Our Split Is Amicable…Can My Ex and I Use the Same Lawyer?

Sharing one lawyer?

Some might find this hard to believe, but divorcing couples sometimes ask if they can share one lawyer.  This makes a lot of sense, in theory.  If you and your soon-to-be-ex agree about how you will divide your property and raise your children, then you might be eager to simply get the divorce process behind you and move on with life.  It seems rational and practical, then, to have one lawyer draft a simple agreement that reflects your wishes, sign it together, and get going.

The answer to the question in the title above, however, is NO.  Although such an arrangement might seem like a smart money- and hassle-saving arrangement, there are important reasons why a lawyer cannot represent both a husband and wife in a divorce.  The ethical rules for lawyers prohibit representing both parties in an adversarial, or potentially adversarial, proceeding. Even if you are the rare ex-couple that gets along brilliantly, you are still opposing parties in a legal matter.  No lawyer can adequately represent both sides of a dispute, without favoring one over the other.

Like anyone going through a divorce, you deserve a lawyer who has only your interests in mind as you navigate the divorce process. Even if you and your spouse agree that your case is cut and dry, if you want legal guidance, you’ll each have to seek your own.

Do I Really Need a Prenup?

Prenup

When most of us think of prenups, we probably think of wealthy tycoons or Hollywood stars who are marrying partners much younger and less financially stable than they are.  In the real world, however, there are several reasons why a prenup (aka “premarital agreement”) might be right for you and your future spouse.

Make Your Own Rules

North Carolina couples who plan to marry have two options: (1) marry without a premarital agreement and accept all of the legal consequences of our state’s family, estate, and trust laws; or (2) enter a premarital agreement before marriage that will enable the couple to choose whether and how certain family, estate, and trust laws will apply to them.  Essentially, if you get married without a premarital agreement, you are allowing the state to write your agreement for you — the legislature’s pronouncements on family law, estate law, and trust law (and their amendment and repeal over time) will guide the court in the event you divorce.  You might think of this akin to dying without a will — someone else will make the rules about what happens to your family and property.

A valid, carefully crafted premarital agreement, on the other hand, allows you and your betrothed to choose the approach that will work best for you if you ever separate.  As a couple, you know your unique circumstances better than anyone else, and you may benefit from rejecting the one-size-fits-all approach of the state statutes.  Instead, you have an opportunity to determine your own path in the event that things go south.

Address “Business” Issues Before Walking Down the Aisle

There’s no point in denying it:  negotiating a premarital agreement is not the most romantic part of wedding planning.  While the most important, inspiring aspects of a wedding are about love and commitment, the unavoidable truth is that marriage is also a business decision.  That’s true whether you enter a premarital agreement or not.  In the event that you and your future spouse divorce, your property will be divided as if you two had a business partnership.  Business people make contracts to govern the division of money and property all the time, so it’s not absurd to think that you should too.

Although it can be difficult to buckle down and discuss finances when you’re in the haze of wedding planning, before the wedding is actually an ideal time to work through these issues.  You’re not clouded by hurt and anger the way many are when they are faced with the business aspects of separating.  You can work together on realistic solutions that will work for both of you if you ever separate.  Plus, even the most open, in sync couples can benefit from going over their finances and getting everything out in the open before committing their lives to each other.  For many, it can be very freeing to feel legally and financially secure before the wedding.  A premarital agreement can ideally help couples minimize financial stress so they can focus on their relationship.

But How Do I Know If I Should Get a Prenup?

With a few exceptions, most couples can benefit from having a premarital agreement.  They’re not just for reality starlets and real estate moguls; anyone who has property or debt, owns a business, has a professional license, has children from another relationship, or has a significantly higher or lower income than their partner should think about getting a prenup.  Retirement savings, valuable collections, and business assets are just a few of the things that can be addressed and protected in a premarital agreement.  Whatever the financial circumstances of you and your future spouse, chances are that you have assets or debts that you would prefer to make your own decisions about together, rather than leaving the decision up to the complex and changing laws of the state.  If you are interested in discussing a premarital agreement, please contact me to schedule an appointment.

The Technology of Cheating

Website for affairs

If you live in North Carolina, you’ve probably known someone who has sued or been sued for the tort of alienation of affection.  Or you’ve at least heard of a jilted spouse who wants to sue the spouse’s lover.  According to Wikipedia (and they’re never wrong, right?), North Carolina is one of only 7 states that still allows lawsuits for alienation of affection.  This law has been around for a long time, has survived numerous attempts at repeal, and is used today far more often than you might expect.  Thus, in North Carolina an outsider who interferes in another’s marriage can be in some really hot water.  For decades, NC juries have awarded large sums to husbands and wives whose marriages were broken up by third parties.

Now, however, one plaintiff is trying to apply this old (many would argue outdated) law to very new technology — the dating-while-married website Ashley Madison, whose motto is “Life is short.  Have an affair.”  One North Carolina man is suing the website for alienation of affection and claiming that the online dating service aided his wife in finding her paramour.  Before any jilted spouses get big ideas about suing any person or business who facilitates or encourages an affair, however, they should know that the suit has little chance of succeeding.  For one thing, the legislature in 2009 passed an amendment that prevents spouses from suing businesses that play a role in extramarital affairs (hotels, restaurants, clubs…).  Plus, the website was merely a facilitator of the cheating, not the actual perpetrator.  If the plaintiff’s wife hadn’t met her boyfriend on Ashley Madison, couldn’t she have met someone on any other dating site?  Or any bar?

While this man’s lawsuit will most likely be dismissed, many North Carolinians successfully sue their cheating spouses’ lovers for alienation of affection.  In order to prove alienation of affection, they must show:

  1. That the couple was happily married and a genuine love and affection existed between them;
  2. That the love and affection was alienated and destroyed; and
  3. That the wrongful and malicious acts of the defendant caused the alienation of affection.

What do you think?  Is this type of lawsuit outdated?  Should we be able to sue those who facilitate or encourage the cheating, in addition to the actual person who does the cheating?

Other resources:

New Year’s Resolution: Estate Planning

Estate Planning

It’s hard to believe that we’re almost halfway through January already.  How many of us have already abandoned our New Year’s resolutions, after just two weeks?  How many of us forgot to make a resolution at all this year?  Here’s a suggestion for a resolution that will benefit both you and your family and will be relatively simple to complete:  make an estate plan this year.  We all know that it’s an unpleasant thing to think about — thinking deeply about your wishes for yourself, your family, and your property when you die.  Clients, however, seem to overwhelmingly feel great peace and satisfaction knowing that they have done their best to make things easier on their loved ones when that time comes.

To get started on the process, list and compile documents relating to your assets, insurance policies, properties, and valuable personal items.  Gather account and policy numbers.  Then talk with a financial planner and a lawyer about your needs.  In addition to a will, which handles most property, most people also need a living will, a power of attorney, and a health care power of attorney.

  • The living will declares that you wish to die a natural death and do not want extraordinary medical treatment or artificial nutrition or hydration to keep you alive.
  • The health care power of attorney appoints a person of your choice to make your medical decisions if you became unable to make them for yourself.
  • The power of attorney (a.k.a. durable power of attorney) gives a person of your choice the legal right to act on your behalf as your “attorney-in-fact.”

These documents can alleviate the stress on your family if you should become sick or incapacitated in the future, and they give you the reassurance that your wishes will be carried out.  If you or your family members have been through significant changes, such as a divorce, a new baby, or the death of a loved one, you may need to update or revise the estate documents that you’ve already made.  If you’ve been putting off thinking about these things, this is a new year’s resolution that is easy to keep and will give you great peace of mind!

Related resource:

Ten Tips for Holiday Co-Parenting

Holiday Co-Parenting

For newly-separated or divorced parents, the holidays can be especially tough.  For kids with two households, this time of year means lots of shuffling back and forth, possibly feeling torn between parents, extended families, and old traditions.  Adjusting to life after separation takes its toll on everyone around the holidays:  kids, parents, grandparents, in-laws, and friends.  Here are some ideas to make the holidays easier for you and your kids after separating:

  1. Start your planning for the season by rereading your parenting or custody agreement — what do its provisions on holiday scheduling say?  Who is scheduled to have the children and when this year?  Whether it is very specific or leaves some room for compromise, know what the agreement says, because it is your fallback if you and your ex disagree about the holiday schedule.
  2. Accept that your request to change the arrangements in the custody agreement is just that — a request.  Be prepared for the other parent to say “no” if your plans don’t fit with their scheduled time.  Compromise is great, but each parent is within his or her rights to make plans and stick to them for their scheduled parenting time.  Don’t punish each other for making holiday plans and wanting to keep them.
  3. Schedule a time to discuss each parent’s holiday priorities calmly and without the children around.  Think about what events are most important to you (and the kids) and talk calmly with your ex about how you can coordinate the schedule to make as many of those important events as possible happen this year.  Again, be prepared to give as much consideration as you get.  While you’re talking, go ahead and coordinate on the kids’ Christmas lists too — who will give what to whom?
  4. Compromise is the name of the game in co-parenting generally, and particularly during the holidays.  This time of year is all about family togetherness, and that can get very sticky when children now have two families.  The most constructive solution is to remember to make the children the focus and show them how you and your ex can work together to make sure that everyone still has a good time.
  5. Don’t negotiate the schedule in front of the kids.  Particularly if the separation is new, parents can easily get emotional and territorial about sharing the children this time of year.  It’s hard on kids too, so make it easier by shielding them from the discussion.  Work out the schedule between the two of you (and your significant others, if applicable), and present a united front to the children about the holiday schedule.
  6. You are the parents, you determine the schedule.  Don’t ask your children to choose which house or family they prefer on certain days — that puts them in the middle and tests their loyalty to each side of the family.  You know your kids and which events mean the most to them.  Work together to decide where and when they will spend time with each of you.
  7. Be flexible with the way you think about holidays.  If the kids are going to be travelling with your ex on Thanksgiving Day, plan to fix all of their favorite Thanksgiving recipes from your side of the family and celebrate on Saturday when they are back with you.  Be open to celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and even Christmas day on alternative days rather than the “day of” when the kids are with their other parent on the actual day.  The kids probably don’t care about the actual date, they’re just happy to celebrate again with you.
  8. Make new traditions that the children will remember and look forward to.  Change is inevitable after divorce, and some beloved traditions may no longer work for your family.  Look for ways to incorporate new traditions for everyone to cherish.
  9. Make plans for your time without the kids.  When your children are with your ex on a holiday, you could certainly be forgiven for feeling lonely and bitter.  Don’t sit alone and stew, make plans to spend the holiday with friends and family.  Of course you’ll miss your children, but try to look at the day as an opportunity to reconnect with your other loved ones, free from the distractions of looking after the kids.
  10. Be gentle with yourself and your family — adjustment is hard and takes time.  Again, holidays are about family, and it is just plain old hard sometimes to adjust to sharing your family.  Remember that it’s probably just as hard for your ex.  Give yourself some leeway if you get frustrated or lash out.  Apologize, move on, and stay focused on the children.

Cohabitation in NC

CohabitationCohabitation has become more common and more accepted in today’s society.  Statistics vary, but some sources claim as many as 60 percent of couples today live together before marriage.  People of different generations, backgrounds, and beliefs could argue all day about whether cohabitation is a good thing or not.  In the end, though, the practice is widespread enough that it is important for unmarried couples to think about the legal options and consequences when they decide to live together.

First off, the North Carolina law that made unmarried cohabitation illegal was struck down as unconstitutional by a superior court judge in 2009.  That decision is not necessarily binding on the whole state, however, so cohabitation may still technically be illegal.  It is unknown so far what other state courts would say on the matter, but the law against cohabitation (passed in 1805) is very unlikely to be enforced.

North Carolina does not recognize common law marriage, and there is no “legal status” associated with unmarried cohabitation.  Thus, a couple who lives together for many years and then breaks up, is still not usually entitled to the remedies associated with divorce:  equitable distribution of property and alimony.  Property is simply divided according to who owns title, and dividing personal property (i.e. furniture and valuables) can of course become very difficult for those whose lives and money have become so intertwined.

So how can cohabiting couples protect themselves and plan for the future?  First, don’t be afraid to talk about these issues before moving in together.  If you’re close enough to live together, you’re close enough to talk about protecting yourselves and each other financially if things end poorly.  Think of this just like betrothed couples discussing a pre-nup — it’s unpleasant to think about, but in some cases essential to protecting your interests.

Second, unmarried couples in North Carolina are free to make contractual agreements to establish rights and obligations should the relationship end.  So although unmarried couples are not granted the rights associated with marriage, they can make express agreements about dividing property in the event of a break-up, and the agreements will be honored by courts (as long as they are not based upon sexual services).  Before acquiring any substantial property interest together, it is very wise to make a written agreement about what would happen to the property if the relationship ended.  It may be a touchy subject, but it’s much easier to reach an agreement when you’re on good terms than it will be if things go south.

Note:  North Carolina still does not recognize same-sex marriage, so this advice applies to same-sex couples who consider themselves married, as well.  Although the law denies the privileges and rights of marriage to same-sex couples, there are ways to secure some of those rights through contract before (and after) joining your lives together. Goodness knows it’s not romantic, but it’s important!