The Importance of Being Honest with Your Family Law Attorney

More often than not, people hire family law attorneys during a difficult time in their lives. Understandably, some of the facts that may lead you to seek counsel may not be easy to discuss with an attorney. However, it is imperative for the attorney who is representing you to know all aspects of your case and for you to be honest with your divorce or family law attorney.

In the early stages of a case, the attorneys in our firm will often ask “What would the other party tell me about you if they were sitting in my office today?” The reason we ask this question is to find out any negative or difficult facts in a case that will likely come up during litigation. Your advocate counsel needs to be informed of all potential issues that you are aware of, so that we can properly advise you of what next steps should be taken to benefit you throughout your case. More importantly, if there is a “bad fact”, your attorney can address it proactively.  We will not judge you or think poorly of you but we do need to know of any issues which may negatively impact you in a divorce so we can assist you in addressing these issues.

An example of this would be if someone came into our office and admitted to being an alcoholic if they have minor children. With that knowledge, we can advise our client to seek treatment, attend meetings and hopefully be in a position to provide proof of a solid period of sobriety by the time this issue would make its way into court. If we are not made aware of this issue and/or if the first time we hear of this issue is in court from the other attorney or party, we will not be in a great position to defend this allegation or to show what steps have been taken to address this concern. In this example, if your attorney knows about your condition, she can be honest with the court about your issues and, more importantly, she can tell the court what you are doing (or have done) about it.  When your attorney knows all facts, good and bad she is able to control how the information gets into the court.

It is also important that you continue to update your attorney throughout your case, even if those updates are difficult to discuss. Using the example of the client who is an alcoholic, it may be the case that the client relapses during the pendency of the action and is too embarrassed to tell his/her counsel. The fact is, not telling your attorney “bad” facts is far worse than sitting through an uncomfortable conversation with your attorney about mistakes you have made. Once the information is disclosed, you and your attorney can brainstorm ways to address the issues. The court is likely to find out about it anyway.  You want your attorney to control how this information is presented to the court.  The only way for that to happen is for you to be 100% honest and open with your attorney.

There also may be situations where you do not want to disclose certain information.  Your conversations with your attorney are 100% protected by client confidentiality rules and your attorney must not reveal any information given to her in confidence.  However, if presented with all of the facts, your attorney can either discuss with you ways to protect this information, explain to you why it must be disclosed (in the instance of financial information) or, again, find the best way to disclose this information in a way that is most beneficial to you and your case.

As attorneys, we cannot protect clients from their actions that may negatively affect their case. If a client continues to take actions that negatively affect his/her case, despite the advice of his/her attorney, it may result in a situation where the attorney no longer believes they can represent that client’s interests. However, if clients are honest with us throughout the process and listen to the advice we give to them, we are in a better position to help advocate for our client’s interests.

If you wish to speak with an attorney about a difficult family matter, please feel free to call our office at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free consultation with one of our skilled attorneys.

Can My Spouse and I Use a Mediator Instead of Lawyers In Our Divorce?

Mediation - dispute resolution process.

Many people ask if they can use a mediator instead of lawyers in a divorce.  Recent changes by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, redefining the role of a mediator in a divorce action, have caused many people to ask this very question.  In order to determine what is right for you, an understanding of the difference between Lawyer-Mediator and Advocate Attorney is needed.

Typically, a mediator’s role has been to help parties find solutions to disputes from a neutral, third party perspective. Mediation is confidential and scheduled outside of court, so it aims to promote open, honest and unreserved discussion between the parties. Mediators can benefit parties in a divorce by helping suggest constructive alternatives to the positions of each of the parties and to help to find a reasonable solution based on the presentation by both parties. Mediators will sometimes prepare a short and neutral-toned memorandum of the agreement between the parties if agreements are reached. Then, the parties are responsible for ensuring that an agreement is drafted and submitted to the court so that it becomes an order of the court.

Recently, however, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has approved the expansion of the role of a lawyer serving as a mediator.  Specifically, “lawyer-mediators”, are now permitted to draft, modify or file documents confirming, memorializing, and/or implementing the parties’ mediated agreement.  In order to do so, the law requires that the lawyer-mediator maintain neutrality throughout the process and also have the written informed consent of the parties.

As this new rule is rolled out (effective date of July 1, 2017), it is important to understand that lawyer-mediators are not interchangeable with advocate counsel.

In fact, as part of the written “informed consent” that the lawyer-mediator must obtain the lawyer-mediator must inform the parties that it is important to seek independent legal advice before executing any documents prepared by the lawyer-mediator. This is done because the lawyer-mediator cannot assume an advocate role. Therefore, a mediator does not necessarily replace the need for an attorney to advocate for your interests.

By nature, mediators must be neutral.   Mediators are hired to help the parties reach an agreement and not advocate a certain theory or provide advice to the parties.  Therefore,  lawyer mediators may only perform these additional duties allowed under the new rule if it can be done without compromising his or her neutrality and so long as they do not assume an attorney-client relationship with either party.  This means that any document drafted by the lawyer-mediator would need to be a “neutral” document; that the lawyer-mediator shall not attempt to advance the interest of one party at the expense of the other party; and that the lawyer-mediator may not give legal advice to either or both parties while acting in that neutral capacity.

This can lead to issues however, because often times one or both parties do not understand all of the consequences of their decisions. An attorney acting as neutral mediator may attempt to explain these consequences to the parties in mediation but only if they can do so without giving legal advice, without acting as counsel for either party and without compromising his/her neutrality. Practically speaking, this is a very difficult task when many issues impact the parties differently in a family law matter. As is often the case in family law matters a question from one party may have an adverse effect on the other party.  How does a lawyer mediator answer questions without giving legal advice or advocating (albeit innocently) for one party or the other? At Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC, we believe mediation is a valuable tool and resource in many family law matters. As such, we often use the assistance of lawyer-mediators in cases where we need a neutral opinion on unresolved disputes.  However, at all points during the case, and during the mediation, our clients have an advocate who is consistently working to advance your interests and explain the consequences of your decisions.  This is not a benefit afforded to litigants who move forward with mediation without the benefit of advocate counsel.

Lawyer-mediators also cannot act on the behalf of a party in court, cannot assist the parties in court matters such as scheduling or procedure and cannot appear in court with the parties.  Many people are confused and intimidated by the court system.  Advocate counsel can assist you in all aspects related to the court system itself.

So, while lawyer-mediators may assist advocate attorneys greatly in family law matters, they have different roles than advocate attorneys and that should be well understood before the decision is made to use only one or the other.

If you have a family law matter that you wish to discuss with an advocate attorney at our firm, please do not hesitate to call our office at 414-258-1644 to set up a free consultation with one of the attorneys.

How to Stop a Divorce Bully!

Boss Shouting At Businesswoman Through Loudspeaker In OfficeIn the context of family law, especially in a divorce, some individuals may find that their former partner transforms into a divorce bully. A divorce bully is a spouse who exhibits bullying behavior during the process of divorce. This person may not have previously displayed bullying behavior during the marriage. This behavior may not rise to the level of domestic violence, but instead is more subtle. Bullying behavior may include: lying about past incidents in order to make the other partner look bad; threatening to take full custody of the parties’ children or withholding the children from the other party; isolating the other party from friends and family; withholding money or refusing to pay bills; removing the other person from or canceling insurance; cancelling cell phone service; or attempting to intimidate the other partner from hiring a lawyer. While being a victim to a divorce bully adds another dimension of stress to the divorce process, it is not necessarily dangerous or constitutes domestic abuse.  Therefore, it may be difficult to deal with.

Another tactic of a divorce bully that can be especially damaging is to attempt to rush the divorce proceeding. This can often result in an inequitable agreement at the expense of the victim. Most parties to want the divorce to be over as quickly as possible. At the same time, it is also important to take the time to ensure that all marital assets and debts are divided equitably, that maintenance is considered when appropriate, and that custody, placement and child support are determined accurately, and in the best interest of the children.

If you find yourself the victim of divorce bullying, there are some important steps to take to protect yourself and to minimize the damaging consequences. One step may simply be to take care of your own health, both physically and mentally. Seeking counseling is a good way to help you find ways to deal with this type of behavior and get you through your divorce.  Another step may be to set firm boundaries with the divorce bully. For example, inform the bullying partner in person and in writing to refrain from specific abusive behavior, such as showing up uninvited to your home, or involving your children in the details of the divorce. It can also be helpful to document specific incidents of bullying, including when the incident occurred, and the details of what happened.

Hiring an attorney can be the most effective way of stopping a divorce bully.  An attorney can intervene on your behalf – either with your spouse, the opposing attorney or by filing a motion with the court.  Also, an attorney can intervene on your behalf with third parties, if necessary (as in the case of insurance or creditors).  Lastly, an attorney can reassure you as to what may or may not happen (i.e. you will not lose your children!) and give you advice as to how to best deal with this behavior.

Mediation may also be a helpful option in diffusing the situation. Mediators are specially trained to help control tense and emotional situations of divorce without involving litigation. However, if the bullying has existed throughout the marriage, then mediation may be ineffective because of the lack of trust between the parties, and may legitimize an abusive viewpoint of the bullying partner.  Your attorney can discuss various options with you.

The law requires that each party enters into a settlement agreement freely, voluntarily, knowingly, and without threat or coercion. It is ok to slow down the divorce process in order to understand your agreement, seek the advice of an attorney, and to come to a final agreement that you can successfully follow. If you find yourself the victim of a divorce bully, call us at (414) 258-1644 to schedule a free initial office consultation to discuss your case.

What if I Am Unhappy With My Current Divorce Attorney?

If you are not satisfied or unhappy with your current attorney, you may have the option to hire a new attorney who would “substitute” into a case for your current attorney.

Typically, an unhappy client seeks new counsel while their current attorney is still retained. Clients seek new counsel for a number of reasons. One of the most common is because the client believes there has been a breakdown in the communication or relationship with their current attorney. The client then seeks the advice and counsel of a new attorney and if the client believes the new attorney would provide more suitable counsel, then they can hire this new attorney and the new attorney is “substituted” for the current attorney.

In Wisconsin, there is a formal process that your current attorney and the new attorney must go through in order to complete the substitution. A Substitution of Attorneys agreement is required. This agreement, or stipulation, must be signed by both the client and the former attorney and is typically prepared by the new attorney. If the client wishes, they do not need to communicate with their prior attorney at all. This can be handled strictly by the old and new attorney. However, the client can certainly tell their current attorney directly that they wish to substitute attorneys as well. Once this form is signed, it must be sent to the court and the court must also approve the substitution.

It is important to note that even if a substitution is approved by the client’s current attorney and then ultimately by the court, the client still must resolve all fees and costs associated with their prior attorney. In Wisconsin,  the previous attorney is entitled to a judgment for outstanding fees against client when a substitution occurs and sometimes they demand that this is stated in the Substitution of Attorneys form prior to signing same.

Also, there are instances where the court will not approve a substitution. For example, if there is an upcoming trial date and the new attorney would need an adjournment to give them time to prepare. Or, if there have been too many substitutions in the case already.

It is also important to note that there are drawbacks to substituting attorneys. The drawbacks include that a new attorney has to learn your case, essentially starting over, whereas your current attorney has your complete file and is more familiar with your case history. There are also costs associated with a new attorney: retainer fees, costs for having to have your file copied, and costs for completing the formal process of substituting the attorneys.

Despite the above drawbacks, creating and maintaining a healthy and working client/attorney relationship as you navigate through your case is often superior to the costs and drawbacks.

If you have any questions regarding substitution of attorneys or if you are seeking new counsel, please contact our office at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free initial office consultation or visit our website for more information.

4 Ways the Right Divorce Lawyer Can Make the Process Easier

Most people understand that, when they are going through a divorce, they need to have a good divorce lawyer on their side. After all, we all know someone who didn’t get the quality of representation they needed, and suffered heavy financial consequences – and perhaps even the loss of time with their children – because of it.

As important as it is to have a good divorce lawyer on your side, however, it’s also something that’s very convenient. That’s because part of a divorce attorney’s job isn’t just to ensure that your interests are protected, but also to make the process smoother.

Here are four quick ways that the right divorce lawyer can make things easier for you:

1. By looking out for your interests during your divorce proceedings. Beyond simply knowing the law, a good divorce attorney will learn about your situation, and your priorities, to make sure that they are properly represented. As tempting as it might be to simply work through a mediator, that person does not have your interests at heart and cannot work solely to protect your interests.  Alternatively, a divorce lawyer job is to advocate for their clients’ interests and help achieve clients’ goals.

 2. By understanding the nuances of divorce law. Given the complexity of different legal statutes, it’s probably not surprising that most of our clients aren’t very familiar with their rights during the divorce process. Having reviewed your case and gone through the process dozens of times before, a good divorce lawyer might be able to help you spot legal opportunities that you weren’t even aware of.  Although friends, family and coworkers may try to ‘help’ by sharing their own divorce stories, those stories may not be relevant to your situation and may only result in unrealistic expectations or misunderstanding of your legal rights and entitlements.

3. By negotiating with your spouse’s divorce attorney. Negotiating things like custody and placement of children and the division of property and debts between divorcing spouses can quickly become a personal and emotional process. Between seasoned attorneys who know their clients’ top priorities and goals; however, the process can often be handled much more quickly, calmly, and efficiently. This facet of what we do alone can dramatically decrease the stress and anxiety you feel during your divorce proceedings.

4. By keeping you calm during the legal divorce process. In the same way, your divorce attorney will have been through this process dozens (and maybe hundreds) of times before and they know what to expect, what’s reasonable, and where the major challenges are likely to lie. For that reason, they can help you remain calm and measured each step of the way, especially at times when you may feel that your spouse (or their attorneys) are being unreasonable.

Although you might wish to never need the services of a good divorce lawyer, when you do, it’s great to have the right team on your side. That’s because they won’t just give you a much better chance at finding the right financial and child-related terms that you’re looking for, but can make every step of the process easier, faster, and less emotionally taxing.

To schedule a free initial office consultation to discuss your divorce or alternatives, please contact us at 414-258-1644 or visit our website for further information.

Do I Need a Divorce Lawyer?

Our last post talked about how you can file for divorce by yourself.  The paperwork is easy and readily available at the courthouse or online.  But, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to hire a divorce attorney.  Of course, you are going to think that, as a divorce attorney, I am just trying to drum up business for myself or my colleagues.  However, I can tell you some of the horror stories of people who come to me after their divorce trying to “fix” their mistakes or address issues that they missed.  Sometimes, such as in the case of property division which is final upon divorce, these things simply cannot be corrected later and you will be out of luck and could cost yourself thousands of dollars.

Here are some situations where we absolutely advise you to hire a divorce lawyer.

1.        You don’t have an agreement with your spouse.  There is no getting around this one.  If you don’t have a complete agreement with your soon to be ex-spouse, your only option is negotiation and/or trial.  Without an experienced divorce attorney, you will not be aware of all of the options to be able to come up with a creative solution to settle your case.  We have been doing this a long time and will be able to pose a variety of options for you and to know what is reasonable in terms of settlement.  And, when all else fails, you must try your case to the judge.  There is no way that you can do yourself justice in this regard.  We know the law, the judges and the procedures.  Whatever you pay in attorneys fees, you could cost yourself in the long run in terms of what the court will award you at trial without an attorney.

2.       You have children.  In Wisconsin, there are three different issues related to children: custody, placement and child support, which can include the payment of children’s expenses.  There are many different options when it comes to placement and many factors which must be taken into consideration.  Therefore, by nature, custody, placement and child support can be complicated.  Without a specific divorce agreement, difficulties and problems may arise in the future.  An experienced divorce lawyer has handled enough of these cases to be able to point you in the right direction in terms of a placement order.  Even though we are not child or family therapists, we have some ideas about what works best for kids. We also have experience in the types of issues which can cause disputes between parents in the future and how to address those.

For example, I sometimes have people who don’t want to be away from their children for a long period of time so they come in and tell me they worked out a schedule in which the parents will alternate placement every other day.  This is a terrible schedule for most children!  The transitions are very disruptive to children and they are never able to get settled.  Or, similarly, parents come in and tell me they agreed to an alternating week or two week schedule.  Again, except for teenage children, this is not generally a good schedule.  Young children cannot handle being away from either parent for such a long time.  However, if you have never been divorced before, you may not realize this or you may not be aware of other (better) options for placement. An attorney can help you with this.

Another common issue which causes disputes is the payment of variable expenses or uninsured medical expenses for children.  Under a shared placement schedule in Wisconsin, variable expenses are shared. Medical expenses are always split. But, how does this work?  Not very well, actually.  Experienced attorneys have standard language or options to address the payment of these expenses and put into place a method which minimizes disputes in the future.  If you fail to specify how these expenses get paid, it will be difficult to enforce this order in the future which could cost you thousands of dollars.

Not having an attorney to guide you through these complicated issues can cause you to have disputes and problems down the road.  In the end, you may end up hiring an attorney anyway because you cannot resolve these problems yourself.

3.      You have assets with value.  Even if it is just house, there are numerous options when dealing with property.  Do you know all of the options you have and the bases you have to cover when awarding or selling real estate?  I had a situation once where the parties did their own divorce and simply agreed to sell the house and split the proceeds.  Later, the husband, who was living in the house, was failing to maintain it, refusing to cooperate with the sale process and stopped paying the mortgage.  Unfortunately, because their agreement was silent as to any of the specifics regarding the sale, there was little the Wife could do.  Eventually, the judge did step in at my request and ordered the Husband to vacate the house so it could be sold.  But, because the judgment did not indicate who would pay the mortgage during the sale process, she could not order him to make up those back payments.  A very costly mistake for my client.

If you have a business, investments and/or retirement accounts, there are various considerations which go into a divorce judgment regarding those assets such as value, taxes, capital gains, etc.  Even though an attorney is not an accountant or financial advisor, experienced divorce lawyers can navigate you through these waters.  Did you know there is a special type of order which is needed to divide a retirement account?  Again, if you try to save attorneys fees, you may just cost yourself more money down the road by missing a crucial point or dividing your property in a way that is financially harmful to yourself.

4.         There is abuse or a power imbalance between you and your spouse.  We are seeing more and more cases in which there is an abusive or controlling spouse.  If you are on the wrong end of this relationship, it is very difficult to stand up to this person and make good decisions for yourself.  Often times, even with lawyers, the abused or controlled spouse doesn’t want to fight and just wants to get it over with.  This can have a devastating financial impact on your or your children down the road.  A lawyer is a buffer and someone to stand up for you in these situations.  You are getting divorced to break away from this toxic relationship – don’t let your spouse poison your freedom by bullying you into leaving the marriage in a detrimental financial position just because he or she wears you down and you are not able to stand up to them.  A lawyer is there to protect your interests and fight for what you are entitled to – not what your spouse thinks you deserve.

5.        Your spouse is hiding assets/income or being dishonest.  An experienced divorce attorney will know where to look to uncover hidden assets or income.  They also will know how to conduct discovery in a way which does not rely solely on your spouse.  For example, attorneys can subpoena employers, bank accounts, etc.  A party cannot do that on their own.  For more information on this topic, see our website at Uncovering Hidden Assets in Divorce.

6.        Your spouse has an attorney.  You don’t absolutely need your own attorney but you do need to realize that your spouse’s attorney is only representing his or her interest.  People often try to minimize costs with only one lawyer and that can work if you are cooperating and are able to reach an agreement between yourselves.  However, if that is not the case, then you need your own attorney.  If you are uncomfortable or if you don’t agree to what is being proposed, you also need your own attorney.  Again, regardless of how nice or civil they are being to you, your spouse’s attorney can only represent their interest and cannot give you legal advice.  At your final hearing, the judge will question you extensively about your right to have your own attorney.  If you choose not to and later you determine that the agreement was not in your interest or more beneficial to your spouse, you will not be able to change your mind – especially in the case of property division or a waiver of maintenance.

There are other situations as well where you will be better off with an attorney.  I cannot cover them all in this article.  Just remember – if you are uncomfortable, overwhelmed or feel like you are getting the short end of the stick, consult with an attorney!  You may feel that you cannot afford the attorneys fees or simply don’t want to waste the money.  However, you need to ask yourself – what are you really saving if you cost yourself money with an unfair agreement or if you create a situation where you end up having to go back to court because of a deficient divorce judgment?  I have a saying – “don’t step on dollars to pick up pennies” which certainly applies in this situation.

If you have any questions or would like to meet with one of our lawyers for a free initial office consultation, please call us at 414-258-1644.  You can also visit our website for more information.

-Teri M Nelson

What To Expect From Your Divorce Consultation

In researching potential blog topics, I ran across an excellent article written for the State Bar of Michigan: The Initial Consultation with Your Divorce Attorney: What to Expect When You Don’t Know What to Expect .   This article is so well written and so thorough that I really don’t have much to add.  But, I will summarize and comment.  I will also discuss in terms of our office and our procedures at Nelson & Davis, LLC.

The first topic discussed is the article is the initial contact and information you need to provide.  When you call our office, we will ask for some basic information such as what type of action you have or may have, what county you reside in and whether an action has already been started.  This is important because it assists our intake coordinators in determining whether we can help you at all.  We do not practice in certain counties and people sometimes are confused as to what constitutes a “family action”.  Our office only handles divorce and paternity cases.

If we determine that your case is something we can help you with, we will tell you what our retainer is and ask you whether you would like to schedule an office appointment.  We don’t want you to be surprised by our retainer only after you take the time to come to our office and we don’t want to waste your time or ours if you don’t want to, or can’t, pay our fees.  We also will only do in-office appointments and not telephone consultations except in rare cases.  There are some attorneys who will do telephone consultations but we find it works best if we meet potential clients in person.

If you decide you want to schedule an appointment, we then ask your name and the name of your spouse or other party.  This is crucial information and sometimes people do not want to give it to us but we will not schedule an appointment without it.  We keep that information confidential but we must determine if we have a conflict of interest.  The most common conflict is that we have already met with the other party.  In that case, we cannot meet with you.  We do not disclose that fact (nor will we ever disclose that to the other party if he/she contacts us) but simply will tell you that we cannot meet with you because we have a conflict.  However, there may be other conflicts.  One of our attorneys may know you or your spouse/the other party in another way and may feel it would be a conflict to represent you.  Or, we may have represented someone connected to you such as your employer, an employee, a relative or a business associate.  Those individuals are a great source of referrals for us and it usually is not a problem but, depending on the facts, we also may consider it a potential conflict.  Whenever there is a potential ethical issue for us, we try to err on the side of caution.

When you come in for your appointment, we will also ask you to fill out an intake questionnaire.  We will ask you to provide more specific information including your income and assets.  The reason for this is so we can provide you more detailed information about what to expect in your case.  All of this information is kept strictly confidential.  The article does a very good job in describing the type of information you will be asked to provide and why.  Keep in mind, if you are uncomfortable in providing any of this information, simply discuss that with the attorney you are meeting with.

The one difference or problem I have with the article is that it indicates that the attorney will be giving you advice at your initial consultation.  This is not true! Until we are actually retained, we cannot provide you with legal advice.  However, what we will do is review the facts of your case, tell you what the law is, what the process is, what you might expect to happen and what we can do for you.

In our firm, it is our goal to provide you with realistic expectations about your case.  Keep in mind, we may tell you things that you are not going to be happy with.  However, we are going to give you an honest evaluation of your case.  It does not help you if we fill you with unrealistic expectations only for you to lose or be disappointed later.  If you want the kind of attorney who is simply going to do whatever you want, then we are not the firm for you.  Be forewarned though – hiring that kind of attorney is only going to cost you attorneys fees and disappointment later.

We have some other blog posts which you may find helpful which discuss what type of attorney to look for, when to start looking for a divorce attorney and what questions you can ask at you initial consultation (Archives – May, 2012).

If you have any questions or would like to meet with one of our lawyers for a free initial office consultation, please call us at 414-258-1644.  You can also visit our website for more information.