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The Advisory Guidelines: Especially at the Holidays

I’ve written a number of blog articles about parent time and the holidays, but in the interest of making sure you are in the right frame of mind, I thought I’d do another one this year.  The holidays can be a really lovely time with your kids, if you and your ex can be grown ups about it.  I’ve mentioned this a few times before as well.  You have a parent time order in place; follow it.  You and your ex have family holiday parties going on that may or may not coincide with your particular parent time schedule; work with each other so your kids can be part of both of their parents’ family fun.

In Utah this aspirational “working together” thing has actually been made part of the statutes.  It’s called the Advisory Guidelines, and they’re found at UCA 30-3-33.  Some specific portions that are important to follow during the holiday season:Treat them as good as you are

(3) Special consideration shall be given by each parent to make the child available to attend family functions including funerals, weddings, family reunions, religious holidays, important ceremonies, and other significant events in the life of the child or in the life of either parent which may inadvertently conflict with the parent-time schedule.

(17) Each parent shall be entitled to an equal division of major religious holidays celebrated by the parents, and the parent who celebrates a religious holiday that the other parent does not celebrate shall have the right to be together with the child on the religious holiday. (emphasis added)

Note the “shall”s in those parts of the statute.  That means that this working together and being nice for the sake of the kids is mandatory.  And you should think it’s mandatory anyway, without having to have the law tell you how to be a good parent. Because honestly, that’s all the advisory guidelines are–the law telling you to be a good parent, not jerk the other parent around, do what you can to make your child’s life and experiences as full and peaceful and normal as possible, even though his/her parents are divorced.  Be a good person.  Communicate about the kids.  Think about how what you’re doing and how you’re interacting with your ex will affect your kids.  These are not hard things.  And if you’re the only parent doing it, STILL DO IT.  Somebody’s gotta be the grown up.  Take it upon yourself to Be the Grown Up.

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me….

 

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Fear

Fear makes the wolf bigger than he isAs a noun, fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”  As a verb, to “be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening.”  Fear can be a huge motivator to either do, or NOT do, a particular thing.  Sometimes fear is based in reality; sometimes, just in the perception of reality.  Fear can be crippling, can prevent one from taking necessary, reasonable action, or can motivate one to take actions that are unreasonable, dangerous, or out of proportion to the circumstances.

So what does that have to do with the law?

Family law actions are emotional things.  While the divvying up of assets, assignment of debts, allocation of custody and parent time, and awards of child support and alimony are black and white things, underlying the entire process is a mess of emotions, largely unpleasant ones.  Anger, pain, rage, desperation, panic, despair, sadness, frustration, helplessness, hopelessness….Swirling in with that horrible mix is Fear.

Fear is a huge part of any major life change….fear of the unknown–what happens with my budget when I’m limited to x amount of dollars a month?  What happens to my retirement goals when I have to pay out x dollars a month?  Why should I have to pay money to this person who is hurting me?  When will I get to see my kids?  What if my ex makes my kids hate me?  How will I pay all the expenses I need to for my kids?  What if I can’t pay the rent on this child support/alimony amount?  How am I supposed to get a job and take care of my kids at the same time? Who’s gonna hire me???  Is anyone ever gonna want to be with me again????

I would suggest that much of the reason people behave irrationally, do dumb things, say dumb things, try to avoid legal action, or any of the thousands of different ways people end up hurting themselves in family cases is out of fear:  “If I avoid the process server, they can’t serve me, and this will all go away.”  “He said there’s a warrant out for my arrest if I try and show up to court….I can’t get arrested!”

Mark Twain CourageWhile legal proceedings can be scary, the best way to deal with them is through Knowledge.  Be proactive–don’t wait until the last minute to seek legal advice.  If you’re scared about a threat made by the Other, ASK someone who knows or can find out about whether there’s any truth to the threat.  If you married a bully, be ready to deal with a bully.  Is it scary?  Hell YES it is.  But avoiding it, hiding, pretending it’s not happening, remaining willfully ignorant will do more to hurt you in the long AND short run than squaring your shoulders and addressing the situation.

Case in point:

I got divorced in 2005.  At the time, I’d been a stay at home mom, had 4 kids, the oldest of which were 8 year old twins, and had no money to my own name other than what my husband brought in.  My marriage had come apart, and my mental health was deteriorating.  I couldn’t stay married and live.  And No, I’m not being dramatic when I say that.  I was scared to death.

So how did I handle it?

I rolled over and died, in a manner of speaking.  My husband hired a lawyer, who drafted an agreement taking everything away from me except for some really minimal bits of Stuff.  I didn’t fight to get custody of the kids I’d been primary caretaker of for their entire lives.  I didn’t even attempt to stay in my house, or get alimony, or ask for half of the rest of our marital, not-insignificant assets.  I signed my husband’s agreement.  That became the terms of my divorce, and gave him custody of my kids.

I flat out gave up.  Out of paralyzing, crippling Fear.  Everything my husband said about how miserable he’d make me if I tried to get even statutory minimums under the law for ANYTHING, I believed.  All the little demeaning, demoralizing comments he threw out at me, I believed.  I was terrified–terrified of a legal fight, terrified of my kids getting hurt any worse than they already were, terrified of losing my mind before it was all said and done…Terrified.  Scared.  Panicked.

And so, out of blind, crippling, numbing, paralyzing fear, I gave up.  Everything–my kids, my home, any portion of 10 years of marriage…all of it.  Without a fight.

Ask me how much I regret that.  And when you do, bring tissues, because I’m going to cry my eyes out on you, even though it’s been nearly 13 years since all that happened.fear-is-the-mindkiller

DON’T YOU BE LIKE ME.  You be BRAVE.  Find your support people.  Face your fears, even if you have to face them quietly, by seeking out help online, or at a victim’s crisis center.  Get real information.  Do a little research.  DON’T GO DOWN WITHOUT A FIGHT!  For the love of all that is good and holy, I am begging you, do not let fear take your life from you.  You can do it.  I swear, it’s hard as hell, but you CAN.  And you Must.

A final Scene from the story of fear in my life:  I am at my Aunt Nancy’s house, curled up on the floor in her bathroom, sobbing out of fear and the misery that came from letting my fear cripple me when it counted most.  She is sitting next to me, on the floor, knees pulled up to her chest, her arm around my shoulders.  She is saying, “I wish I could poor courage into your spine so you can stand.”

I say to you–Imagine me pouring courage into your spine.  Stand up. You may be afraid, but don’t let it control you.  You are not alone.

Be Brave.

…and Time Waits for No Man…

Tomorrow is the first day of school for my kids.  I have a freshman and a senior in high school, starting Tomorrow.  The first day of school is always a little bittersweet.  It’s exciting to see my kids getting older, growing, all those great things that parents so enjoy, that we are lucky to be able to witness.  But it’s also just another marker of time, and my children growing up, and not being Children anymore.

First day of School 2010

First day of school 2010…they’re not little anymore…

I have been there for the first day of school every year since my divorce was final, 12 1/2 years ago.  Whether I lived 2 minutes away or 7 hours away.  There were a lot of years that I’d hug my kids, see them off on the bus, then drive away and cry for hours.  I don’t have to drive away and cry anymore–tomorrow, for the first time EVER, school is starting during MY parent time week.  Not that it really matters much anymore…I’ve lived within 3 blocks of my ex-husband for going on 3 years now, so even if he has the kids for the week, I’m just a minute away.

The hard part for me is the Looking Back that we tend to do at the beginning of a new school year.  And I’m not over all the loss from the past years enough yet to do that without becoming an emotional mess.  You know what they say–Time and mercy heal all wounds.  Still waiting on time and mercy….

Breaking Up is Hard to Do…

I spent last Friday in a divorce mediation.  The marriage spanned two decades; the parties have 5 kids.  By my client’s account, it was not a happy marriage, and the miracle was that it had not ended sooner.  broken heart

The agreement we mediated was about as good as it gets in terms of being a statutorily equitable split.  My client WANTS to get divorced, but she’s still very upset about the whole thing.  It’s just not really fair, even if it’s equitable. And Why?

Because it will never BE “fair.” Because she did not get married to get divorced.  Because she has 5 kids who are heartbroken and disillusioned and upset about the situation their parents are in.  Because she had planned on a Future, that didn’t include getting divorced, that may have included kids’ graduations from high school and weddings and grandkids, with all the traditions you see in an intact family.  Because at one time, she had a Dream of what life as a married person would look like.

And that Dream is dead, not to be resuscitated. No divorce settlement will ever be able to make all the pain ok or right or fix it.  Getting divorced Hurts.  Bad.  Even when it really NEEDS to happen.  Getting divorced is like running head-on into a wall.  Boom.  Turn around.  Start over.  Somehow.  And a lot of times that “starting over” is from less than Scratch.  Like, no retirement left, no job experience, kids and expenses but not enough income to pay for everything AND maintain any kind of actual life.

You’ve gotta take some time to grieve after a divorce…Maybe a long time.  Because getting divorced is the ULTIMATE break up. And we all know breaking up is hard to do.

They say time and mercy heal all wounds.  The challenge is surviving the passage of time, ya’ll.  So be gentle with your divorcing and newly divorced friends.  It’s a pretty horrific thing they’re going through.

Think you can do this one on your own?

People get divorced every day. Some try to go it alone. They figure they can work through whatever they need to with the (soon to be) ex, and save the money in legal fees. Or one party doesn’t think they can afford a lawyer, and so they remain unrepresented while the other does hire an attorney.

Here are just a few reasons why working your own family law case, without a lawyer, is a bad idea.

1)  You are likely getting divorced because you and your spouse do not get along, for whatever reason.  While you might be able to negotiate a fair distribution of all your property, debt, and assets, and determine child custody, all by yourselves, don’t bet on it.  If you have any type of imbalance of power in your relationship, someone is going to come out of this the Big Loser.  It is very common for one party to be the dominant force in any marriage.  That person is not going to want to give up any of that power or control.  (For example:  When the husband says to the wife things like, “I wasn’t going to pay you to stay, so why should I pay you to leave?” and “I’m not going to finance your Life of Luxury,” you have an imbalance of power.  Guess who lost in that case?)  Rule of thumb:  If one party to a divorce is very happy with the outcome, the other one probably got screwed. A lawyer can prevent that by helping to hold up her client when the going gets tough, and refusing to let the client roll over and die.

Well, we can tell that THIS is going to go badly. . .

2)  Divorces/child custody cases are inherently emotionally fraught.  You will likely be hysterical at some point over some thing, be it who gets the kids and what visitation is going to look like, or who is going to end up with which bills/property.  Even the most seemingly-rational people go a little nuts when their lives are being flipped 180 degrees.  I’ve seen cases of couples fighting over who gets the Christmas wreath that no one ever cared about while they were married.  You will need to have someone who can work on your behalf who is not emotionally involved in your life.  You will not be getting everything you want in your divorce–and if you do, you’re probably screwing the other party. (Note:  Some lawyers are more than happy to help you destroy your ex.  I’m not one of those.  If your lawyer is out for blood and you don’t want that, get a new lawyer.  Destroying your spouse will not make your life, or your children’s lives, better in the long run.)  Someone needs to be The Voice of Reason.  That’s your lawyer’s job.

3)  Some things you can’t legally negotiate away.  And if you think you can, just wait until you try and modify your Decree.  Couples will commonly try to do the whole, “You can pay less child support if you give me the (fill in the blank on property and/or debt).”  Child support is a right that the child(ren) have, not the parents.  Courts will not uphold orders that allow for significantly reduced child support amounts.  (This is not to say that the judge won’t sign your homemade order that allows for no child support payments for a year, and then only some piddly-amounts’ worth.  BUT. . .)  Child support is always open for modification, until the children age out or become otherwise ineligible for child support.  When the spouse who has the kids comes to find out that he/she could’ve gotten a lot more money, you can bet that they’ll all be back in court.  Save yourself the energy and do it right the first time.  With a lawyer.

4)  If your spouse gets a lawyer and you don’t, prepare to be steamrolled in any “negotiations.”  An attorney’s loyalties by law lie with the party who signed the retainer agreement with them.  If your spouse gets a lawyer, that lawyer does not represent you.  It is his job to zealously advocate for the interests of his client.  Those will not be your interests.  One-sided lawyer divorces commonly end in the unrepresented party getting screwed.  Don’t be that person.

Guess who didn’t have a lawyer??

It has been stated by many that they cannot get a lawyer because they can’t afford it.  Lawyers are not allowed to take domestic cases on contingency, and so many attorneys think that if they don’t get paid up front, they can’t get paid.  This is not true.  A contingency agreement is a payment agreement that allows the attorney to take a percentage of the total amount of money recovered in a case.  A lawyer can allow for delayed payment that is NOT a contingency.  This is how it works:  If you or your spouse have property–real estate, investments, retirement, whatever–there will be a property settlement.  Some lawyers will take cases with an agreement in place that they will take whatever their fee would be from the actual work that’s been billed when the client gets money in a property settlement.  This is NOT a percentage of the settlement.  It is simply delaying payment until the client has money to pay.  And if you think you can’t afford a lawyer, try going it alone–You can’t afford NOT to.

There ARE those who would not drastically benefit from hiring an attorney in a divorce case.  These people do not have a marriage of longer than 3 years, property, investments, debts, or children.  If you have any of those things, get a lawyer.  Period.

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