In every custody case, a judge must consider 16 factors when making a decision. Many factors involve the relationship of the child with each parent and the parents’ relationship with each other. “The well reasoned preference of the child” is one of the factors. This of course makes parents wonder: can my child choose where she will live, and how old does she have to be to make that choice? There is unfortunately no single answer to these questions. Your child’s preference may not carry much weight or it may be what sways the judge. How much weight a judge gives your child’s preference will depend on several factors.
Is it true my child can choose where to live?
The first thing I tell clients is their child’s preference is only one factor out of 16. The 16 factors are not weighted, and your child’s preference is not inherently a better factor than others. Judges can and do go against the child’s preference all the time depending on the circumstances.
A judge will not make a child choose between her parents. When judges interview children, they do not say “tell me where you want to live.” Instead, they will primarily ask your children about how they’re doing in school, what their interests are, and about their relationships with their parents. This doesn’t mean they don’t care about how your child views the custody arrangement! Judges do ask children if they like how much time they spend with each parent, and if they would like something different.
Just because your child wants to change the custody schedule does not mean a judge will ultimately do so. Instead, the judge will consider her preference in the context of all 16 factors. For example, a child may say she wants to spend equal amounts of time with both parents. This is quite common and something judges often support. It is hard to do so though, if the parents live 90 minutes apart. Although the child may want to spend equal time, it simply is not feasible. This does not mean the judge didn’t listen to her. Instead, it means her preference cannot control under the circumstances.
If you consider your child’s viewpoint in the context of the custody factors, it makes sense why it isn’t the sole factor. The judge does not want your child to decide who is more likely to attend to her needs, or who is more likely to involve the other parent. These are, however, factors which a judge is required to consider in making her decision. It is not your child’s responsibility to determine whether one parent is “better” than the other, and a judge will not place that pressure upon her. Instead, the judge will listen to your child to help understand how she experiences the current custody arrangement.
Does my child’s age make a difference?
Many parents believe the older their child is, the more weight her opinion carries. There is, in fact, some truth to this. A 16 year old is able to express herself far more easily than a 6 year old. There is also a belief among attorneys and judges that forcing too much custody onto an older teenager can ultimately backfire. I always tell my clients that ultimately you want to have your child choose to spend time with you when there is no longer a custody order.
A child’s age affects her ability to express a “well-reasoned preference.” Let’s look at some examples involving a parent relocating with the child to Florida. A young child may say she doesn’t want to move because she would miss the snow. And older child though may say that she is halfway through high school and is too involved in her life here. Both children say they don’t want to move, but the older child expresses concrete reasons for her opinion. Judges have different opinions on whether children should speak. Some judges interview a child even as young as 5. Others decline to do so until the child is older. Whether your child is interviewed or not depends on the judge and the specific circumstances. In general though, the older your child is, the more likely a judge will want to meet her.
When judges do speak with young children, they use it as an opportunity to learn about each parent’s household. Your child can tell the judge what she likes, whether she feels safe, and whether she feels comfortable. She can also tell the judge if she thinks she spends “enough” time with both parents. The judge can learn a lot about your household from speaking with your child.
Usually when a parent asks for the judge to speak with their child, it’s because they believe the child supports their position. It’s important to consider your child’s personality and maturity level in making this request. After thinking carefully, you may realize she just isn’t ready to express a preference. You should also remember that your child is still acting as a witness. As a matter of practice, you do not want to call a witness unless you’re sure the witness will help. Even positive answers can work against you. I have seen children repeat to a judge word for word what is in their parent’s pre-trial statement! While this may sound helpful, all it does is make the judge believe the parent coached the child. This is not the impression you want the judge to have!
Although it is only one factor, judges can and do take your child’s viewpoint into consideration when making a custody determination. Before asking for your child to speak with the judge, talk with your custody lawyer first. Your lawyer can help you articulate what you believe your child’s preference to be and why you believe she has a preference. This in turn, will help you prepare a more effective case for your trial.
It’s never easy to lose or receive a negative decision after a custody trial. They involve the most important aspects of your life: your children. It is devastating to come out on the losing end. You probably paid large legal fees, which makes it even harder to accept the outcome. If this just happened, you may wonder what what went wrong, or what to do next.
What did we do wrong?
You may wonder if your lawyer did something wrong that made you lose. Very often, when I speak with someone who is looking for a new lawyer, they believe they lost their trial because their past lawyer did something wrong. While it is easy to assume that good lawyers win and bad lawyers lose, a custody trial simply doesn’t work that way. An experienced lawyer will take a set of facts, present it in the most favorable way, and help the judge understand the facts in a way that makes her able to find in your favor. However, lawyers cannot change the history of a case, or control the outcome. In a custody case, outcomes often turn on facts and events which happened long before hiring your lawyer.
Unfortunately, not all facts support a favorable outcome, and some cases are harder than others to persuade a judge. This is often the case when one parents wants to move away, or when a parent has only recently addressed a serious drug addiction. Sometimes you may do everything right, but it hasn’t been long enough. This does not mean you did anything wrong, or that you are a bad parent! It means that certain types of cases are very challenging to succeed.
You may also wonder if you lost because something wasn’t presented in court. Clients are often concerned about this. In every custody case, there are exhibits and facts that never get shown to the court. It is common to think the case would have gone differently, if only the judge had “everything” in front of her. Why didn’t your lawyer show those text messages? Why didn’t your lawyer introduce the voicemails from years ago? “More is better” is often the wrong approach in custody cases. Your lawyer knows the court’s priorities, the facts of your case, and what the other side will argue. Instead, your lawyer uses her knowledge to pick the strongest arguments. This ultimately means excluding information that doesn’t address the court’s priorities or distracts from your strongest arguments.
Finally, parents often ask why their lawyer didn’t say more about the other’s bad character. In most custody cases, these arguments are often vague and provides little of valuable use. Parents rarely come into a custody trial with no blemishes. There are text messages, voicemails, and missed communications which do not support the child’s best interest. This is very common at the beginning of a separation. But their existence does not by itself indicate poor parenting.
What can I do next?
First, talk to your lawyer. She may have insight into why the judge ruled a certain way. Your case may have always been harder to win, or there may have been some glaring fact that tilted the judge in the opposite direction. This is usually clear from reading the judge’s opinion. It is uncommon that an experienced lawyer truly does not know why a judge made a certain decision.
Next, you should take time to read the judge’s opinion. This is often hard, but it provides valuable information. It lets you see what the judge found problematic and what to change moving forward. If the judge found that housing wasn’t stable, then prepare to address that head-on. If the judge found you to be less involved, then be proactive in requesting information about your children. The purpose of understanding what concerned the judge is not to make you feel bad, but to give you the opportunity to make concrete changes.
If you take the time to address the judge’s concerns, eventually you can request a change in custody. Judges can and do change their orders when they consider a previous issue to be resolved. It is not a quick or easy process, but it is very possible. Losing a custody trial once does not mean you cannot have a better result in the future.
Custody orders are not set in stone, and they can be changed if you address the problematic areas. This shows the court you took its concerns seriously and are acting in your children’s best interests. Child custody is rarely a one-step process. By using an unfavorable decision as way to make changes, you can obtain a far more positive outcome later.
For many spouses, the process between filing the divorce complaint and receiving the decree is an exercise in patience. You’ve moved out, opened separate bank accounts, and likely spent many hours looking for and giving your divorce lawyer all of your financial information but you’re still not divorced. A lot of spouses get very frustrated after having done so much work to only feel like they’re still in the same place.
There are a few reasons why a divorce cannot be granted instantly. The first reason is because Pennsylvania does not allow that to occur, even in the most amicable situations. Even if the only thing you and your spouse seek is the piece of paper saying you’re no longer married, you have to wait at least 90 days before you will receive that decree in the mail. This waiting period cannot be shortened, waived, or removed for any reason.
Most spouses who hire a lawyer for their divorce though need more assistance than merely receiving a divorce decree. The most common situation is that the couple has marital property which must be divided. This requires gathering and exchanging documents. At the beginning of a divorce case, I always instruct my clients to begin obtaining financial records that we will need to divide the marital property. The vast majority of this information is not something your lawyer has immediate access to, and you do not want to pay your lawyer to obtain it if it’s already in your possession. Depending on what your financial picture consists of, it can take awhile before you have everything ready. For this reason, when you formally request to exchange documents with your spouse using the court process, the other person is given 30 days to respond.
After a couple exchanges financial information, everything you provided has to be reviewed by your lawyer and only then can you discuss what an equitable division of the marital estate may be. Although you will see settlement proposals sent before this investigation happens, this is often not a good practice because you may feel differently about a given proposal after seeing what assets the other spouse has. Taking the time to thoroughly review what you worked hard to gather ultimately ensures that nobody can come back years later and say they had no idea what property they even had.
Finally, the factor that often gets overlooked in the length of a divorce proceeding is that so much of the process is outside your individual control. A spouse cannot control the court’s calendar, mandatory waiting periods set by statute, the amount of time a spouse is legally entitled to to respond to requests. You also cannot control whether the court is understaffed and hasn’t processed your documents, or whether your spouse will work quickly to finish the divorce. With few exceptions, your lawyer has no more control over these factors than you do. You can, however, ensure that you are doing what you can to handle everything quickly by being organized and looking for requested documents as soon as you’re asked.
The divorce process is never quick or immediate. But if you are ever concerned about the amount of time it is taking, you can always ask your lawyer about whether the amount of time is normal or typical. He or she will have the experience to know whether your case is taking a particularly long period of time. In our office, we proactively tell our clients if the court has a large backlog which is creating longer delays. The important thing to remember is that if you ultimately want to dissolve the marriage, you will be divorced at some point. It is only a matter of “when.”
You have been ordered to pay support for your spouse and/or for your children. Despite your willingness to make the best of a difficult situation, the “one size fits all” Domestic Relations system can still trip you up. The devil is always in the details where support orders are concerned, and losing track can cause you grief down the line. The suggestions below should help you stay out of trouble and protect your rights.
READ YOUR ORDER. You are bound to its terms, even the “boilerplate.” Know your obligations as well as your rights. Violating your order can get you into serious – and expensive – trouble. Remember that the best way to get out of trouble is not to get into it in the first place, and forewarned is definitely forearmed.
WHEN YOUR INCOME CHANGES SUBSTANTIALLY, your Order requires you to report the change to the court and to the person receiving the support money, in writing. This includes substantial increases and decreases of income and change (or loss) of employment. Even though reporting a raise might end up with you being dragged back to Court for a possible increase in support, your silence assumes the risk that it could come back to haunt you later. When you change jobs, be sure to provide the court with your new employer’s name and address as soon as possible, and remember that the ultimate obligation to pay support is yours, and not your employer’s. All communications to the court should include your ten-digit Member Number (which the court will assign), your docket number and nine-digit PACSES number. Keep track of all communications with the court (including the date of your communication), and keep copies of anything you send. When you send something to the Court, you should also send it to the person receiving the support or his/her attorney.
CONTACT YOUR ATTORNEY PROMPTLY if you lose your job, take a substantial pay cut, if anything else happens that might interfere with your ability to pay, or if you are notified that a hearing has been scheduled in your case. If you are considering leaving your job for one with lower pay, discuss this with your attorney before resigning. Letting time pass without taking action can get you into trouble if you fail to pay as ordered, and will postpone any favorable changes to which you might be entitled. Usually, changes to support orders only date back to when you filed your request for modification. Talk to your family law attorney before requesting modification, because those requests can sometimes backfire on you. Remember that reporting a reduced income to the court is not the same thing as asking for a modification to your support order!
DON’T WAIT FOR THE WAGE ATTACHMENT before you start paying. Your payroll department can take up to a month or more to process the wage attachment order, and meanwhile you are on the hook. After all, you are the one who will be in trouble if you become delinquent in your obligation. There will be a new line-item deduction on your paycheck when the wage attachment takes effect; meanwhile, for each paycheck that does not deduct your support payment, you should send a check for a pro-rated amount to the court (your family law attorney can provide you with a payment coupon if the court did not). If you are paid every two weeks, multiply your monthly support obligation by 12 and divide by 26 to learn how much to send from each pay. If possible, avoid paying by money order; all your receipt can prove is that a money order existed, and not who cashed it.
OBEY THE ORDER. The court will enforce its own orders. Even if you are appealing the order or waiting for a hearing for the court to consider modifying your order downward, you remain obligated to obey each order unless and until it is changed. If you fall too far behind in your support obligation, automatic enforcement procedures start to kick in that can include contempt proceedings, suspension of driver’s license and professional license, increased payment against arrears, negative credit agency reports, and tax refund interception.
WHEN YOUR CHILD EMANCIPATES, your obligation to support that child ends. A child usually emancipates when he or she turns eighteen years of age, and no longer attends High School. Exceptions can be made for adult children who have never been emancipated, and are incapable of self-support due to extreme physical or psychiatric handicaps. The burden is on you to request support termination in a timely fashion, since the termination usually cannot be effective before you file your claim.
NEVER MISS A HEARING. Failure to attend a scheduled hearing can result in the court proceeding without you (and you will be stuck with the result!), and it can even issue a “body attachment” warrant for your arrest. You will usually be notified of hearings only by a single letter sent by first class mail; if that mail is not returned by the Post Office as undeliverable, the court will assume that you received it and have been notified, whether you actually know about the hearing, or not. If the court sends you mail, always open and read it right away! You can ask the court for postponement of a hearing if you are unavailable, but always through Motions Court, and always in advance; the responsibility is on you to take care of this properly, and in a timely fashion. Assume that no excuse is good enough to get you out from under the penalties from a missed hearing, except the most extreme emergency… and even then, it will be your responsibility to be proactive.
IMMEDIATELY REPORT CHANGES OF ADDRESS TO THE COURT and the other side. This is your responsibility and no one else’s, and it is in your interest to ensure that the court knows where to send notices to you. Make sure that your family law attorney also knows your change of address, even if he no longer represents you, unless he officially withdrew. Sometimes, attorneys are served with court notices instead of you, and your attorney needs to know where to forward the notice.
NEVER COMPLETELY TRUST THE WORD OF COURT PERSONNEL OR YOUR “EX” without something in writing to back it up. When dealing with the court, different people will sometimes tell you different things, especially if you are on the telephone; you will probably never know exactly who you are dealing with, how much he or she actually knows, how much authority the person actually has, or whether the person will follow through. Support payees have been known to “forget” about direct payments or promises, especially when there is no paper trail for proof. “The clerk told me it was okay if…” will never get you out of trouble, nor will “My ex told me it was okay if I got behind in my support for a while, as long as I catch up later.” Play it safe, and consult your family law attorney.
DO NOT PAY YOUR “EX” DIRECTLY, once the Order is issued. Without a “Notice to Credit Direct Payment” form filed promptly with your local collection office, you only get credit for payments made through the Pennsylvania State Collection and Disbursement Unit (PA SCDU) in Harrisburg. Play it safe and pay only through SCDU, or you risk having to pay the same debt twice.
IF YOUR EMPLOYMENT IS SEASONAL OR YOUR OVERTIME FLUCTUATES, this should have been taken into account when your support order was issued. The fact that your income drops during portions of the year does not usually reduce your support obligation during those times. Be sure to set aside some money during the good months to pay directly to the Court during your off season, to ensure that you do not fall behind in your support obligation. Your duty to pay continues whether or not you are bringing in enough money during a given month; preparing in advance can turn what could have been a personal disaster into a mere inconvenience. If you are not sure how much to send, talk to your family law attorney.
KEEP GOOD FINANCIAL RECORDS. This includes tax records and pay stubs, as well as any and all other sources of income (unemployment compensation, “side jobs,” etc.). The more organized you are, the more effectively your family law attorney can advise you and represent your interests.
THERE IS NO ACCOUNTABILITY FOR HOW THE SUPPORT MONEY IS SPENT by the recipient. You have no right to demand receipts, or to insist that it be spent in particular ways. It just goes into the recipient’s household income.
YOU MUST MAKE YOUR SUPPORT PAYMENTS EVEN IF YOU DO NOT OR CANNOT SEE YOUR CHILDREN. Custody rights and support rights are usually not connected. If you try to withhold support because you are being prevented from seeing your children, the court will see it as if you were punishing the children for the other parent’s actions. For that reason, refusal to pay child support can harm your custody case. If you are being denied access to your children, discuss the matter with your family law attorney promptly, because delay is another thing that can harm your custody case.
WHEN IN DOUBT, FIND OUT! Was your most recent payment received? Are you behind in your support? How much do you still owe on your arrears? These and other questions can be answered by contacting the Pennsylvania Statewide Collection and Disbursement Unit (PA SCDU) at 1-877-727-7238, or on the web at www.childsupport.state.pa.us.
SOME OF THE SUPPORT YOU PAY MAY BE TAX-DEDUCTIBLE. Child support is not deductible from your Federal taxable income, but spousal support (and alimony) usually is. Many support awards for spouse and children are unallocated, meaning that they do not separately identify one part for your spouse, and another for your children; payments on unallocated awards are usually completely deductible from your Federal taxable income; consult your family law attorney and/or a tax professional to be sure. Be sure to keep your own records for tax purposes, since (unlike your employer) the court will not supply you with a year-end summary statement. You can get a printout of how much support you have paid during a particular year either from your local court, or from the web at www.childsupport.state.pa.us.
IF YOUR CHILD IS NOT LIVING WITH THE OTHER PARENT to whom you are paying support, you should promptly ask the court to terminate the support award, since any delay will delay termination of the award. Worse, if your child is or was in County placement and you do not terminate the support award to the other parent, you could find yourself paying support twice for the same time period! The County will sue you for support to recover a portion of its costs during the period of County placement, even if your child is no longer in custody at the time you are notified of the suit (which can happen even years afterward). It is sometimes possible to win against the County’s support claim based on their delay in proceeding, and/or an inability to pay.
If you need legal assistance with your divorce or family law matter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call my office to set up a personal consultation with an experienced Pittsburgh child support lawyer, and to learn more about Pennsylvania child custody laws and how they affect you. Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.
In the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding on the back of the tiger ended up inside. – John F. Kennedy
Calling a divorce lawyer for the first time is seldom easy. You may never have worked with an attorney, and divorce may be something you never imagined yourself having to face. Your head is probably filled with questions and concerns, worries and desires, and a will to square your shoulders and face whatever is ahead if you can find someone to watch your back. Above all, you are wondering: How much will I have to pay my lawyer? What does it cost to get divorced in Pennsylvania?
It’s a good question. It’s a reasonable question. Unless your situation is very straightforward, though, it’s also probably the one question that your lawyer can’t begin to answer in any meaningful way. For anything beyond the most basic of services, there is simply no way to predict costs of divorce with any certainty. Anybody who tries to tell you differently has something to sell you, and you should consider taking a good close look before you buy.
Abraham Lincoln famously pointed out that a lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade, and in most cases there are simply too many variables to permit your attorney to predict how much time your case will take. Will your case settle or go all the way to trial? Will we have to fight for every little thing? Is your estate complex? Are there many issues to resolve? Will your spouse see reason, or instead fight battle after pointless battle out of sheer spite?
This uncertainty is why divorce lawyers work on retainer instead of quoting fixed fees. A “retainer” is nothing more than a fund of your money that has been put aside in escrow to ensure that your lawyer is paid for the time he will spend on your case. Usually, when the fund is depleted it must be renewed. Take a good look at the lawyer’s fee agreement before you sign it, to know what to expect.
Lawyers want to help people, and we want to make money doing it. IOUs don’t cut it. The grim reality of law practice is that when lawyers work without a retainer, we turn ourselves into credit cards. Once upon a time I added up all the money that clients owed me and realized that I could have lived very well for a year on it. Anyone in business learns to count on people to pay for what they still need before they pay for what they already have, every time. Since I’m no fonder of working for free than you are, I changed my business practices.
Everybody has heard jokes about lawyers and money. “It was so cold last winter, I saw a lawyer with his hands in his own pockets!” Lawyers aren’t cheap, but neither is running a business in a highly competitive professional field. We know what our service is worth, we know what we sacrificed to be able to offer it, and let’s be honest: lawyers don’t enter into private practice to be poor.
What do you get for your money when you pay your lawyer? Your money’s worth, if your lawyer is ethical and knows what he is doing. You hire a legal professional because you have high expectations of skilled service for the fees and costs you pay, and you deserve to get it.
Below are some truths about lawyers and money, and some advice to help you get the biggest bang for your legal buck.
Pick the right lawyer.
I have already written about what you should expect from a good family law attorney, as well as what your attorney can expect from you. Be prepared to listen to advice, be prepared to take advice, and make sure that you partner with your lawyer rather than dropping off your case as if you were leaving your car with a mechanic.
Ask about lower-cost options, or things that you can do yourself to reduce costs. … and ask early in your relationship. In my Pittsburgh divorce and family law practice, I offer clients three possible ways to reduce costs: (1) a client who is willing to become my “clerk” by doing some of the organizational legwork that doesn’t require a lawyer (such as gathering and organizing documents) will certainly save some money, (2) I give the work on your case to the person in my office who costs the least and who can still get the job done to my standard, and (3) I offer “unbundled” service, in which you will represent yourself in court while working with us ‘behind the scenes’ to advise you, review and draft documents, etc. Additionally, I promise my clients that I will never charge either to discuss billing issues, or to discuss any concerns you may have with how your case is being handled or about any member of my staff.
Don’t play if you can’t pay.
Having practiced divorce and family law in Pittsburgh for around a quarter-century, I have no illusions about what I cost or how that cost can add up. Consider, though, that putting money on account with a skilled divorce lawyer is like putting coal in a furnace. Do you want your lawyer engaged and oriented on your case, ready to negotiate but prepared to fight? Do you want regular updates that show your case moving forward assertively? Do you want promptly returned calls, detailed answers to your questions and creative approaches? Make sure that your retainer is maintained. We all like to be paid, and the simple truth is that a lawyer (like anyone else with a business to run) is far more eager to focus on serving the clients who pay him now, over the ones who offer even the most sincere good intentions. Don’t expect your lawyer to work for promises instead of pay. Would you?
Prepare to stay the course.
Getting a lawyer started on your divorce and then balking at payment (or running out of resources, which amounts to the same thing) can be the courthouse equivalent of trying to ride a roller coaster halfway. If you have any doubts about your fortitude, available resources or willingness to follow through with what you start, discuss them with your family law attorney before you get on the tiger’s back.
Have definite, reality-checked goals.
Goals can always be subject to change, of course, but anyone who goes into a fight without a reasonably-defined set of goals is setting him- or herself up to lose, and lose badly. Let your lawyer help you set realistic, achievable goals and explore your options. Abandon the concept of “winning” and replace it with “achieving.” Battling without a goal, or with conflicting goals, is like a racing without a finish line; it may be good for your lawyer’s wallet, but not for much else.
Don’t expect your lawyer to run a tab or accept “payments.”
Your divorce lawyer understands that your resources are limited and will discuss with you how best to use them, but can’t – and shouldn’t – turn into a credit card for you. He or she is running a business and not a charity, and almost certainly will not accept installment payments. Don’t take it personally. No family lawyer with any mileage in him has avoided being stiffed by a client at least once. I have had clients turn deadbeat on me for whom I achieved every last goal, and many years ago I even had a client who tried to pay me in chickens. Sadly, my bank would not let me deposit them.
Work for sunshine, but plan for rain.
Gather your resources. Expect your divorce to cost more than you think, and do your best to make sure that funds are available. Discuss with your divorce lawyer any concerns about your available resources as early as possible so that he or she can advise you of your options before you find yourself overcommitted.
Follow your lawyer’s advice.
I often tell clients, “I can be your sword-and-shield, or your broom-and-dustpan.” In my experience, clients who follow my advice do better than clients who do not, if for no other reason than that there is less to clean up if everything is done right the first time. Don’t force your lawyer to become your apologist. It is seductively easy to fall into the trap of defiant non-cooperation (after all, where was the cooperation when you needed it?), but the fact of the matter is that any divorce process has a give-and-take that is part of the ticket price you have to pay to get your day in court. Your legal fees go up with every reminder your lawyer has to send you, and with every defense he has to make to buy you additional time or to shield you from sanctions.
Drama is expensive.
Ignore what prime time television teaches you about law practice. I’m as fond of real-life courtroom drama as any of my colleagues, but most of a good lawyer’s efforts in a divorce case are as undramatic as can be. We prepare, consult and negotiate. We investigate. We organize, digest and summarize records. We consult with you, update you, and answer your questions. We research and draft documents as we prepare your case. All of this takes billable time, and meanwhile it is easy for a client to think, “I’m paying all this money, but I don’t see anything happening in my case!” Think of building a case as building a car engine: inert while it is being built and invisible to the rest of the world when it is finished, but swift and powerful when the time comes for rubber to meet road. Your lawyer should be keeping you up to date and also touching base with you as your case develops, as well as seeking ways to avoid expensive conflict. If you have any doubts or concerns about what is going on in your case, you have every right to contact your lawyer and inquire. A good divorce lawyer will be glad for your active involvement, will respect your concerns, and will address them directly.
Avoid getting into conflict with your own divorce attorney.
An adversarial relationship with your lawyer helps no one and can run up your legal bills pointlessly. If you don’t understand or agree with what your lawyer is doing, discuss it. Part of your lawyer’s job is to address your concerns, and to make sure that you have as much information as possible so that you are best able to make sound decisions. Sometimes, that means telling you a harsh or painful truth even if it is not what you want to hear. People who have been wronged by the ones they trusted most of all never want to be told that their goals are unachievable or that their positions are unsustainable, but the divorce attorney who hesitates to advise a client frankly does his client no favors. As a professional, I want to offer you better advice than you might get from the person on the next bar-stool!
Lawyer-client relationships can sometimes go bad, just as any other relationship can. Sometimes the lawyer is the problem, sometimes the client, and sometimes it is just bad chemistry between them. First, foremost and always your case is yours, and your lawyer should respect that even as he or she tries to make sure that your choices don’t leave you standing in your own way. If you are not comfortable with your lawyer or his choices, never forget that you are free to seek a second opinion or even to hire another lawyer entirely. Before you do that, though, consider reality-checking your own impressions and conduct to make sure that “changing horses” really is the right medicine for the situation.
Keep communications with your lawyer topical and to the point.
A good divorce lawyer wears as many hats as his client needs: counselor, advocate, confessor, friend, confidante, hand-holder, shoulder to cry on, sounding board, and occasionally (and reluctantly) a janitor. It all comes at a price, though, so each time you contact your lawyer remember that somewhere in the background a clock is ticking. Don’t engage in false economy by rushing through a call, but do keep good records, take good notes, and keep your communications concise and to the point. I like to build relationships with my clients and am often happy to chat with them, but I always make it a point to tell a client that I am taking myself “off the clock” as soon as the conversation turns in that direction. If your own lawyer seems to be drifting into chatter, there is nothing wrong with asking to keep the conversation focused on the business at hand until it has been fully addressed.
Avoid false economy.
Save money today by riding on bald tires, and you risk paying more tomorrow when one of them bursts or hydroplanes you off the road. It’s the same with legal advice. Even if you cannot afford a lawyer to work for you as an advocate, consulting with someone who deals every day with family law matters is likely to offer you new perspectives, suggestions and possible solutions that will help ensure that when you make your move, your eyes are fully open. One of the very best things any client can say to me is, “Wow, I never really thought about it that way.” Sometimes, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. There are times when it seems that what my client needs most of all is a time machine, so that we can discuss a difficult situation before it escalated into a crisis!
If you need legal assistance with your divorce or family law matter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call my office to set up a personal consultation with a Pittsburgh divorce attorney, and to learn more about what to expect during divorce in Pennsylvania. Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.