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Archive for the ‘Divorce’ Category

HB 93 Will Take Us Back to the Bad Old Days

Posted on May 10th, 2017 by The Red Headed Lawyer

Back in 1970, Texas became one of the first states to offer couples a less confrontational, less expensive way to end a failed marriage. It was known as “No Fault” Divorce, and many at the time believed it would be a disastrous social experiment with American families. However, there is evidence now suggesting that rather than encouraging divorce, the long term effect of this option has been to make divorces less frequent.

During the 1970s and into the early 1980s, divorce rates did rise as each state eventually passed legislation to offer some kind of no fault option. In economic terms, you could say there was pent-up demand that was suddenly being satisfied by the change in laws.

One common measure of divorce rates is the number of divorces per 1,000 people. From about 4.6 per 1,000 in 1970, divorces in the US rose throughout the decade, peaking in 1981 at about 6.9 per thousand. Since then, the numbers have steadily declined, dropping to 4.0 per 1,000 in 2000 and just 3.2 today. Here in Texas, we are fortunate to have a divorce rate below the national average at 2.7 per 1,000.

Clearly, this is one of those rare occurrences where it’s good to be below average!

Texas House Bill 93 (and a companion bill that lengthens the waiting period from 60 to 180 days) would undo years of progress on dealing with divorces in the state and bring us back to the bad old days. If this Bill becomes law, couples whose marriages have failed will no longer be able to claim the no-fault option of “insupportability” – basically another way of saying irreconcilable differences. Instead, they will need to file using one or more of the fault-based grounds – adultery, abandonment, cruelty, felony conviction, living apart for three years or confinement to a mental hospital.

In my opinion, this Bill would be a disaster for Texas couples. They are already going through one life’s most stressful events. Now, they will be forced to adopt a confrontational approach and air their dirty laundry in public. Kids will be forced to take sides with all the long-term hurt and emotional baggage such conflict would sow.

And what about the parents? Should they be penalized for admitting that they are no longer compatible? Currently, it is estimated that as many as 90% of divorces in Texas are filed on no-fault grounds. Eliminating this option will make divorces much more expensive as one party will have to prove malfeasance as described above. This could entail the hiring of private investigators, expert witnesses, and the like. These proceedings will also take much more time to complete, which will also run up the bills.

But it’s not just about money. For women (and men) who are in abusive relationships, a no-fault divorce can be the only way out. After years in such a destructive relationship, the abused party will likely be very reluctant and afraid to report the partner to authorities, which would be required in an at-fault divorce. There is more data supporting current law – since no fault divorces became common, studies show female suicide has dropped 8 – 15%, domestic murder is down 10%, and domestic violence (for male and females) has fallen as much as 30%. Also, given the inevitable rise in costs that would ensue, would divorce become an option only for the wealthy?

There are many groups that support this change in law, but I can tell that as an attorney, I do not support it. Kids will suffer, parents and their families will suffer, and what if people lose their jobs and careers? How would this development help the lives of those involved?

If you have any questions on this or any other family law matter, please feel free to contact us here at the Essex Law Firm.

How to Find An Affordable Divorce Attorney in Spring

Posted on November 28th, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

Finding an affordable divorce attorney in Spring (or anywhere) can be a difficult and time-consuming process. Stress levels are often already sky high during the breakup of a marriage, making the research and consultations even more frustrating. Everyone just wants to move forward and get closure.

And it’s no wonder – the legal tradition of collecting an up-front payment from clients and spending it as needed is so unlike what people normally do. Consider that before you even walk into a store to buy shoes, or sign on to Amazon to order a video game, you have a pretty good idea of how much your items will cost. And by the time you check out, you know exactly what you have purchased and how much you spent. With legal services, it’s usually a black box where you shovel money in and wait for results.

(Maybe a black hole is a better description.)

At the Essex Law Firm, we understand what people need from their attorneys during stressful times. For 30 years, we have handled all types of sensitive issues with care, discretion and skill. In addition, most of our services have a fixed price so there is no “nickel and diming” and no surprises.

We are proud to differ from other traditional practices because of the three “Cs” – communication, consultation, and cost-effectiveness.

Communication – If we can’t reply immediately, we will answer all inquiries within 24 hours, period. And we will set up an email journal with you to facilitate communications so information/events pertinent to your case can be recorded quickly while the facts are still fresh.

Consultation – We offer a low fee initial consultation, which generally lasts one hour.  This enables us to get the facts of the case and your expectations while we get to know each other. Even if you don’t hire us, we make sure that you leave with valuable information about your case and the legal process.

Cost-Effectiveness – We are careful stewards of your money. During the initial consultation, we will give you our honest assessment on the legal remedies you seek, and tell you what it will cost. Most of our services (such as divorce, child custody, child support, and adoption) are fixed price so there are no surprises.

Unlike most law practices, we also offer a payment plan. This way, you know the exact total cost of our service, the down payment, and the monthly installment. Please visit our website for more details on our payment plan.

We are completely transparent about our fees and payment schedules. Because we value your business and want you to get the best result possible, we are also happy to help you save time (and possibly money) as your case progresses. As the affordable family legal firm here in Spring, we are happy to share a few hints on how to keep your legal expenses down and everything moving forward:

First, read my September 21 “Don’t Forget the Details” blog. There are many steps you can take prior to a divorce that will make your proceedings less complicated. By closing certain accounts, dividing memberships appropriately and handling some obligations in advance, there will be less to negotiate later. This usually translates into a faster resolution at a lower cost.

Also, be sure to complete any legal paperwork or requests for documents as quickly as you can. Delays in providing information to opposing counsel can throw off filing and court appearance dates, which will delay your case and possibly increase its cost.

If you have non-urgent questions, try to consolidate and submit them periodically rather than one at a time. I can tell you that it’s much easier to focus on a given case and address multiple related issues at the same time.

Lastly, make sure you are organized. Keep notes about what you sent and when, and save copies of everything (including emails.)

At the Essex Law Firm, we take our goal of providing quality, affordable family law services very seriously. Please feel free to contact us for an initial consultation.

In a Divorce, Don’t Forget the Details

Posted on September 21st, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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If you look up “what are the most stressful life events,” divorce is second – right behind death of a spouse.

In some ways both are synonymous. Each involves a death of sorts, and there is something else these events have in common. Both will require you to make critical, potentially life-altering decisions at a time when your mental capacity is taxed by stress. But in both cases, the decisions will need to be made quickly and thoughtfully, because most will be irrevocable.

Everyone can list the major decisions involved in a divorce:

  1. Child custody
  2. Disposition of marital home
  3. Visitation
  4. Support payments
  5. Division of major assets/liabilities

These have to get resolved and they are on everyone’s radar from day one. But in the heat of “battle,” don’t lose sight of those other issues that, if left unaddressed, can cause additional expense, emotional pain, and wreck havoc with future relationships.

Credit Cards

Chances are, if you’ve been married for a number of years you have joint credit cards with your spouse. It is often simpler to pay these off before the divorce heats up. It doesn’t really make sense to have your attorney negotiate with opposing counsel over a $300 Target balance, but if you forget, it will need to be on the table. And even when there is no balance, if the card was issued jointly it could be a problem down the road. Call the company to determine how you can remove a currently authorized user. Sometimes it’s fairly easy and sometimes not, but it must be done. Remember that removing a user is better than closing an account completely for credit score purposes, but sometimes you won’t have a choice.

Utilities

This situation will be similar to the credit card scenario. Utilities (including phone, cable and Internet) are often joint obligations. Obviously, whoever is to remain in the house needs to have the control and the liability. So check them – the departing spouse should assure that he/she is no longer connected to the utility accounts. You may to have to jump through a hoop or two to remove a name, but it will be worth it.

Club Memberships

Some club memberships include a credit account. Even if yours doesn’t, at some point you’ll need to separate yourself from your ex so Sam’s, Costco, and others treat you as an individual with (in same cases) a new address. Besides, do you really want your ex to know about your shopping habits?

Netflix, etc.

This can become an issue, particularly if it’s not resolved early before things get heated. Consider what might happen during a custody battle if your viewing habits suddenly became public information. It might be embarrassing, or it could (depending on what you watch) become a morals issue used against you in court to take away your child(ren.) Tread carefully during custody discussions – you don’t want anyone to think your home activities create hazards for children.

Gag Orders

It is common in a settlement agreement to include language stating that one spouse cannot slander or speak badly of the other. This is usually to maintain the relationship with a child or children. But don’t forget that slander can apply to others. What if your ex-spouse decides that his or her new favorite activity is bad-mouthing the person in your current relationship? It’s hard to prove in court, but the parties will know exactly what is happening. Unless it is prohibited, either specifically in the document or by some broader statement, a situation could develop where your friends, relatives, and kids become a sounding board for your ex’s complaints and comments. Don’t let this happen – be sure you protect yourself.

There are many more areas of entanglement that must be severed prior to divorce. Go through your wallet or purse and look at everything – chances are you will find more. Gym memberships, anything that is autobilled like yard service, reward program points – the sooner you address these the better. By paying off bills, separating or closing joint accounts, dropping users, and protecting yourself from torment, you save time and money during your divorce. It is also easier to resolve these issues early before emotions take over.

Feel free to contact us if you have any questions on settlement agreements or divorces.

Post Divorce – What Are My Social Security Benefit Options?

Posted on June 2nd, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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While we do our best to entertain and inform, today we have to tackle a tough topic. Not to be morbid, but we need to discuss death. Two types, actually – the death of a marriage (aka divorce) and actual death. Both of these types of death have profound implications for your social security benefits, and it’s never too early to be informed.

As you might have guessed, the rules pertaining to divorce and social security benefits are complicated (of course they are.) But below we will sketch out the basic facts you will need to know.

The magic number for divorced people and SS benefits is ten. If your marriage lasted ten years or longer, the SSA throws you a bone to ease your transition to retired single person. It is called the divorced spousal benefit, and once you’ve been divorced two years you can claim it.

It works like this – if you satisfy the two requirements above, you can claim either your own DSB or that of your ex-spouse – whichever is higher (generally, one ex can receive as much as 50% of the other’s benefit – less if initiated before FRA.) Or you can claim both! At full retirement age, many retirees begin collecting the higher of the two DSBs and keep collecting it until age 70. While they collect, their own SS benefit continues to grow. Then at 70 they switch to their own benefit, which in the four years could be worth as much as 30% more per month. Of course, you get that increased payment (plus COLAs) for life. See, it pays to know the rules.

Unfortunately, if you retire before FRA, you can’t use this trick. Rules require you to take the higher of the two payments, which you are stuck with for life.

What happens if you get remarried? Glad you asked – you then lose any benefit from your former spouse but are eligible to ride on your new spouse’s coattails, generally after one year. If you have been married two or more times, with each lasting 10 years, you will need to sit down and call us – the rules start to get crazy.

One other thing – you don’t have to wait for your ex to file to file yourself. You can file at age 62, but you give up the dual filing option we described earlier.

So what happens if your ex-spouse dies? From a social security perspective there are more options to consider. And again, the magic number is 10. If you were married for at least ten years, you are now eligible for divorced survivor benefits. Best of all, this benefit can be as much as 100% of what your late ex-spouse was due. You can file for this as early as age 60, or 50 if you are disabled. And listen up you senior lovebirds – if you remarry before age 60 you lose this eligibility unless the new marriage ends. But interestingly, if you remarry after 60, you can still file for the survivor benefit. And if you are receiving the divorced spousal benefit described earlier, the SSA will automatically switch you over to the higher paying survivor benefit. Thanks SSA!

Please keep in mind that Congress has tweaked the FRAs for people born after certain years. To find out what your full retirement age is, visit https://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/agereduction.html.

Life always throws a few curves, and death does too. Keep these SSA rules in mind, and feel free to call us with any questions.

Make the deal!

Posted on April 21st, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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People just can’t help it. Even the most congenial divorces usually involve some level of hurt feelings and rejection. And then things can quickly deteriorate into a legal tangle worthy of a Grisham novel.

True congenial divorces are pretty rare. And even if the two parties get through the initial emotional trauma, logistical issues, and child custody arrangements without a blow up, things often break down during the division of property. This is when total reality sets in, and even worse, by this time one or both parties probably has friends, relatives or neighbors giving them advice. This “advice” usually results in a more intransigent position as far as negotiations are concerned. Why? Because they are feeding into whatever feelings they see in their relative or friend. If he/she wants to punish the other person, then punishment they will get! If he/she wants to make them pay, then by God, they will pay!

This kind of thinking is like a double expresso – it will make you feel energized and alive for a while, but then it will fade and leave you worse off than before.

Keep in mind that in any legal conflict, the longer something takes, the more expensive it usually becomes. People can (and do!) fight for years over teapots and lawn chairs, or someone can ask themselves, how can this impasse be broken?

Often, it’s not that hard to resolve quickly.

Ask yourself two questions:

  1. What do I really want most?
  2. What does my counterpart want most?

If the two things are different, you are on your way to settlement.

Here’s an example – two people are married many years but the relationship slowly ends. One files, and before you know it, counter suits are flying back and forth along with discovery demands, the possible hiring of expert witnesses, etc. But the silver lining is one person would love to stay in the house, and the other wants to keep his/her retirement account.

Bingo! Your negotiation will be started by offering to trade half the home equity for half the account equity. Get an appraisal on the property, compare the two numbers mentioned, and then quibble about chairs and teapots. The quibbling won’t last because each party already believes they’ve won. They won’t care much about the small stuff.

It doesn’t have to involve assets of approximately equal value either. It’s the perceived value that matters. One person might want the house, but the other wants granny’s silver settings. Again, we have the beginning of a resolution to the negotiation – the rest is just splitting the household inventory.

In any negotiation, it is important to achieve small victories, but in a divorce, the other party must also feel successful (barring any unlawful or immoral behavior.)

If you are involved in a contentious divorce (or any similar situation), take a few breaths and ask yourself the two questions referenced earlier. This technique can often be the key to a swift resolution that respects the feelings of all parties (including children) while easing the financial and time burden.

We can assist you in asking and answering these questions. Please feel free to call anytime.

Be My Ex-Valentine

Posted on February 12th, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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It’s Valentine’s Day this Sunday. Have you finished your shopping and dinner plans yet? Maybe you scheduled some spa services as a gift? Did you get a sitter for the kids? Who’s going to let the dog out? It’s not surprising that family strife seems to escalate around holidays. There’s pressure to entertain, pressure to cook and clean up for company, and of course, pressure to smile the whole time like you’re having a blast. However, when it comes to holiday-induced stress, Valentine’s Day is probably the worst.

Why?

Let’s face it. At the end of any other holiday, you get to show everyone the door. Valentine’s Day is a celebration for two, and most of the time, you already live together. You can’t go to your corner after the fight and nurse your wounds. You both live in the corner!

So for Valentine’s Day, stress is already off the charts due to the high expectations of “getting it right.” If you and your partner aren’t getting along, that just adds another layer of misery to the occasion. And unfortunately, you can’t escape the hype. Why? Because it’s everywhere! Walk away into Wal-Mart and there is row upon row of heart-shaped merchandise. Local supermarkets set up special stand-alone Valentine boutiques where all of us are expected to select fabulous gifts for our partner or prospective partner. Some of them are drive-through! Even Papa Johns has heart-shaped pizzas! Expectations are super high, as is fear of failure.

Psychologists will advise couples in turmoil to examine their situation in logical steps. Define the problem first. Often the problem will look different to each partner, and by stating it out loud (either together or in front of a mediator or other unbiased third party), they may be able to boil it down to a single statement or two that makes sense to both. Of course, this may not be possible, but you have to try. Second, it is important to determine what the underlying factors might be. Sometimes, the loss of a job can cause mental as well as physical issues. Aging results in changes to the bond and mind. Couples sometimes report a feeling of lethargy and uselessness once the kids leave the nest for school. Retirement by one or both parties often causes the same reaction. Once the problem or problems are identified and you both agree why, it is often possible to find a way forward.

But it may be that the problem issues are too ingrained, or you both have become too locked into your positions. And this realization, whether you realize it or not, can turn a normal holiday into an excruciating curse. How do you fake romance and empathy when you don’t feel it? Unless you have a handful of Oscars on your mantle, it can’t be done. And this is why holidays like Valentine’s Day can become the proverbial straw the breaks the camel’s back. At some point, the fear of breaking up gives way to the fear of staying together.

If you and your significant other are having problems, by all means seek counseling. Divorces are rarely a joy-filled experience. But if you have realistically exhausted all avenues of reconciliation, give us a call at The Essex Law Firm. We know relationships are very difficult and we don’t judge. But if we begin the process while relations are still relatively civil, the process can be faster, less expensive, and far less painful.