By Colleen Honquest
You don’t have to be a lawyer to be an expert in family court. No, simply go through the family court system with a nasty ex, and, you too, will be an expert. If you are dealing with an ex with a “difficult personality”, you will soon find that the scales of justice are not tipped in your favor in family court. The chaos and confusion that will ensue as you get bombarded from your ex and his/her lawyer will tie up all of your mental and financial resources for months or years to come. You will then hire (and fire) a few sets of lawyers as you find out that most lawyers do not understand how to deal with High Conflict Divorce. You will spend a LOT of time and LOTS of your hard-earned money in family court. Meanwhile, the lawyers will have a heyday filing and fighting on issues which are made to seem important to your case. The real issues will be overshadowed and all but forgotten as the lawyers “get to work”. In the end, you, too, will be an expert. You will have realized all of the mistakes that can happen as difficult personalities create utter chaos to distract from their own behavior and lies. You will also have a heightened awareness that most lawyers don’t understand high conflict personalities. I don’t advise taking this route at all.
Listen to my next three pieces of advice on how to be the expert in family court. First, the family court system is no place for you to sit back and let someone determine your future. Divorce is not a spectator sport, people. So, if you have a full-time job and you don’t have time for another part-time job, (spending tons of energy and time on your case) you better hire an advocate who knows your goals and your vision of how you want your future to look. An advocate who knows about relationships with difficult people and how to maneuver successfully through the court system. I can say this because I lived this. I made the expensive mistakes and I paid lawyers to take care of everything and I just thought that that is how it works. It most definitely is not. You must be informed and have divorce professionals at your beck and call. Professionals who know what they’re doing and who do what they say they will. Having a capable advocate, such as a Certified Divorce Coach and a Certified Financial Planner, in addition to eventually hiring a lawyer, will truly put you in control of your future.
Second. Pick the right legal help. Whether it’s a collaborative lawyer, a lawyer who only litigates, or one who does some type of unbundled legal services. However, picking the right lawyer is very seldom easy to do. Just like any profession, not everyone does what they say that they will do and not everyone will protect your best interests. Oh, and family law seems to attract lawyers who don’t care. At least not about people or excessive billing and the trauma that they inflict on families. I’m not sure why that is but ask around, if you doubt me. In the years since hiring my original divorce attorney, I have hired and fired several sets of lawyers. I have had over 90+ court appearances. I’ve lost count. I have had what is called a “High Conflict Divorce” and lots of post-divorce court issues. The lawyers whom I hired are some of the most prominent and well-known lawyers in DuPage County, IL. Their websites proclaimed that they were either experts in “tough” cases or their AVVO.com (website that rates lawyers) scores rated them TOP among their peers. “Five Stars”. During interviews, they would tout their expertise in high conflict divorce cases and assure me of their vast experience with “difficult personalities” and “narcissistic ex-spouses”. One of my clients recently shared this story with me:
A lawyer that I hired to help with a post-divorce issue told me he had over 30 years of dealing with narcissists and manipulative ex-spouses. He said, “Your case is simply a money issue. Modification of Child Support was the issue. This is financial and the numbers speak for themselves.” Nine months later and with a $24,000 legal bill, my lawyer had not even managed to get financials from my ex-husband. Oh, by the way, the financials were needed because it was a FINANCIAL issue. However, my lawyer had allowed my ex’s lawyer to stall over 8 months and to drag out the court dates to rack up legal bills and to drive me into submission. Nothing was done in an efficient time frame.” Family court doesn’t work that way. Court appearances and status dates are a family lawyer’s annuity. And, guess who pays for these oft unnecessary times in court? You. In cases like the one in the example above, a divorce coach and a certified divorce financial professional would have been proper “go-to thinking partners” from the beginning of the case and invaluable additions to my client’s legal team.
The third piece of advice is that if you are in a divorce with a difficult or High Conflict spouse, your lawyer MUST understand High Conflict personalities and what they are capable of doing to derail your case. To illustrate, in my client’s recent post-divorce case after 8 months of back and forth, she found out (while in a court hearing) that her lawyer was unaware that he had missed a clause that her ex’s lawyer had added to the bottom of a court order after one of our previous status court dates. “Discovery closed.” was scribbled at the bottom of the court order. Her lawyer had missed it and signed off on the fact that he could no longer ask for or give any more evidence in our case. So, when she went to a hearing (of course she did because that way the lawyers make more money, silly) her lawyer was caught with his pants down. At one point in the hearing, when he exclaimed to the judge that, “we have not even been able to get the financials from the other side!”. Her ex’s lawyer said calmly, “You signed off on the fact that there would be no more evidence admitted two months ago.” This was quickly confirmed by the judge and yes, folks, she, as a client, was once again at a disadvantage. Therefore, the judge’s decision on the financial issue at hand was based on, wait for it, a number that the judge thought was “fair”. The judge decided on an amount that he thought that she should be earning and how much he “thought” that her ex-husband earned per year. It could not be proven what her ex-husband made because her lawyer had bungled all opportunities to simply get the financial information. Her ex’s gross income was well over $500,000 (proven in an income tax filing that she had from just two years earlier and had given to her lawyer on multiple occasions-where did that go?) and the judge decided that $90,000 was the correct figure for her ex-husband’s annual income. She had given her lawyer very specific information as to her ex’s lifestyle. Information that would have made it crystal clear to the judge (or anyone with a pulse) that her ex-husband could never survive on a $90,000 a year salary. Perhaps the million dollar house that he lived in, the new $60,000 boat, or the $20,000 a month Visa charges for wine and dining out could have been used by her lawyer as a starting point for proving lifestyle and what a corresponding salary for someone would have to be to support that amount of money going out the door every month? Her lawyer didn’t bring any of this up and so it was assumed that the $3500 monthly Mercedes payment and the $5,000+ mortgage payment that her ex has each month is reasonable for someone who makes $90,000? The judge knew the monthly car payment figure and said, “Well, he’s just got a big ego.” Yes, well, he still has to have the income to have the car, judge. Oh, and his new wife’s Mercedes payment, too. Although, his new wife’s career in phlebotomy may be lucrative enough to cover her Mercedes payment? Apparently, the judge thought so.
It was another very painful lesson for one of my clients. Even seasoned lawyers don’t get it. High Conflict divorce is a different game. Chaos and confusion are rampant. Normal processes don’t work in these cases. Chaos is the main tool that is used in these cases. Not only by the difficult ex-spouse, but by their attorneys to deflect from the real issues at hand and throw off everyone, including the judge. My client learned from her lawyer’s glaring mistakes that he had no idea what her ex (and his lawyer) were capable of in this battle. Perhaps she should have gone Pro Se? In this case, I believe that she would have been better off on her own. At least then there would not have been “pre-trial” meetings with the judge without her and of which she was given no real information about what her lawyer presented- or did not present. I’m not sure if the Judge would have favored her appearing in court to represent herself. However, for $24,000 in lawyer’s fees and a ruling that was based on NO valid financial information, she feels that things could have been done more effectively. Not to mention, in one final “coup d’etat”, her lawyer helped draft a motion that actually gave up more of her rights. When she asked why there was now (hadn’t been before) a motion for her to pay copays on her son’s medical bills, her lawyer said, “Now you’re splitting hairs. How much can it be per month, anyway? A couple hundred dollars per month?” He didn’t understand that any amount of interaction with a high conflict ex-spouse is excruciating and by allowing her ex to collect 50% of medical copays required her to have to interact with him EVERY month. Her ability to stay detached from her ex’s harassing behavior had been compromised again by a lawyer just not paying attention and not caring enough to advocate for her and her hard-won boundaries. Her boundaries were all that she had left. He didn’t understand narcissistic and controlling behavior at all. Thirty years of practice and he still did not get it. After her case concluded, not with a hearing (because the lawyers told us that the judge didn’t want to take that much time) but by spending six hours in the courtroom hallway going back and forth (less time, really?), her lawyer knocked approximately $15,000 off of of her bill. All very shady and confusing. Why wouldn’t her lawyer want a hearing? Was six hours of negotiation in the hallway a better way? Quicker, really? Or, perhaps, her lawyer realized his embarrassing errors in her case and did not want it on permanent record? She had spent over eight months in court over a financial issue and her lawyer had somehow managed to not get any financial information from the other side! Wasn’t that his only job? A reduction of $15,000 in legal fees is hardly the action of someone who feels they have done their job well.
All of this just proves my point. Advocate for yourself first by preparing for the legal system. Form a team of divorce professionals. Find a Certified Divorce Coach, a CDFP (Certified Divorce Financial Professional) for starters. Then, there are certain questions that you need to ask before hiring a lawyer whom you are considering paying thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars and entrusting with your future. Google it. Do a bit of research on legal sites. Read Bill Eddy’s book, Splitting, and reference the chapter on hiring a lawyer.
Your decision to hire a lawyer or divorce professional is one of utmost importance. The most important decision that you will make for years to come. Especially in a High Conflict Divorce situation. Remember, you are the expert on you and your needs. If you are wrong and hire the wrong lawyer, you will lose lots of money and years of your life. And, the kicker is, the bad lawyers know that if you are traumatized and financially wiped out when they finish with you, you will be too tired and weak to come after them. I truly believe that is why the atrocities that go on every day in family court go virtually unheard of in a more consistent and public way.
But there is hope. There is a wave of knowledge and more information out there now for all to see. Be prepared. Choose your help wisely and plan lest you get caught in the family court vortex of pay now and wait until much later for any information or control in your case. What’s the saying, “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” You must surround yourself with capable professionals to accomplish your goals and get through your divorce. Life is waiting on the other side.
Colleen Honquest, Divorce Mediator and Certified Divorce Coach