Family Law

Does a College Degree Mean a Longer-Lasting Marriage? Or What if Only One has a Degree?

This is an interesting question and one I had never really pondered, until a Wall Street Journal reporter contacted me to ask for my thoughts on this. And his question, and the article he wrote (find it by clicking here), sparked some thoughts. When Quentin Fottrell (@quantanamo), WSJ reporter and the Personal Finance Reporter for MarketWatch (part of the Wall Street Journal I believe) called me about this issue, I had really not thought much about it. But then it all seemed to make sense. We discussed why those who went to college may stay married longer (they may have had more relationships since they were surrounded by thousands of others their age, been exposed to more options, may have been more likely to meet someone with similar interests, etc.?).

But the issue for me was not so much that people who were educated stayed married longer, but rather that people who were more educated or more successful than their spouse, might have more tension in their marriages. My belief after practicing divorce and family law for over twenty-five years is that resentment is a huge problem in many marriages. Many people may harbor resentment and not discuss it. They may be upset that their spouse has “done more with their life” or they may just be upset that their spouse “thinks they have done more with their life”. Either way it reduces, minimizes, trivializes or eliminates respect and value by the more educated or successful spouse for the efforts of the other spouse. And the “other” spouse may actually be contributing much more to the relationship. In fact, that is often the case (raising children, taking care of the home, the finances, the bills, the medical needs of the family, etc.). The “successful” spouse’s achievements are often more obvious or visible (job title, initials such as Ph.D., M.D., etc.) while the other spouse’s efforts may be hidden or concealed.

So when the relationship sours, or when an argument erupts, the underlying resentment can create or give rise to much more anger and animus than is warranted by the basis for the disagreement of the moment. And sometimes the resentment remains subconscious and the person who resents the other may not even realize why he or she is so angry. But certainly a disparity in education, or success or income can and often does create tension in marriages. And I often hear about it only after the die has been cast (after the decision to divorce has been made). That is unfortunate. I wish I had the answer and could help people recognize this issue and address it before they end up in my office seeking a divorce. Perhaps counseling, perhaps meditation, but I guess most important would be to simply examine your feelings, your relationship and the source of frustration in your life. Is it with yourself? Do you (fairly or unfairly) compare yourself to your spouse? Does your spouse recognize and appreciate what you do for the relationship? Could you do more for the relationship (not just for your own success, or as many people tell me they are doing it “to support the family financially”)? Whatever it is, as a divorce lawyer who has witnessed much agony about the ending of relationships, my suggestion is to explore your feelings thoroughly. Through friends, through therapists and with your spouse. And if things cannot be changed (whether it is you or your spouse, or both, who need to change), then a divorce may still be what happens. But wouldn’t it be and feel much better to try to understand and address these issues before the relationship comes to an end? I think so and I have heard from many clients that they wish they had “tried harder” or “listened more” or “worked on their issues” before the divorce happened. And they have been there and speak from their own experiences. I’d be interested in others’ opinions as it will expand my understanding of these issues and I hope make me a better lawyer and counselor.


Father’s Day

Lots of things come to mind, but for me, as a divorce lawyer, it sounds more like “Parent’s Day”. All parents should be celebrated and hopefully able to be with their children on this day. Rather than single out one parent, why not focus on one, but maintain the importance of both? And yes this applies to Mother’s Day as well. Two loving parents are better than just one. And in fact, California has recently authorized judges to designate three legal parents (think same sex couples plus the other sex parent whose semen or egg was needed). Generally we must all agree that the more people loving, caring for and supporting a child, the better. Of course there are exceptions and of course (and unfortunately) there are bad parents. But when all parents love and support a child, doesn’t that increase the child’s chances for happiness, success and a good future?

In my line of work, every day I see people fighting over kids, each convinced they love the child more and know what is best for the child. But today, Father’s Day, should be a day on which we stop and say “let’s be sure our child knows we all love and support him or her, that we can cooperate, that if we are not together as parents, we can at least exchange the child agreeably and with kind and soft words”.

For a child to know that his or her parents love each other, or at least that they respect each other and can get along, is one of the greatest gifts a child can receive. And this is not just for divorced, or never-married families. Marriages and intact families should also strive to offer this gift to their children. This would not only help children, it would reduce the need for lawyers to be, and I for one, think that is a good thing


Upcoming Family Law Seminars

It has been a busy year already for seminar presentations.  I have presented at a few already, most recently one for the Georgia Bar on media and the law, focusing on the new same sex legal issues surfacing in Georgia and elsewhere.  And this month I will be presenting at three more (the brochures can be accessed here: SAME SEX LEGAL ISSUES; GENERAL PRACTICE AND TRIAL INSTITUTE; WINNING SETTLEMENT STRATEGIES )  One of the seminars is an update on the newest family law cases.  Another is how to effectively settle a family law case, while the third is an entire seminar devoted to same sex legal issues.  If you are a lawyer who practices family law, these seminars may be for you, but more importantly, if you are a general practitioner, at least two of these (and hopefully all three) should be right up your alley as they are basically framed as presentations on family law for the general practitioner.  But the biggest beneficiary is me. Preparing the papers and PowerPoints for these programs, and then actually presenting them keeps me fresh.  Now that my chairmanship of the family law sections of the American Bar Association and the Georgia Bar are behind me, this seems to be the best way for me to stay current and to benefit our firm and our firm’s clients.  I actually enjoy working on programs like these as they force me to look at the big picture, to survey Georgia (and U.S.) law and to have a good feel for trends and directions in which the law may be heading.  If you have suggestions for things, cases, issues to be included in any of these programs or others, please let me know, especially if you are aware of a new law, case, strategy or issue which might be relevant to share with the audience.  Thanks in advance for your help.


This V-Day, take stock in how you communicate

Almost everyone could do more to avoid or reduce the chances of going through a divorce (not counting abusive situations). Some common reasons for filing for divorce might seem obvious, but they are usually incorrect.

If someone cheats, for example, most people think that is the reason the couple is divorcing. But when you look at it a little deeper, most cases of adultery occur long after problems arise in the relationship. For instance, if the spouses had not had sex for 10 years and then one party had an affair, is the affair truly the cause of the divorce? Sure, the affair may be the proverbial “last straw,” but there were likely problems for years.

Yes, I could repeat stories of couples who filed for divorce because “he cheated” or “she spends too much time at work” or “we don’t talk anymore” or “he has been gambling away our retirement,” but before these events occur, there are many opportunities for spouses to try to fix things. Thinking about how the other partner feels, trying to address their concerns, listening: These are small things that can go a long way.

In my opinion, communication is the No. 1 problem in marriages that leads to divorce. Spouses often forget the good things they like and love about each other and don’t recognize or appreciate them over time. People come to expect the good qualities and complain about the negative ones. Communication, even if assisted by a therapist, family member, church leader or a close friend, can help spouses keep their marriages intact.

Other reasons that form the basis for most divorces are a bit cliché. My favorite is “the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence.” Also, if absence makes the heart grow fonder, then perhaps closeness makes the heart grow less fond? Or put another way, you “don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”

There were reports years ago about the divorce rate being very low in Israel, when every man (and woman) had to serve mandatory reserve military duty of 30 to 90 days per year. It seemed that just when marital strife was at its height, one spouse had to leave for a month or so and each realized what they actually missed about the other.

If a marriage can’t be reconciled, the saddest part for me is that most often, only one person feels that way. If both parties agreed on divorce, it would be easier, but when one person is committed to divorce and the other is not, people do crazy things to try to save the marriage.

People offer to give their partner all their money if he or she will stay. If what you want is a marriage, throwing money at it or making promises to do better isn’t enough. Recognizing poor communication, listening to your partner and making time to discuss and hear how the other feels are the very best ways to reduce the chances of divorce.

Maybe this Valentine’s Day, in addition to roses or chocolates, book an hour or two with your spouse to simply talk and reconnect. Perhaps a “staycation” at a nice hotel? Yes, it could cost a bit, but not as much as a divorce (and is certainly less painful).

This V-Day, take stock in how you communicate


Divorce: Protect Yourself

(Copy of my newest “Influencer” blog for LinkedIn)

Divorce:Protect Yourself Book Cover

I am so excited/relieved to announce that the book I started writing over fifteen years ago is done. We just received the first copies this month and I am really filled with all sorts of feelings seeing a book with my name as the author. I started this project to help people considering or going through a divorce. It is basically an overview of what I want my potential clients and others about to go through a divorce to know. Certainly it cannot encompass everything and each situation is different. But I wanted people to have hope, to understand the process and to understand that there actually is a process. There are answers to the questions they have and that they will have.

So many people helped me along the way (most are listed in the Acknowledgements), but really, my clients have taught me. I have learned from them how to endure hardship, how to react to the unimaginable. How to be patient when you want to scream in righteous anger. And I wanted to give back by writing a book. “Divorce: Protect Yourself, Your Kids and Your Future” (available at www.divorceprotect.com) is that book. It is a general overview of the divorce process. It is NOT legal advice and anyone going through a divorce should hire their own lawyer and rely on that lawyer’s advice. The book can be a supplement, a starting point, but of course a lawyer in the jurisdiction where you live is who should be advising.
The week after the book was printed I appeared on the Today Show (http://youtu.be/um_kH0e_Zrw) to discuss how words can affect divorce and it has been selling quickly ever since on Amazon, Kindle and directly from the book’s website www.divorceprotect.com.

I am so grateful to those who helped me get it done, and again, to all of the good people who have hired me and my firm over the years. This is for you. I wish you happiness and a future that is all you desire.


My role as ABA Family Law Section Immediate Past Chair

When my term as Chair of the Family Law Section of the American Bar Association ended in August of 2012 in Chicago, I thought that my travelling days were headed for a significant reduction.  And I enjoyed the travel and the ability to meet family law professionals worldwide.  Fortunately or unfortunately, in my year as Immediate Past Chair, I have travelled just as much (although certainly when my year as Immediate Past Chair ends this August in San Francisco, it will slow down significantly).

As an example of how the travel has continued, in this short year so far, I have travelled to Miami, Austin, New Orleans (twice), Mexico, Las Vegas and have plans this month and next to head to Alaska, Louisville, Memphis, Las Vegas, New York and Destin, FL (all except two are for family law events).  But this, I know, is the end of the hectic two year travel schedule.  It is flattering to be asked to come speak to a group in another state.  To be flown in as “the expert”.   And I have been able to practice law around and during these trips (it’s amazing what can be done remotely now that our office has gone to the “cloud”).  But I look forward to spending much more time in Atlanta, practicing much more law and being with my peers and colleagues at home.  And of course, even though my family has travelled with me on the majority of my trips, staying home will ensure even more time with them.  The nice thing is I hope to be able to continue to travel, to meet new and old friends and colleagues across the country, but to appreciate those trips even more, as they will be fewer and farther apart.

But most importantly, my service to the ABA and my being available to organizations accross and outside the country has only been possible because of our wonderful attorneys and staff.  We work well as a team and support each other.  Our clients know there is always at least one other attorney involved in any case in which I am involved, in case of an emergency.  So while it has been a pleasure to serve the ABA and to serve other groups trying to educate themselves and their peers about family law issues, it has been and remains even more of a pleasure and honor to work with the people in our firm.  Yes there are tough times, days and cases, but it is truly a blessing to enjoy coming to work each day, and I do.


Family Lawyers meet to help improve things

As written for my “Influencers” post:
Once a year I travel to meet with about 20 of the finest family law attorneys in the country. This is that week.  I always learn something and gain an optimism after each yearly meeting that lawyers can make a difference.  We deeply explore systemic problems and ways to fix them. We discuss helping individual clients as well as how to assist the legislatures and the courts to better understand the needs of individuals embroiled in family law cases. But most importantly, the sometimes very depressing work we do on a day to day basis looks and feels much more positive when we realize we all struggle with the same dilemmas. How to convince a client that settlement is better than court. How to explain to a client that even though their spouse cheated, the children still love them both and want them to get along.  How to ensure they are financially protected without spending all their savings on discovery and other legal procedures.  These are dilemmas. But I know that my colleagues are good, decent people trying their best to help. This is refreshing and inspiring. I respect them and am honored to be able to join them. And I look forward once again this year to being inspired and educated.  I owe it to my clients to learn as much as I can to help them. And learning from experts from around the country is one of the best ways to do that.


Every New Year the divorce cases pile in

Another blog I recently wrote for LinkedIn:

It’s a New Year. Why does that so often mean divorce? Every year in January we receive more calls from people who want to learn about, discuss or file for divorce. Some may think January is a time to renew efforts to keep a relationship together. But in my experience many people often think and believe a new beginning at the beginning of the year makes sense. It’s a fresh start.

But really, it means it will be a year of transition. Very few divorces happen quickly. Aside from disputes over money and children, delay is most often the result of one party not being ready to “let go”. Divorce is seldom a simple business transaction between two reasonable and willing negotiators. The idea of reaching a “settlement”, to many people, is the ultimate in giving up on the relationship. While almost certainly one party has made that decision, often the other has not (yet). And thus the source of much friction. The one who is ready for the relationship to end is often impatient. Maybe due to a belief that their life will improve once the relationship is over. It may be because they are anxious to begin a new relationship. It maybe because they have already begun a new relationship? Whatever the rationale, when one side wants closure and the other is not ready, problems arise.

So filing for divorce in January rarely means an immediate new beginning. It may well be the start of a new beginning. But filing for divorce in January or at anytime, must be well considered and thought out. And if done peacefully, especially when both sides are ready, it can be a shorter, less costly and maybe even positive experience. If both sides see a benefit to a divorce, then they should do so in a cooperative fashion. And that means compromise and more compromise. And if there are kids, there is no price you can place on the value of cooperation and avoiding litigation.

Of course there are times when parties reconsider and thus the slowness of the process has given them time to keep it from ending. But really, if two people want to remain together, or to reunite, it should not matter whether they have finalized their divorce or not. Divorce is about setting rules for interaction between two people who are not married and how to divide their assets and debts. Once they reunite, these issues should become irrelevant. And my hope is that whether or not they reunite, either way, the more civil they can be to each other, and the better their cooperation on all issues, the better for their children and our society.


Welcome 2013

This was my 2013 post for LinkedIn Influencers (posted in December):

Welcome 2013. While the years roll by quickly, laws are often slow to catch up to the times. Legislatures move slowly, politicians worry about how their votes on new laws will affect their chances for reelection. And judges have much incentive to take the safe road, follow the rules and laws that have been around forever and to be sure they are themselves upheld on appeal. To accept a novel argument or interpretation of the law opens a judge up to much scrutiny and criticism. But there remains so much room for improvement in the area of family law. Not just to our laws, but within our profession as well. We need increased civility between lawyers and between parties. We need better education about the process and the tools available to achieve resolution. And we need better, more modern laws, to handle the new realities of our society.

On a national and state by state basis we must address how to help same sex couples dissolve their relationships in a civil manner. If they are not allowed to marry, perhaps they should still be allowed to divorce? Otherwise they will still end their relationships, but the process will continue to be confusing, frustrating and sometimes violent. When human beings have no recourse under the law, they engage in self help (sometimes called vigilante justice). Why not permit these tax paying and law abiding citizens to use our court system to resolve their disputes like other citizens? Wether you approve of same sex relationships or not, they exist and prohibiting same sex marriage, or same sex divorce, does not and will not stop same sex relationships. Instead, it helps avoid land disputes, child custody disputes, title disputes and many other problems that ultimately cause all of us money since our tax dollars pay for courts, policemen and other services that are needed when disputes get out of hand. Courts, when permitted to help members of society, for instance in same sex divorces, will reduce cost, tension and resources across the board and thereby help all taxpayers.

So what about DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act)? Will it fall this year? It seems inevitable. The federal government which has historically left family law matters to the states, stepped deep into family law when it approved DOMA. It seems the current trend is to to see DOMA as overreaching. I believe DOMA will be undone (by the courts, since a majority of legislators will likely never vote to do something that implies that they approve of gay marriage).

And international custody issues including abductions, denial of visitation rights and even simple communication via new technology should be reviewed. We all remember the Sean Goldman custody case in Brazil. There are so many cases like his that are not reported in our press. Kids get taken from (or to) the U.S. and are never returned. Even in countries that have signed the relevant Hague Treaties, it is often difficult to get a child back. And in others such as Japan, it is nearly impossible. We need to work on this in 2013.

But again, civility. Handling our family matters in a civil and peaceful way is a must. It all starts with family. And we as lawyers must do our part. Yes family matters such as divorce and custody disputes fall into our adversarial system of justice. And for some disputes, it must be so. But so many family disputes can be resolved amicably if we just let emotions subside. If we pause and think about how we want our children to know we handled our differences. Wouldn’t we all be prouder if family law disputes were resolved by the parties involved and not by lawyers and judges who had never known the family when they got along? Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) has played an increasing role in family law. Be it mediation, arbitration, late case evaluation or collaborative law, there are many more options in 2013 than there were in 2003 or in 1993. Let’s take advantage of these resources, and lets all, lawyers, judges, mediators, expert witnesses, psychologists and parties, pledge to work amicably. Court decided resolution is never as good as a result agreed to by the people involved. And that can best be accomplished if we act civilly. Especially us lawyers. We do not have to continue seeing the other side after the dispute is resolved. But our clients do. They will go to their kids’ weddings and other events together. Lets commit to doing our best to ensure that these future events and life itself, will be better and easier for our clients because of the efforts we undertake. That’s my commitment for 2013. I look forward to a positive year of helping people and doing my best to ease their burdens and not to increase them.


A view on our election, from Mexico

It is eerie to have landed in Mexico as our U.S. presidential election draws to a close. Whatever your personal beliefs, we are in for a very interesting four years, at least on the family law front. Same sex marriage, assisted reproductive technology, women’s right to choose and many other issues are and will be developing over the next four years. And what if new U.S. Supreme Court Justices are appointed? This election has certainly set us on a definite course. Will congress offset or delay it? Who knows, but this will be an interesting decade. Let’s hope our economy rebounds and our country remains the world leader in the areas it has led in historically, freedom, helping the downtrodden and being the symbol of so many great things human beings can accomplish. Whatever your politics, we are a great nation and stronger for these serious debates and discussions. So many of us are interested. So many care. And in so many countries, people have no voice and are resigned to their status quo. Here’s to our country and to our ability to disagree civilly and to be able to campaign hard, and then work together to make all of us better.