Monday, December 28, 2015

The Different Faces of Domestic Violence

               It is difficult to write this article.  It is a difficult topic.  Distasteful.  Ugly.  Sad.  We are more used to keeping this topic in the dark than willingly discussing it...which is exactly why we need to shine the light.  There are many articles that need to be written -- and that need to be read -- about domestic violence.  This short piece briefly touches on the people behind the labels.
               There are a range of "victims" and a whole array of "perpetrators."  Most reported domestic violence is done by men against women; this isn't to say the vice-versa doesn't exist but it isn't as common (studies have put the number at 85% male to female violence).  Domestic violence happens across religions -- Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, etc.  Often domestic abuse is under-reported.  Maybe in part we don't see it because we don't want to look....
               Most estimates concur that domestic violence occurs in 15% to 30% of all relationships.  Accurate numbers are hard to come by because of under-reporting and inaccurate reporting and inconsistent definitions.  We do know that domestic abuse occurs across the general population.  Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc.  Rich, poor, and everything in between.  Its victims and perpetrators can be PhD. educated or lacking in formal schooling.  Young or old.  Domestic violence does not pick favorites.  (Many in this field refer to reported cases as the tip of the iceberg, believing that most cases actually go unreported.)
               Under the Family Code in California, domestic violence includes:  hitting and threatening, and does not need to involve physical contact, although of course it often does; it can include verbal, psychological, and emotional abuse;  see, e.g., Family Code § 6320.
               Recently a young woman was beaten by her boyfriend and the photographs ignited a conversation with the hashtag "SilenceHidesViolence" that has "gone viral".  In the last couple years awareness has been increasing. 
                I am not suggesting that domestic abuse is everywhere and unfortunately sometimes people call the police, file for a restraining order, make accusations, when there is no domestic violence.  Sometimes calling the cops is used as a weapon against the "other side" -- but comparatively, these cases are not the norm.  What I am suggesting is that we remain aware and open minded so we can see that domestic abuse can and does occur across all religious, ethnic, socio-economic, geographic, etc., etc., boundaries.  I have written this article to highlight the fact that domestic violence can touch your neighbor, your clergy, your professor, the clerk in your corner market, yourself...and by shining a light I hope we can help people come forward, get help, make things family at a time....


Monday, November 2, 2015

Not 100% Devil....

              Newsflash:  that person who you used to be madly in love with has not actually turned into the Devil.  Your ex is a human being and all people have better and worse days and are not so nice at times.  This is especially true during a divorce.  From what I have seen (and I have seen a lot), divorce can bring out the worst in people.  Seriously, the ever loving worst.  I once read a piece written by a very seasoned divorce attorney from New York who wrote -- I'm paraphrasing -- something like: Divorce brings out the worst in nice people and makes mean people look like the Devil. 
               It is not a happy time.  Volumes have been written about the most common and difficult types of life transitions.  Breakup of a marriage is always toward the top of the list, along with death of a loved one and financial troubles.  In a way, divorce incorporates these other major transitions in that it is the "death of a relationship" and for the majority of divorcing people, financial health takes a hit.
               And it is not only the exes who become intolerable -- lots of people look at themselves (at a point when the hurt and anger and frustration have died down and is replaced by a little more objectivity) and realize they don't like the person they became during their divorce.  Like I said, divorce really does bring out the worst in people....
               A relevant article in "Psychology Today" evoked Maslow's ranking of human needs to say that in divorce, every basic human need is challenged and therefore, it is human to act out aggressively against these threats.
               Of course, my purpose in writing this piece isn't to justify anyone being a jerk or to make anyone feel bad for being a jerk themselves.  I am writing to shine light on this phenomenon that happens, to acknowledge that divorce can often trigger the "jerk response", and to suggest that if you catch yourself thinking your ex is an a----le, or berating yourself for being a bad person, take a deep breath and try to remember we are all capable of becoming the Devil and thankfully it is usually a temporary condition.  Of course, when that condition in your ex doesn't dissipate, it's good to rely on your trusty attorney to deal with the mess....

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Your Relationship with Your Ex -- Good Communication

               Depending on what stage of your divorce you're in or what kind of day you've had -- or "what kind" of divorce you're in -- you might want to call me crazy if you heard me saying that you and your ex are "in a relationship."  And I get that -- but really, you are.  Dictionary definitions of "relationship" describe it as the state of "being connected"  and it is the "way people regard and behave toward each other."
               The truth is, especially if you have kids, you and your ex are going to be "connected" for a long, long, time.  Even if you don't have kids together, during the period of the divorce -- which unfortunately often drags on for a what can seem like forever -- you will be connected with your ex while the issues of your dissolution (the divorce) are resolved.  The nature of your relationship has undoubtedly changed -- the parameters are not the same -- but you are still "connected" and you are still communicating and engaging in behaviors with each other and which affect each other.  While I am not suggesting that your ex is still your best friend -- maybe she/he will be or maybe not -- I am saying that it's a good idea to nurture the "relationship" and make conscious choices...just like in any relationship.
               An important aspect of any relationship is good communication.  We usually speak with our "besties" in a respectful way, conscious of their feelings, even if we are expressing something difficult.  The same holds true when communicating with divorcing spouses.  It doesn't have to mean that you still like/love/enjoy/trust/etc. that person -- in most divorces, even if exes eventually become "friends", there is usually a period of being "anti-friends."  Probably there are times when you are not seeing eye to eye.  At all.  In most divorces there are major, important, disagreements -- about custody schedules and custody support and spousal support and who gets to stay in the family home and who gets to keep the dining room table that you both lovingly picked out every piece of wood for, etc. Etc.
               And still...what I am suggesting is that even in the really tough times, if you work to keep the relationship and the communication respectful, you will feel better and things -- even the terrifically difficult issues -- will get resolved a lot easier.

  1. Good communication tips: utilize non-aggressive language and body posture;  take deep breaths and hit the "pause" button if you need to in the middle of any communication;
  2. I'm not saying this is always easy; I'm not saying that sometimes you aren't dealing with Satan on the other side (future blog post: "Parenting with Satan").

Monday, July 13, 2015

Keeping Legal Fees Down

               Maybe it's just me, but I haven't really met too many people who like to pay legal fees.  I get it -- legal bills can run into a lot of money and there are few tangible results -- no shiny car, no new stereo system, no sparkling teeth -- nothing to show that you can wrap your hands around.  I also know that sometimes it might seem like there has been very little work done, although from an attorney's perspective, there is actually a heck of a lot of work that doesn't even get billed.  I never bill my clients for all those hours I spend in the middle of the night, fretting about their children, or their assets, or their emotional well-being.  I try to keep my clients' bills as low as possible (and I'm sure most attorneys follow this practice) and still, legal fees can add up fast.  Lawyers and clients can work together to help keep fees down. 
               All those phone calls and emails add up -- Although my clients always see "no charge" items on their invoices, I do have to charge for some of the time I spend answering their phone calls and emails.  I have a big heart and I do care about my clients but I also try to remind them that if they're contacting me, it might go onto their bill.  One way to keep the bill down -- think before you send that email or make that call to your attorney and maybe don't do it.
               Another way to keep the bills down is to resolve some disputes with your ex without involving your attorney.  It is similar to parenting -- choose your battles.  It might be possible to negotiate a change in the schedule, or to express your frustration that your kids always seem to come back to your house with dirty laundry, by communicating directly with your ex rather than contacting your attorney, who then contacts the other attorney, who then speaks with your ex.  If you can cut out the middleman/woman -- i.e., the attorneys -- you can save money. 
               I always encourage my clients to let me know if they have any questions or concerns -- and I mean it.  I want them to feel comfortable with the work that is being done on their behalf and with the process.  A client recently thanked me profusely for explaining things to her -- this made me feel happy and proud to be in my profession.  There is a fine line, however, between asking questions so that you can understand the process and asking questions because you are second guessing and back seat driving.  I have had clients who have gone back and forth as to whether they wanted to save money by representing themselves or having me represent them, and clients who are so worried about their situations that they've asked me -- repeatedly -- about my "strategies".  I try to stay with them, to answer every question and to do it patiently.  And I "no charge" a lot of this communication, however, these kinds of queries are time consuming and I can't "no charge" all of it.  I get it -- like I said, this is a "fine line" area -- but still, I hate to see a client spending any money that doesn't seem to be moving their case forward.  My advice is that if you can, try to trust your attorney and let her/him do their work without questioning everything.  If you don't trust your attorney, maybe it is time to get new legal counsel.
               The point I'm trying to make is that although legal bills can be costly, there are things that can be done to keep those costs down.  Like everything else in family law (and in life in general), I think it is helpful to stop, breathe, re-assess, and then act....

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Going to Court

              For lots of people -- even for many attorneys -- going to court is a bit nerve wracking.  The judge sits up higher than everyone else -- "on the bench", approachable only behind "the bar," with permission.  It can evoke thoughts of "The Wizard of Oz."  And then there's the court personnel, including the bailiff, who is carrying a gun.  And you can only speak at certain times.  For good reason, most judges keep their courtrooms pretty well controlled.   It can be an intimidating atmosphere.
               If you're in court on your family law matter, chances are something serious and very important to you is about to be decided and naturally this could make you nervous.  Understandably.  The decision can often "go either way" and you might not know what the judge will decide (this is one reason I often counsel my clients to try to come to an agreement instead of going to court -- but "settling versus litigating" is the topic for another blog post).   
               All of this means that going to court could very likely cause some anxiety.  To calm your nerves, it might help to prepare yourself for your courtroom experience.  One thing I often suggest is for people to go to court on a day before their own court date simply to observe.  That way when you walk into the courtroom on the morning of your hearing, it isn't the first time you've been there and when it's your day in court, you will have some familiarity with the setup and with the process.  For many court hearings, you are allowed to sit in the spectator section and watch the proceedings on other matters, matters in which you have zero emotional attachment.  You might find it interesting or you might find it boring but in either case, it will help to demystify the process.
               If you are represented by counsel, of course, speak with your attorney about any questions you have or for any specific advice they can give you.  In general, it is good to get a decent night of  sleep before the hearing.  Also you should dress "appropriately" -- again, you can speak with your attorney if you have questions, but in general this means no ripped jeans, no bare midriffs, no hats, etc.  Dress as if you are going for a job interview. 
  • The S.F. D.A.'s office tips contain some good general advice applicable to family law courtrooms as well,
  • Introduction to the Court, general tips re going to court in Contra Costa Co.,

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Happy Mother's Day

               I often tell my three children that being their mother is the most wonderful and the most difficult feature of my life.  Ever.  And often on the same day.  And I wouldn't trade it for anything in the universe.  And I know I am blessed and lucky to be able to be a mother -- to be their mother.
               Let's be honest, being a mother is hard work.  Really, really, hard work.  When my children were young I was faced with the prospect of working full-time, having my children in daycare for five long days every week, or of quitting work.  My husband (now my ex-husband) and I decided that although it would be a struggle, the only solution was for me to quit work.  I walked away from the practice of law -- and in large measure from the ability of having a career -- and it was the best decision I could have made.  I feel fortunate that I was able to make that choice. 
               And, in truth, when I quit the legal profession to stay home with my young children, I felt like I had been thrown off a swiftly moving train!  I was not prepared for staying home with young children all day.  Being at home with my children, every single day, was the hardest thing I had ever done.  Way more difficult than law school or the practice of law!  Being a "full-time mother" also taught me how hard my own mother had worked to raise her four children and as my appreciation for her grew, so too did my love for her.

               We can point to studies about how a mother's love and caring -- or lack thereof -- shapes a child, sets the tone for their whole life.  I think we don't need studies for what we know in our hearts.  So I want to say, thank you to all you wonderful mothers out there.  You are doing the world's most difficult job.  I hope that even on those rough days you can hang in there.  The world thanks and appreciates you...xox

Monday, April 27, 2015

Self-Help in Divorces?!?!

(Marin Co. Superior Court/Frank Lloyd Wright Building)

               It might not make me popular with some people to write about "self-help" in the legal field and certainly I am not advocating anything Shakespearean, however, I firmly believe that not all legal matters need lawyers. 
               Unfortunately often during divorces, emotions are running very high and self-help -- or a "do it yourself divorce" -- isn't really a viable option.  Sometimes, however, the parties are quite amicable and can actually work quite well together -- they simply want a divorce.  In these cases, self-help might be an alternative.  In other cases, one or both parties might not be able to afford legal representation and thus they utilize self-help options for financial reasons.  (Many counties do offer low income programs that allow people to hire family law attorneys for a very reduced rate; for example I participate in the "Moderate Means" program in one of the counties that I practice in.)
               Please note that I am not suggesting that your case can be resolved by using "self-help" and I am not suggesting that you shouldn't seek legal counsel -- I am merely providing some general information to consider.  If you think you might be interested in learning more about self-help in a California divorce, the sites listed here might be useful. 

  • -- This site has basic information for the State of California; it contains many helpful links and a lot of information that can be useful to walk people through their own divorces. 
  •  -- This link is for residents of Contra Costa County, and includes information on residency requirements, and basic definitions, and FAQs.
  •  -- Nolo Press is a respected publisher of legal self-help books (across many areas of law); for sale from Nolo, and the resources are also be available in some libraries.
  • Many counties have self-help centers at the family law courthouses -- check your county for specific information. 
               I am not recommending that people hire or do not hire attorneys to help them; that is a decision that only the parties can make and in some situations, it might take a consultation with an attorney to determine if it would make sense to proceed without attorneys.  When a party is representing herself or himself it is called in propria persona or in short, in pro per.

DISCLAIMER: The purpose of this blog is to provide general information.  Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is created.  If you wish to seek legal advice about your matter, you should search out an attorney of your choosing.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

Shared Custody Dogs (& Other Animals)

               It might sound like a joke, but it's not.  Pets are a part of the family and a growing number of divorce cases involve custody of a family pet.  Just as the kids go back and forth, so too Bruno, the family dog, might travel between households.  I'm not going to say that mom and dad love the dog as much as they love the kids, but the dog is loved and the dog gives love and comfort, which can be very helpful in easing the stress and emotional pain that comes with most divorces.  
               Not only do the family pets help spread the love, but they also represent consistency and can function sort of like a security blanket from the past -- embodying fond memories of the pre-divorce household.  Moving between mom's house and dad's house might feel strange and new to the children at first and having the family dog with them lends a familiar aspect to the new household.  The routine of taking Bruno out for business, scooping Bruno's kibble, and scratching Bruno's ears helps bring something "old and known" into the new household. 
               Even in the absence of human children, sharing a pet can make sense when both "parents" have strong relationships with the beloved animal.  Most people love their pets and have strong bonds with them -- why else put up with fleas and mud on the carpet??  A breakup between the "parents" doesn't mean they stopped loving the dog....
               In any shared custody situation it is good to have a set arrangement -- an agreed upon, written, schedule lets everyone know what the "rules of play" are.  Some tips to get started:
  • Determine if both parents want -- and can have Bruno -- in their home
  • Think about any special needs that Bruno might have -- i.e., is the dog old, does he need unfettered yard access, can he do stairs, etc.
  • It can work really well if the family pet is on the same schedule as the children -- when Jimmy and Judy leave mom's house for dad's, Bruno goes with them
  • Decide how veterinary care will be paid for, both routine and emergency or extraordinary expenses
               In California pets are not covered by the family code sections that govern custody of children, nor are they strictly "property" as they used to be characterized.  For example, Family Code section 6320(b) provides that the court may grant a protective order that includes a pet. 

               Just like other issues that arise when there is a family breakup, if possible it is best for everyone to strive for amicability and cooperation instead of fighting.  When it comes to custody of Bruno, if you and your ex can't come to an agreement, maybe it's best to find a new dog....

Friday, April 10, 2015

Moving Forward....

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

               A powerful and unavoidable component of divorce is change.  When the divorce is over, you will no longer be the spouse of the person you married (often that person no longer seems to exist -- but that's the topic of another blog post!).  There will be a multitude of other changes as well, from enormous to very small; (e.g., financial, sharing/not sharing of kid duties and household chores, co-parenting versus parenting together, suddenly having more than sixty seconds to be actually alone, not having to replace the cap on the toothpaste, etc., etc.). 
               Even if you are the person who sought the divorce, there will likely be some part of you that will resist the deluge of changes.  Resistance might occur on an unconscious level.  And, whether we are aware of it or not, we expend a lot of energy trying to avoid changes.  
               I am  not going to try to convince you that you will be better off after your divorce is over -- I think if you were unhappy in your marriage, if you have been struggling through the divorce, you will be happier after, but really, that's a personal, subjective characterization.  Nor am I going to try to tell you that you should pretend there aren't major changes happening in your world -- "Yes, it's true -- the changes wrought through divorce are colossal!" 
               What I am going to try to get you to believe is that even with huge, life altering, modifications -- even with "bad" changes -- new and unexpected things will come into your life that will be good.  Even wonderful.  Change means movement and since we can't actually move backwards in life, it means moving forward.  Moving forward really does open doors that we cannot dream might exist when we are trying so hard to cling to the past...even when that past has already slipped out of our grasp....And this brings up the practical reality: the changes are happening anyway...I guarantee you will have much more energy for the life that you are entering into if you can let go of the life that you are leaving behind....