Why I Practice Family Law

Have you ever had someone need your help and you were able to help them? Maybe it was something big like saving someone’s life… or maybe it was something small like helping someone lift their heavy bag into the overhead bin. Maybe a friend didn’t know how to get their little one to sleep at night. Or you gave your son or daughter a hug when they needed it most.

Wasn’t that an amazing feeling? I bet you felt really great. That’s how I feel when I am helping clients through their divorce. It’s amazing.

But, I didn’t start my legal career intending to be a divorce lawyer. In fact, when I went to law school (1986 to 1989) I didn’t even study “family law”. I wanted to be an international corporate commercial lawyer wearing a pin-striped three-piece-suit and putting together the big international deals. My plans were scuttled when I entered the real world. I found corporate law unrewarding. I am not dissing corporate lawyers but for me it was painfully boring. It seemed the only lawyers having fun were the big wigs at the top and I didn’t want to work 30 years before I enjoyed my job. So I searched for something more exciting. Going to court seemed like more fun but when I met my first divorce client, I knew I had found my passion.

You might think it was the court room drama, or the passionate pleas for custody of a child, or untangling the financial webs of a family business that attracted me, but no, it was the crying.

I have clients cry in my office almost every day. And no… they aren’t crying because my fees are too high… they are crying because going through a divorce means their whole world has been turned upside down. They need help.

If you are divorcing, maybe you know what I mean. Maybe you feel the “Hollywood dream” of living happily ever-after has been destroyed and you feel like are a failure. When you hear the phrase “from a broken family” doesn’t it just make your stomach flip?… now your kids are from..one of those. The fear is overwhelming. How will you pay the bills? What will your relationship with your kids be like? How will the rest of the world judge you?

It’s at this point – when clients are feeling their worst - that they step into my office for the first time. “Wow!” I thought to myself in my early days as a divorce lawyer, “What an opportunity. I can be my client’s white knight rescuing them from the despair of divorce!” I felt I could give them the answers they wanted and steer them toward resolution of the legal issues, and into their new life. It felt great. I was in control and helping.

Today, I still feel great helping my clients through their difficult days but now I do it in a different way. I am not a white knight. I don’t presume to know what is best for my clients. Instead, I help them discover their core concerns so they can make priorities and find creative solutions that work best for their whole family. I give them a wonderful gift by referring them to other professionals who can help them such as a divorce coach (to work through the emotional issues), a financial specialist (to resolve the property and support issues) and a parenting coach (to develop the best possible parenting plan). I give them the support they need so they can get through their divorce with the least amount of pain (financially and emotionally). I help them analyze their choices, explain the range of legal results, help them resolve difficult issues and I ensure they have a legally binding agreement when it’s all done. 

One of my brothers is a pediatrician. He says he does it because he loves helping children heal. Wouldn’t that feel good… to help a sick child feel better?

I practice family law because I love being able to help people get better too. My clients may start off crying but in the end they will have closed the door on their past, survived the transition (what I call the "hallway of hell") and they will be ready to open a new door to their future. Wow. I am a lucky guy to be part of that kind of healing… and it sure beats “corporate boardroom boredom”. (By the way, try saying that ten times really fast. “corporate boardroom boredom, corporate boardroom boredom, corporate boardroom boredom….whew).

Gay Marriage and Gay Divorce

gay marriage cakeGays in many of the states in the U.S. cannot get married unlike gay couples in Canada. In Canada, gays have all the same rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to marriage and divorce. The law in Canada was changed in 2005.

The law varies from state to state. Marriage licenses are issued in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire (begins January, 2010) but not in any other states. California is in a bit of a mess. They passed a law allowing same sex marriage but Proposition 8 squashed that development. The National Conference of State Legislatures has the details of the law on a state by state basis.

In Canada, our constitution defines divorce as being a federal power so the law is the same throughout Canada.

So, what does this mean for gay couples wishing to marry in a state that does not allow it?

Gideon Alper notes in his blog called Gay Couples Law Blog that some gay couples come to Canada to get married if it is illegal to do so in their home state.  That makes sense.

As Nancy Van Tine notes in her blog, Maine recently rejected same sex marriage, but since Canada is just a quick flight away from Maine (or long drive), it is easy for a gay couple in Maine to slip up to Canada to get married and all is well. Right?

The problem is that not all gay marriages are "happily ever after" either. Divorce happens... 

If you can't get married in a state, then you can't get divorced there either. So, if you are a gay couple who now wants a divorce in Maine, you can't get it. You might think a quick trip back to Canada would be all that's necessary. Not so fast! That won't work either!

You have to have been living in one province in Canada for at least one year to be able to ask for a divorce in that province. So, you are caught in what Barbara Findlay calls in her article in Lawyers' Weekly a "divorce catch-22". Married, wanting a divorce, and you can't get one.

The law is intended to dispense "justice" yet once again the frailties of the law are obvious. If you're a same sex couple living in Maine, you can get married in Canada but you are stuck married unless you move to another state or to Canada. Can you imagine?

Weird eh? 

Is Your Divorce Driving You Crazy?

Are you going through a divorce? Do you sometimes feeling like you are losing your mind? Maybe you can't concentrate or you are constantly feeling like you are about to cry? Maybe you are drinking too much? Or working too hard? Or shopping too much? Maybe you have been willing to try anything to cope and now you worry you might have a problem... maybe even an addiction.

I remember when I went through my own divorce I felt all alone and  my whole world had been turned upside down. I was scared and sad and I am a divorce lawyer! I remember meeting with clients and struggling to keep myself from exploding in tears. To say the least, it was a tremendously stressful time. I thought I was going crazy.

It is normal to resort to unhealthy coping techniques when going through a divorce. Almost everyone does it at least once so don't beat yourself up. When you drink too much or shop too much or do some other behavior, it distracts you from the pain of your divorce. Nobody can blame you for slipping off the wagon once in a while. When it becomes an addiction, you have a bigger problem though. Either way, you need help and you need to develop healthy coping techniques.

If you fear that you have a addiction problem, Robert L. Mues has put together a list of links to 26 different assessment tools in his recent blog. Check it out! He lists assessment tools for depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, compulsive shopping and 22 other issues. They are all available on the internet and are a good start to dealing with any issues you might have in your life. Get professional help if you feel you may have an addiction. You can't deal with it alone. Start with your family doctor. You can't conquer addictions alone. Alcoholics Anonymous is classic example. They use peer support (meetings) and the buddy system to support those who want to kick their addiction. 

Maybe you don't have an addiction and you just are struggling through the normal emotions of your divorce. It's a difficult time for anyone.  We recommend to all of our clients they work with a Divorce Coach. It is normal to grieve the end of your marriage and a Divorce Coach will help you work through the normal emotions inherent to your divorce faster, so you can get on with your life.

Lawyers are not trained to help you work through the emotional journey. We want you to get the support you need so you can get through the emotional journey more quickly and efficiently. 

Your Divorce Coach will help you find healthy coping techniques that will work for you. Maybe it's getting exercise, eating good food, searching out support from friends and family, reading inspiring books, journaling or some other technique. Your Divorce Coach will give you ideas, homework and help you move though the emotional stages of divorce so you can get on with your life faster.

A Divorce Coach is not just if you are suffering from mental illness. That's a therapist. A Divorce
Coach is for anyone going through a divorce who is human and experiences emotions. Hmmmm Does that fit you? 

From a lawyer's point of view, I want all my clients to work with a Divorce Coach so that the emotions inherent to your divorce won't sidetrack the negotiations. I want you to have the best chance of negotiating an excellent settlement.

Your Divorce Coach will teach you the stages of divorce, ways to close the door on the past, how to cope with the transition, ways of communicating effectively with your spouse and help you look forward to a new life.

The bottom line: I have never had a client say they regret the money or time they spent with their Divorce Coach. Everyone has thanked me for the recommendation. Now, just take a deep breath and do it.

Scheduling Events When Divorced

CalendarHave you been unaware of an upcoming school event (like the Christmas concert) or an extracurricular event because your spouse forgot to tell you? Isn't it frustrating? And disappointing? It's also embarrassing when you drop the ball and forget to pass on important information.

Scheduling events, holidays and other activities for children can be difficult for any family, but the challenge is even greater for divorced parents. Often parents who have separated or divorced have difficulty communicating with each other at the best of times. Living in separate homes can make it even worse.  But you know that already if you're divorced. So what's the answer?

You need a system.

For many years, I have encouraged clients whose separation is fresh and raw to use a communication book. One of the parents purchases a blank book which is used to discuss any proposed changes to the access schedule, illnesses of the children, milestones, accomplishments, discipline problems and upcoming events in the children's lives. I encourage the parents to decorate the book with photos of the children on the outside of the book (to remind the parents to stay focused on their children's best interests) and to plan on giving the book to their children when they are adults (to encourage the parents to treat each other respectfully and politely in the book since their children will read it one day).

A high tech modern version of the communication book is Our Family Wizard. This is an on-line  calendar and communication tool available through the Internet. It is amazing. You can communicate upcoming changes to the schedule, health concerns, financial issues and any other issues related to your children through your own private website set up for this purpose. Older children can even be given access to the site as can any other third parties agreed to by you and your spouse (mediator, parenting coach, lawyers, grand parents). The cost is $99.00 per parent per year. They even have "scholarships" to reduce or eliminate the costs for deserving families. Third party access is free. Check out Our Family Wizard.

A free option is Google Calendar. It does not have all the bells and whistles of "Our Family Wizard" because it isn't designed for separated families, but it is free. A calendar is set up over the Internet with access restricted to you and your spouse or third parties agreeable to the parents. It's private and available wherever you can access the Internet. You can post upcoming events on the calendar such as the next hockey tournament or dance recital so everyone knows about it in advance.

Ideally, its best if you can communicate openly with one another via meetings, telephone calls or emails but often this is impossible especially immediately after the separation. The emotions are too hot for direct communication. So, try some other system.

Of course, a system works only if you work the system. Even if your spouse doesn't keep you informed or is unreliable, just take the high road, and do it anyway. Some of us are planners and some of us aren't planners. Such is life. Do it anyway.  

Whether you use the old fashioned communication book, Our Family Wizard, Google Calendar, emails, meetings or phone calls, find a way to communicate respectfully and in a timely manner. If you don't make an effort, your children will suffer. Your children deserve parents who will put aside their own personal feelings toward each other and find a way to communicate with each other, for the children's sake... and you don't want to miss another Christmas concert!

Deciding Whether to Vaccinate for H1N1

We are experiencing a pandemic of H1N1 influenza worldwide. As a result, governments around the world are asking everyone H1N1 vaccineto become vaccinated. Kysa Crusco of New Hampshire has recently done an excellent blog about this issue from an American perspective.

Parents everywhere are wondering  "should I vaccinate my child?"  My own opinion is that the benefits to yourself and society far outweigh the risks. I believe you should bare the long lines and get it done.

I recommend you read more about the issue. The Simcoe County Health Unit has an excellent website with information about clinics in the Barrie area and other information about the issue. I especially like the fact sheet. The Government of Canada also has a great website with information about H1N1 too.

I believe that all of us should become vaccinated, not only to protect ourselves from illness but to minimize the spread of the virus to other people, some of whom might die from it. I feel it is my obligation to the Canadian society to be immunized even though the likelihood of a serious bout of flu is minimal. In fact, I believe so strongly about this issue, I have given my staff up to five hours off work with pay so that they can get their H1N1 vaccination shot, should they choose to do so.

That's my opinion but vaccination is voluntary. You have to decide for yourself and your children whether to get vaccinated.

If you are separated or divorced, you should consult with your ex spouse before making this type of decision. That is, if your ex has any involvement in the children's lives and you can discuss issues without a battle.

I always remind my clients ACBD: "Always Consult Before Deciding".

If you share joint custody with your ex, you have an obligation to make all major decisions affecting your children together. This includes major medical decisions.

Whether to vaccinate your child is a "major decision" requiring you to discuss it  and decide with your co-parent, if you share joint custody. 

I suggest you call or email your ex and offer these links so your ex can become informed too. Avoid it becoming a power struggle. Stick to the facts and the best interests of your children.

Even if you don't share joint custody, it is a good idea to consult with your ex before proceeding so that your ex spouse feels involved. Your children benefit from having two involved parents and participation in decision-making helps make a parent feel involved.

If you believe that consulting with your ex will lead to a battle and you have sole custody, you can make the decision alone. It is important to minimize conflict, for your children's sake, so avoid the conversation.

Now... go wash your hands and try to stay healthy!

Ten Reasons a Pre-Nuptial Agreement May Be Unenforceable

Dick Price, in his recent blog, lists ten reasons why a pre-nuptial agreement might not be enforceable. He quotes Stephen Worrall from his blog. An "unenforceable" agreement means it's not worth the paper it's written on! The courts will not enforce the terms of the agreement. You should use the agreement to start a fire because it's otherwise useless.

Just tear it up!contract torn up

 Here is their list

* No written agreement
* Not properly executed
* You were pressured
* You didn't read it
* No time for consideration
* Invalid provisions
* False information
* Incomplete information
* No independent counsel
* Unconscionability

Although Dick and Stephen are writing about Texas and Georgia law, the same is true for Ontario.

The most important aspect of a marriage contract or pre-nuptial contract to ensure it is enforceable is that the negotiations are done properly. Courts like to respect contracts but only if both parties knew what they were doing when they signed the contract and did it voluntarily. A marriage contract or pre nuptial agreement or co-habitation agreement is really just a contract between two people so is treated the same way by the judges.

There should be full disclosure of all assets and income for both parties. In fact, I list the major assets and income in the agreement itself so there is no question that it was disclosed. If assets are not fully listed, it is possible that your spouse may say "If I knew my spouse was worth so much money, I would not have signed the agreement".

I also strongly recommend that both parties have independent legal advice. Otherwise, your spouse might try to wiggle out of the agreement on the basis of "I didn't understand  all that legal mumbo jumbo."

Ontario courts are certainly willing to respect pre-nuptial agreements regarding property issues. A typical agreement might say "property in my name is mine, property in my spouse's name is my spouse's property". These types of agreements are usually respected if the agreement has been entered into voluntarily and there has been full disclosure.

The courts are less willing to respect an agreement that results in the waiver of spousal support. Judges have a difficult time seeing one spouse impoverished when the other is wealthy. If they can find a way to set aside an agreement that waived spousal support, they often will do it.

The best advice about pre-nuptial agreements is talk to a lawyer and do it properly.