing manner.  While the parents have decided to divorce, this does not mean that the children should suffer as a result.  Before the final decision in a divorce case, both parents are required to participate in a parenting class and provide a copy of the signed completion to the court.  If parents cannot work out an agreement themselves for visitation and support, the court may enter orders for the parents with the assistance of a Guardian Ad Litem.

Modest Means Law

What is Modest Means Law?  To me it is a conscious decision to represent clients based on their needs and not their wealth.  This can be an unusual decision for attorneys as it means giving up clients with deep pockets and seeking out clients who have legitimate issues that require representation but do not have the financial means to pay high billable hours.

It also means fighting the perception of “you get what you pay for” in the legal billable hour community.

The idea really gelled when I  was introduced to the concept of “conscious capitalism” through the efforts of Ron Shaich and Panera Cares.

When I opened the firm I changed my focus from “how much I wanted to make” to focus instead on what I wanted my lifestyle to be.  I am not a world traveler.  You won’t be finding me on the beaches of Milan or the mountains of Italy sampling wines.  I like to take vacations, but they are usually simple family affairs where we all pile in a van (all four generations) and head to the beach.

I wanted to be available for my kids games, school events, and other things that are valuable to me.  This is the advice that I give to any small business person, including attorneys, starting out on their own:

 Don’t start by naming a billable hour and shooting for an income level.  Owning your own business is not about money, it is about lifestyle.

After Mr. Shaich and his efforts with Panera Cares, a second life altering article came my way. 

The best salary for happiness, according to several studies, is $75,000 a year.  Well, it was when the study was done in 2010.  Several more studies have been done pegging the number a bit lower or highter, but that’s a good target number to work with if your focus is on lifestyle and not on accumulating points.  So with these two things in mind (my lifestyle list and my happiness index) I felt I was ready to now calculate my billable hour using the basic formula:

Without getting into the complicated math of taxes, expenses, and what not (I did that for you) I came up with the average billable hour rate of $65/ hour.

That’s correct.  If I bill and collect an average of $65/hour I will make my target income to maintain my lifestyle.

But that does not mean that every client who comes through my door pays $65/hour.  I take in pro-bono clients, who pay nothing and low-bono clients who may pay $20/hour.  But I have regular clients who pay $150 an hour and are do it gladly because they know that they are supplementing the payments of people who would go without legal representation otherwise.

I have a formula that allows me to calculate how many clients I can take on at what rate in order to keep the doors open and maintain those summer beach vacations with the family.

There is an extra-added bonus to taking on clients with a sliding scale.  I don’t bother with calculating the length of a case, or how many hours it might bill since I have no shortage of clients when I bill below $100/hour.  I don’t scramble for the next case, worry if there will be a client to fill my time, or have to pad out hours on a client with deeper pockets just in case I’m a little client dry for a period of time.

I also don’t worry about collecting money from clients.  Since I have done a financial analysis I know what they can comfortably afford and it avoids those long, awkward silences when it comes time to pay the bill.

Approach to Vocational Assessment in Collaborative Divorce Helps Settle Spousal Support


As originally published on Collaborative Divorce Northwest Blog 

“Many divorcing women are scared to death of becoming bag ladies, and many men are scared to death of becoming indentured servants.” J. Mark Weiss, JD

Vocational assessments, when provided by a collaborative career coach help settle spousal support in collaborative and mediated divorce cases. The approach, a combination of personal and career counseling and coaching, engages the whole person who is divorcing, and addresses the entire family system.

This type of career coaching empowers a divorcing woman by involving her in the creation of a plan for her future including next steps for education, job search or small business start-up. It goes beyond traditional vocational assessment and employment projections to include help with fears about re-entering the workplace, guidance to gather info about her options and consideration of the impact her plan may have on her spouse and the rest of the family.

Typically fears are induced by past employment or educational challenges, technological change, age, not knowing what’s out there and a perceived loss of skills, relevance and self-confidence. In addition, most women are concerned about how going back to work and/or school will affect her children. All of these concerns are addressed openly, creating safety. As fears are faced and ideas generated to navigate them, it becomes more possible to assess her interests and skills and think about what she might want to do. A discussion of her values is helpful in clarifying priorities and trade-offs as she begins to negotiate with her husband.

Once the vocational assessment has helped her identify her best career options or validated an idea that she’s been considering, she is coached to research her ideas further through on-line resources, informational interviews and speaking with college advisers. This hands-on work fosters a vision of what is possible and is useful in narrowing options. It also creates a sense of ownership and boosts self-confidence. Women bloom.

If feasible, a woman’s educational plan and timing can be tied to her children’s school schedule. For example, her first day back in college to obtain a BA can be timed with her child’s entry into kindergarten or first grade, minimizing childcare costs and giving her more time to pursue her studies.

In addition to offering support and guidance to a divorcing woman a collaborative approach to vocational assessment addresses a husband’s fears and concerns and incorporates his feedback as the team of attorneys, coaches, financial neutrals and couple work together.

If he is open to helping his spouse pursue more education (and many men pursuing mediation or a collaborative divorce are) his needs and concerns are explored. As the couple’s finances become clearer or are subject to change, husband’s voice to create a step-down in spousal support is heard and incorporated into wife’s plan.

Specific examples of incorporating a husbands needs in the process include facilitating the speedy evaluation of his wife’s business plan to meet his need to move on, or appreciating husband’s need to understand her total school costs in monthly terms and controlling the cost of education by exploring options at the community college. Usually a man will want to know his soon to be ex will strive to earn the most she can thus helping to ensure financial security for all.

Ideally the open, trusting enough and creative atmosphere at the table has engaged the couple to explore mutually, agreeable objectives. For example wife’s need to work a PT job while going to school PT could involve husband timing visitation around her schedule, in order to give her a break
or study time when she could use it.

Hopefully these settlements within the settlement include the possibility of checking in down the road, if needed. We do indeed live in times of change. Projecting around the corner is trickier. Build sensible modifications that can be experienced as helpful structure during this on-going life and career transition. Track criteria committed to by the couple, such as progress towards a bachelor’s degree or technical certificate. Earning increases or decreases and employment/business development status including clearer projections can be eyed as well.

Gail Nicholson, MA, LPC
Collaborative Divorce Coach and Career Counselor
Bridges Collaborative Divorce Solutions
503) 227-4250
gailcareer@aol.com

Avoiding the Rachel Canning Saga

As originally posted on North Jersey Collaborative Law Blog

By now we are all familiar with the unfortunate, highly publicized litigation between a Morris County high school senior and her parents. The student, Rachel Canning, filed suit to have her parents pay for the balance of her private high school education and her college tuition. Rachel and her parents allegedly became embroiled in a controversy over Rachel’s refusal to abide by certain house rules. Rachel moved out of her parents’ home and was living with the family of a friend when she instituted suit against her parents. In fact, the legal action initiated by Rachel was allegedly financed by her friend’s parents. The regrettable litigation made news not just in North Jersey but throughout the country and internationally.

When we engage in traditional litigation, mediation or collaborative divorce, we are frequently called upon to negotiate or litigate the issue of private school and college obligation in the context of families who are divorcing or who are already divorced. Indeed, it is standard practice to address the payment of private school and college expenses in any matrimonial settlement agreement.

What is so unusual about the Canning matter is that it involved a clearly unemancipated teenager’s lawsuit against her parents to compel payment of educational costs in an otherwise intact family situation. Many attorneys and legal commentators believed that this case, like many other cases involving bad or unusual facts, could have set a very unfortunate legal precedent which would open the floodgates for children of intact families seeking to enforce their “rights” to expensive private school educations and who knows what else, perhaps cars, a spring break vacation, etc.

Those of us who practice collaborative divorce immediately recognized the value of such a process to a family like the Cannings. Had the family decided to engage a collaborative child specialist and collaborative attorneys to deal with the family dynamic issues which caused the rift between Rachel and her parents, a more meaningful and certainly a more private outcome would have resulted. The collaborative child specialist is a licensed mental health practitioner trained to elicit, hear and understand the concerns of the child [of ALL ages] and help guide parents to address those concerns in an optimal manner for all involved. The child specialist could have addressed those issues which resulted in Rachel feeling that she could no longer remain in the family residence.

That would have paved the way for a more constructive dialogue by the parties and the attorneys about the relatively straightforward financial issues. In many of our divorce cases, the collaborative child specialist is integral to helping parents and children transition through the divorce process and maintaining a better parent/child relationship for the future.
Whether the Canning matter was litigated, mediated or handled collaboratively, there is no question that a collaborative child specialist would have been invaluable in dealing with the highly charged emotional issues which led to the separation between daughter and parents. Further, If the parties chose to be represented by collaborative attorneys, the goal would have been to seek a private and lasting resolution that was focused on addressing the needs and interests of all family members.

Larry, Esposito, Esq.

How does time work in the collaborative process?

As originally published at CollaborativePracticeDC.com

Clients involved in the Collaborative divorce process often have concerns about the timing of the process. For example, consider these three clients using the Collaborative process to resolve the issues in their divorces:

  • David had been unhappy in his marriage for years, and was the party who first brought up the topic of divorce in conversations with his wife. He has felt impatient as his wife went through the emotions of denial, anger, and betrayal and then deliberated about what process she wanted to use and who she wanted to retain as her counsel. Now that they are finally having meetings, David feels the Collaborative process is moving forward too slowly, and wonders if he made the wrong decision in choosing the Collaborative model.
  • Although Catherine has been the “initiating party” in terms of the divorce, she is much less knowledgeable about the family’s finances and about money in general than is her husband. She is terrified by the pace at which the process is moving, and is very worried that she will be forced to make decisions that are not carefully thought through.
  • Stan is really worried about the costs of the Collaborative process, and equates time with money. He has a vision running through his head of a long series of meetings with two attorneys, two “coaches,” and a “financial neutral” sitting around the table, and five meters running up a huge price tag. Stan is worried about how long the Collaborative process will potentially take since, in addition to finances, he and his wife have issues involving their three children, one of whom has special needs.

All of these client concerns are very real and very understandable. It is important that clients using the Collaborative process share their concerns about time with the professionals, who will be able to work with them to address the timing issues.

The different circumstances of clients like David, Catherine, and Stan means that they will move through the Collaborative process in different ways and at different speeds:

  • For David, no matter what process he and his wife use, it will be necessary and important to allow his wife time to process her feelings and work on the “emotional” divorce as well as the “legal” divorce. At the end of the process, it is to be hoped that David will feel that this was time well spent because it enabled his wife to work through her feelings in a constructive way.
  • Unlike the litigation process, for example, the Collaborative process won’t move faster than the pace which works for the slowest member of the couple. Catherine will likely find the spreadsheets prepared by the financial neutral extremely helpful in understanding the status of the family’s finances as well as planning for the future.
  • Stan’s concerns will be addressed, in part, by understanding that the parties will work in different configurations of professionals depending on the issues being addressed. Most likely, the parties will meet just with the financial neutral to gather and organize all of the information regarding income, expenses, assets, and liabilities that will form the foundation for their financial decision making. Most of the meetings around the children’s issues will be with the coaches only, relying on the coaches’ expertise and experience in facilitating co-parenting, supporting the children’s relationships with both parents, and developing time-sharing schedules that are appropriate for children’s different developmental stages and other unique needs.

The Collaborative process isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. The timing of the process depends on the individual clients and the facts of the situation, and must be explored by the clients and their team. While clients should hold team members accountable for a cost-effective and time-efficient process, clients must also acknowledge their contributions to the time that the process takes.

What to Expect: How Easy is Collaborative Law?

As originally posted by Dick Price on Texas Collaborative Law

Some people think that if you choose to work out your divorce issues and you agree to not go to court, you have elected to use a nice, simple, easy process.  While the process is generally nicer than litigation and is intended to at preserve family relationships (assuming you want or need to), it is not necessarily simple or easy.

If you are considering using Collaborative Law, we want you to have realistic expectations.  The preparation and meetings are often difficult and time consuming.  Here are some things to keep in mind if you begin the Collaborative process.

1.  There will be a number of meetings.  People often try to cut back on the meetings, but I can assure you that the attorneys and other professionals do not set up unnecessary meetings.  Issues tend to be handled better if we work on them in joint meetings rather than by email or phone calls between attorneys.  We always try to limit the meetings, but please work with the professionals if we say we need another meeting.

2.  Express what you want. Don’t expect your attorney to speak for you.  This is not the process where you attorney writes pleadings and makes arguments for you.  We want you to speak up for yourself.  Your attorney will help you prepare.

3.  Each of you must listen to the other side.  In court, it often feels like whoever speaks first or loudest is the one the judge will pay attention to.  In Collaborative, we want both of you to speak and be heard by the other.

4.  Be patient.  This may take a while.  Even though going to court would probably take 9 to 18 months to reach resolution, people in Collaborative sometimes have unrealistic expectations that the process can be resolved in 2 to 3 meeting over a couple of months.  Some minimalist cases can be done that quickly, but most will take 3 or 4 months and some will take more.

5.  You must be an active participant.  You have to gather information, plan, be creative and suggest solutions.  There will be meetings to attend and you may have to study different options.  There will be times to meet with your attorney and times to meet with the other professionals.  You must speak your mind and tell us what you like or don’t like.

6.  Be willing to grow.  You may need to expand your horizons.  Don’t settle for the what the law will give you.  Ask for more and ask for different solutions.  We are talking about a major life event, so look into the future.

7.  Expect some discomfort.  You will hear some things you don’t like.  You will be confronted with difficult issues and will have to compromise where you may not want to.  Instead of giving up or giving in, you can learn to seek other alternatives and find new solutions that can work for everyone.  It’s just not the situation where you choose from a menu of possibilities.  Sometimes you will need to create a new menu and that may be hard.  But, it will be worthwhile.

Having realistic expectations will ensure that the Collaborative process is successful and less stressful for you.  Good luck!