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 Divorce Lawyer?

Divorce Lawyer

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.”

Be Careful About What You Remove From Social Media, Too

Social Media Perils

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 evidence is 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.

Considering the Child’s Preference in Custody Decisions

Child CustodyWhen children are old enough to have an opinion on such things, many families wonder whether the child’s preference on whether to live with mom or dad can or should play a role in the final decision.  Not surprisingly, the answer depends on the situation.

Situation One:  Everybody Agrees

In practice, joint agreement among the adults involved in the custody matter is the most common way to resolve custody questions.  Thus, if the child and the parents (or other adults involved) are in agreement about where the child should primarily live, then the child’s wishes can be honored.  To the extent that a child can make his or her wishes known and the adults agree, the child can essentially “decide” where to live.  This is not uncommon, since the child may clearly be more bonded with one parent, and the parents may share the understanding that the child needs to live with the more bonded parent.

Ideally, parents know their children the best and are in the best position to make decisions about how to best meet the needs and best interests of their child.  If parents can come to mutual agreement about living arrangements, then they can also be flexible to revisit which home would be best if the child’s needs change as he or she gets older.  So, if the needs of the child begin to shift as the child ages into the teenage years, the adults may be able to go along with the child’s wishes if, for example, he feels that he would be better off living with Dad for a few years.  As long as everyone agrees, the custody arrangement is flexible and the child’s wishes can carry as much weight as the adults give them.

Situation Two:  One Party Disagrees

In contested cases where the parties (and perhaps the child as well) do not agree on how to resolve the custody matter, then the matter will likely be decided by a judge in domestic court.  In North Carolina domestic cases, there is no specific age at which the child’s opinion must or may be considered.  The judge has no obligation to find out the child’s opinion, or honor it once given.  Instead, the judge has discretion to give the child’s wishes as much (or as little) weight as he finds appropriate under the circumstances.  Judges are tasked solely with determining what is in the child’s best interests, not what the parents or the child prefer.

In determining what is in the child’s best interests, judges look at a number of factors, including the parents’ physical and mental health, the provision of affection and stability, sensitivity to the child’s needs, and the nature of communications between the parents.  Since each judge has complete control to weigh and balance a number of factors, it is very difficult to determine whether the judge’s decision will mirror the wishes of the child.  This is true even if the child is 16 or older and expresses a strong preference; unlike many other states, the judge may determine that the child’s best interests are served by completely overriding the teen’s preference.

Although this standard may be harsh in some cases, the reality is that many judges exercise their discretion to consider more thoughtfully the reasonable wishes of a child as he or she gets older.  Judges are certainly smart enough to know that keeping a child in a home where he or she does not want to stay becomes more and more difficult as the child passes 14, 15, or 16 years old.  Therefore many judges give more consideration to a teenager’s wishes when those wishes correspond to the emotional needs and relationship issues of the teenager.  The bottom line is that, in cases where a judge must determine custody, the judge is bound only by the best interests of the child, and will heed the child’s input only to the extent that it illuminates what is in his or her best interests.

Link

How to Help Your Attorney Help You in Family Law

This is a really insightful article from About the Children with really smart advice about how to work with your lawyer to make things go as smoothly as possible in your case.  The keys to a good, productive attorney-client relationship are respect and honesty.  Making sure your attorney has all of the information he or she needs, even if it could be damaging to your case, is very important.