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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.

 

Domestic Violence and Firearms – Some Texas Laws Could Be Changing

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

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Here in Texas, we have a long (and some would say loving) relationship with firearms. Even before becoming a state in 1845, early settlers found their muzzle-loaders indispensable in obtaining food and dealing with predators and unsavory reptiles. There were also frequent skirmishes with the native Comanches.

Today, Texas has more gun dealers (about 8,500) than any other state according to Federal statistics. In addition, there is no registration requirement, no waiting period, and no limit on purchases. Gun control advocates are quick to demonize Texas for these reasons, but if you check the statistics, the state ranks 30th in deaths by firearms. This is better than Washington DC and Pennsylvania, each with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation.

The debate on gun control will likely rage on, but that’s not my topic today. Rather, it’s about existing Federal and state laws pertaining to gun ownership by people convicted of domestic abuse, and how Texas law on this subject may change.

First, here is a sad statistic. According to FBI and state crime data crunched by the Associated Press, a woman is shot in the US by her romantic partner every 16 hours. We all have heard that crime victims usually know their attackers – here’s some proof. Federal and state law acknowledges that domestic abusers should not own guns, and both make buying and possessing them after such a conviction illegal.

But there’s a legal wrinkle. There are no current laws requiring those convicted of domestic abuse to surrender firearms they already own. All ideology aside, I think everyone can see that leaving weapons in the hands of those already convicted of violence against their partners is a big gamble. Tempers are already running hot, and one could easily argue that the intent of current law is to keep these victims safe. If keeping these people from buying and owning guns is a good idea, then taking away those already owned seems to be a good idea too.

Dallas County agrees, and the process, while very new, is pretty simple and will likely be effective. And from a victim’s rights perspective, it is a welcome process because it doesn’t need legislative approval (which couldn’t occur until next year at the earliest anyway.) Judges in Dallas County have instituted a process where domestic abusers covered by certain types of protective orders are required to turn in all firearms. If they don’t own any, they must attest to this fact under oath. Under certain conditions, firearms will eventually be returned to the original owners, in theory when a protective order expires (usually two years in Texas.) Some abusers subject to this process will never have their relinquished weapons returned.

This process was launched in May 2015, so it is too new for Dallas County to have useful data on its success or failure at this point. But clearly, Texas demographics are changing, as are attitudes towards firearms. It is possible that this process could catch on in other jurisdictions.

We are glad to represent clients with domestic abuse issues.

 

Texas Toughens Child Support Enforcement

Posted on July 11th, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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In the old west, if you were convicted of certain crimes your punishment would be forfeiture of your horse. This was a serious punishment – at that time your alternative transportation options were quite limited.

Texas is taking a page out of the old west when it comes to dealing with anyone who falls far behind on their child support. But rather than targeting your horse, they are after your horsepower. Beginning this December, any Texas resident owing six months or more of child support will be unable to renew their vehicle registration.

For those with any knowledge of how Texas deals with child support scofflaws, this latest action is no surprise. The state is very aggressive in pursuing these individuals, and already holds the power to revoke all forms of personal licenses, including driver’s, professional, and recreational. This latest action by the Attorney General’s Office is just the latest measure to force compliance.

Here’s how it will work. This September, any resident already behind on their payments by six months or more will be notified of the new regulation in the standard three month renewal notice sent by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. The letter will likely state that there is currently a “hold” on that person’s registration renewal, which would normally be due in December. It will include information on how to have the hold removed.

These same individuals will also receive a letter from the Child Support Division of the Attorney General’s Office prior to the renewal date. It will outline what must be done to clear the hold on their registration. While this has obviously not yet gone to effect, as the rule stands now, anyone who doesn’t take the required action will have an expired registration come January.

While it is not my purpose to debate the pros and cons of this new child support enforcement mechanism, it is important to note that some contend this is bad public policy. Taking away a person’s transportation cannot help but make it more difficult to hold a job, make a living, and pay for their obligations. However, there is also the argument that asks, “how is revoking their auto registration going to make it more difficult to do what they are already not doing?” It is similar to the argument that putting a person in jail for not paying child support means that they will lose their job and have no chance of their paying the support they owe in the future. Judges do not usually buy this argument, for good reason. Anyone who practices family law in Texas knows that putting people in jail for not paying child support frequently results in the child support suddenly being paid. Somehow, the money becomes available. Child support becomes a priority, which it should be. The same may very well be true of revoking a scofflaw’s auto registration. It is important to add that only a small number of egregious cases result in incarceration for past-due child support.

The Attorney General’s Office will say that there are procedures in place to be sure that honest, hardworking parents who want to do the right thing and satisfy their debts to their children are able to continue to drive legally. First, there is a dedicated phone number for all registration-related inquiries. And second, parents will not be required to completely pay all past due monies – just establish a payment schedule and keep it current.

The reason this public policy question bears mentioning is because of how this rule was enacted. It was not written into law due to a bill that was passed by the Texas state legislature. The Attorney General’s Office believed it had the authority to make this change under the Texas Family Code. As such, it could be challenged (and possibly reversed) in court. On the other hand, many of the procedures the Attorney General uses have been put into place without the legislature being involved. They fall under the powers and mandate of the Office of the Attorney General to collect child support. In the 30 years I have been practicing law, the amount of child support collected has grown enormously. This has resulted in not only many more children being provided for by their own biological parents who have the responsibility for them, but an overall reduction in the costs to the taxpayers of Texas.

There is another criticism of this rule – it only targets registration renewals. If you buy a new vehicle, there will be no holdups if you’re behind on your payments. So stay tuned to see how everything turns out.

My firm will be glad to represent anyone served with such a notice.

 

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.

 

Money and Marriage Can Be Happily Ever After

Posted on March 23rd, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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Money and marriage. Like oil and vinegar, they don’t mix well unless you take the time to shake things up a little.

One of the earliest acknowledgements that personal finance was fraught with danger was by the Apostle Paul. He told his young disciple Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” And Paul was single, so maybe he was sugarcoating it a little. Dr. Phil (who is married) is more succinct, firing a warning shot over the whole institution of matrimony with “Money can ruin your marriage.”

Strong words that happened to be spoken 2,000 years apart. What are newlyweds to do? How can such dire warnings be addressed?

Communication and Expectations.

When you think about the sequence of events that occurs when two people fall in love, discussing a family budget does not even rank. This is not because the parties don’t consider family finance important, it’s because they consider it very important and personal.  As everyone knows, “it’s personal” is a commonly used excuse for keeping a secret, but when committing to a new life with a partner, there can’t be secrets. How do two people confront this topic early, in an honest and non-confrontational way so feelings are not hurt and mutual cooperation is preserved?

The recommendation is pretty unanimous among marriage counselors, bloggers, and reporters, including Chris Arnold of NPR – make a budget.

In his March 8 story “How to Keep Money from Messing Up Your Marriage,” Arnold writes that there are deep-seated feelings to be addressed when two people combine financial forces. Maybe one person is handling more of the home responsibilities and working less. Maybe there are children involved and one career is being sacrificed more than the other. Or perhaps the split of household expenses has become unequal over time.

If something is bothering one party and the other doesn’t know, this is a recipe for problems. So hold a family summit and get all the financial issues on the table. Figure out how much your household expenses and other mandatory outlays are (a good exercise for everyone) and how they should be paid. List the non-mandatory but very important expenses (like contributions to retirement or savings accounts) and decide how to find these. Then, tackle what might be the most important category – personal expenses. Agree on how much of the monthly pot each of you gets to call your own.

It doesn’t sound that critical, but consider this, as pointed out in the NPR story. What happens when one party needs to approach the other for spending money? Is that a healthy way to maintain a life partnership, or have things suddenly gone parental?

There can’t be unequal partners in any sort of marriage, so decide on some basic rules. Each party gets a certain amount of money twice per month that is theirs and does not have to be reconciled. Either party can make purchases up to a certain amount without checking with the other. Then, agree on how credit card balances will be jointly handled.

Communicate with full disclosure, and then agree on rules so expectations are set. Commit to a periodic review of the rules to be sure to account for changes in circumstances.

Get this right, and Dr. Phil won’t be.