Callers to my office ask this question pretty regularly. People seem confused about when and whether they need a lawyer to help them through their divorce. This is a fair question, given the proliferation of online sources for legal forms, documents, and information. There are lots of places to research your questions, but you also risk “information overload.” What if different websites seem reputable, but give conflicting information?
The first thing to remember if you research divorce law on your own is that divorce and family law issues are governed by state laws. So while general information might be a good place to start, focus your research on your state’s law. An article or blog post about divorce procedures in Nevada will not be very helpful in assessing your North Carolina divorce case.
In some cases, the spouses can certainly negotiate a settlement between themselves, without the input of lawyers. When is this possible? It truly depends on each individual case, but generally:
The shorter the marriage, the easier it may be to handle alone, because alimony is less likely to be an issue.
Few assets and no real estate holdings make it easier to split up without lawyers, because there is less physical “stuff” to fight over.
When there are no children involved, and thus no custody and child support issues involved, you may be able to handle things yourself.
If you and your spouse are friendly and cooperative enough to negotiate fairly between each other, then you may not need to involve lawyers.
If any ONE of the statements above does not apply to your case, however, then you would be wise to at least consult with a lawyer. The more complicated your situation is, the more likely you are to need legal guidance and representation. Ask yourself whether hiring a lawyer would add value to your case — would the financial, time, or peace of mind benefits outweigh what you spend on a lawyer? When you have children, large assets, retirement savings, or own your own business, the answer is likely “yes.”
There is a seemingly endless stream of problems that can arise from social media and technology when it comes to divorce and family law. If you have spoken with a family lawyer lately, you likely heard a warning to be very careful about what you put on the internet. That is an important rule of thumb always, but especially if you are involved in a divorce or custody case. It is also important to be careful about how you search for information about the activities of a spouse or others.
This is becoming such an important topic that a few hundred North Carolina family lawyers recently met in Greensboro specifically to learn about the criminal and civil liabilities that can arise for ourselves and our clients from various digital activities. The program addressed a number of the topics, some of which I’ve addressed in earlier blog posts, but one important additional topic is “spoliation.” Spoliation of evidenceis the legal term for when someone deletes or destroys evidence that is potentially relevant in a case.
If a party in a divorce or other family law matter intentionally deletes social media posts, for example, because they might be damaging to the case, that person might be guilty of spoliation. The party, and his or her lawyer if the lawyer advised it, can be sanctioned or otherwise in trouble with the court. At the beginning of a case, a lawyer will often send a “spoliation letter” to the opponent or anyone else who has relevant evidence, warning them to preserve the evidence that must be turned over. This is another reason to be very cautious about what you share online — you may not be able to delete it in the future without causing significant problems.
So, if you are concerned about things you may have posted online in the past, be very careful about “cleaning up” your Facebook page or deleting old Tweets and emails. You may cause yourself bigger problems if you get caught destroying evidence. Think twice before you post anything online, and if you are in the middle of a case and are worried about your social media presence, talk to your lawyer about your concerns.
Lots of parents and stepparents in North Carolina wonder whether the stepparent’s income affects the amount of child support that is owed. For example, if dad remarries a woman who has quite high income or assets, will it mean that he is obligated to pay more in child support? If he cannot or does not pay for some reason, can his new wife be required to pay child support on his behalf?
In North Carolina, stepparents have absolutely no duty of support to stepchildren. The obligation of a stepparent depends on whether the stepparent voluntarily act in loco parentis, which means in the place of a parent. Someone who is acting in loco parentis “has assumed the status and obligations of a parent without a formal adoption.” This is reviewed on a case by case basis, and the question is whether the stepparent intended to assume such obligations toward the stepchild(ren) as support and maintenance.
Even if a stepparent has assumed the obligation of paying support, that obligation usually ends if the stepparent and parent get divorced. A stepparent may sign a notarized agreement to pay child support, and that agreement would be enforceable even after divorcing the child’s parent. Even then, however, the stepparent’s obligation to support the child would still be secondary to the child’s legal parents. Courts can only order the stepparent to support the child if the natural parents are unable to provide any support or the needs of the child are greater than the abilities of the natural parents to provide.
Contributions of a third party (stepparent) may be used to support a deviation from the NC Child Support Guidelines. This generally requires that the parent who receives the child support on behalf of the child has a higher burden to prove the actual expenses of the child and how much contribution is made by the stepparent. This is quite unusual, but possible. The bottom line, however, is that as a rule, a stepparent has no obligation to pay support for his or her stepchildren.