10 Questions To Ponder Before Your Initial Divorce Consultation  

breakup-908714_1280Heather and Jessica's blog- consultTomorrow, Jessica Perroni is appearing on “The Jury Is Out” on KVIG Radio to discuss this…

By: Jessica Perroni and Heather White

  1. What percentage of your cases are in the county where I live?

Generally speaking, if you are planning to file for divorce, you will most likely file in the county that you and your spouse reside (assuming you both reside in the same county). Hiring an attorney that practices in that county can be helpful because that attorney is likely to have familiarity with the Courts in that county.  This translates to having an attorney with experience in the Courts of YOUR county: she is accustomed to local policies, procedures, and rules, and is acquainted with local Court staff, experts, mediators, counselors, etc. An attorney with this type of familiarity can be advantageous compared to an attorney who has limited or no experience in your county.

  1. As a stay-at-home mom/dad, does this affect my financial outcome of the divorce?

In Texas, unless you have a pre-marital agreement that says otherwise, all income earned during the marriage, by either spouse, is considered the property of both spouses, even if only one spouse technically earned the income. This is true for all income, no matter how it was earned, or where it was deposited. For example, income earned from a rental home, or income deposited into a retirement account is the property of both spouses and is subject to division upon divorce.

Unfortunately, however, Texas does not have alimony. However, in Texas, a spouse may be entitled to spousal maintenance, which usually comes in the form of installment payments made by one spouse to the other after divorce for a very limited period of time. The caveat to spousal maintenance is that the amount is capped, there is no guarantee that a spouse will receive maintenance post-divorce; and thus, it should never be relied upon. Being a stay-at-home parent, by itself, does not qualify one for spousal maintenance. In general, the law in Texas is going to require a stay-at-home parent to find work unless the estate is large enough to sustain the stay-at-home option post-divorce.

  1. What can I do to mitigate attorney’s fees?

Be organized. Your attorney will need to know the details of your finances, have access to your personal documents, and lots, and lots of additional information. Your attorney will ask for it and anticipate you will provide it in a timely manner – so provide it! When you provide any information to your attorney, provide it in an organized manner and in an electronic format, such as a thumb drive or in an email attachment, rather than in multiple emails.

Be patient. If you and your attorney have effectively communicated and decided upon a strategy for your case, keep in mind this can often take time to execute. Remember to consider that there are multiple parties and persons involved in this process, so it can take time for the process to play out and your attorney to accomplish his or her job. Your attorney has an ethical duty to keep you updated during the process. Therefore, generally speaking, no news from your attorney is just that, no news. Unless you have new information to provide your attorney, calling and/or emailing your attorney everyday will do nothing but increase your anxiety and your bill. While your attorney loves speaking to you on a daily basis, you won’t love it when you see your monthly bill.

Be prepared. Don’t send numerous, daily emails or text messages to your attorney.  Save up your questions in one email, one phone conference, or one meeting so that you can avoid follow up communications when possible. Prepare your goals and expectations so that you can effectively communicate the same to your attorney. During the divorce process, there are many facets that you may not have control of, being prepared can help.

  1. What percentage of your cases are family law?

It is important to hire an attorney that has experience in divorce. This sounds trivial, but would you see a brain surgeon for your heart problem? We would not. The same analysis should apply to your divorce. When choosing the “right” attorney, you should choose one that fits you. The fact of the matter is, you don’t necessarily need a “bulldog,” a 50-year experienced divorce attorney, or the “best divorce attorney in town” [even though we are]. What you need is someone who will listen to you, someone you feel comfortable with, someone who practices majority (if not exclusively) family law, and most importantly, someone you can trust.

In addition, to skill, you want an attorney who is empathetic to you and can offer valuable life advice. While you may need a divorce attorney during this difficult time in your life, you also need a counselor at law. Does your case require attention to sensitive topics? For example, is your spouse an addict or have they committed adultery? Are your children having a tough time with this transition? Is CPS involved? Do you have a complicated estate that needs expert help to divide? If so, ask your prospective divorce attorney if they have experience in working with these sensitive topics. While an attorney with a “bulldog” reputation can be beneficial in a courtroom, this does not necessarily aid your transition during this difficult process.

  1. What is your retainer and when do you require replenishment?

Most divorce attorneys require a retainer to secure services. Most people have never had to pay a retainer of any kind, so they think. In reality, a retainer is sort of like a Toll Tag account/piggy bank. You have to pay a certain amount up front, and each month, your account is deducted depending on how many tolls you drive through. When your up-front deposit is depleted, you have to replenish. That’s a retainer. Once you’ve decided on an attorney that you like, make sure you understand in full detail your financial obligations and expectations with regard to payment of a retainer and replenishment of the same.

  1. How do you decide what to charge me?

It varies by attorney. Generally speaking, attorneys charge you based on the actual costs and time spent on your case. For example, some attorneys charge in increments of time such as fifteen minutes, or six minutes, or twelve minutes . . .  Essentially, every time your attorney or a staff member performs any work on your case, you are charged for the amount of time spent each time, which is multiplied by the attorney’s or staff member’s billable rate. A billable rate is the amount of money each attorney and staff member at a law office charges per hour, and it is typically based on experience.

  1. What does “custody” really mean? And, what the heck is a “primary” parent?

Technically, the Texas Family Code [i.e. the rules and laws we are required to follow] rarely refers to the word “custody,” but it is often utilized colloquially. Instead of formally using the word “custody,” Texas law focuses on parenting plans that are comprised of three major components. The first component is called “conservatorship,” which is the legal custody of a child. Conservatorship defines which parent(s) can make decisions related to their children, for example, their education, health, residency, etc. The second component is called “possession and access,” which is the physical custody of a child. Possession and access defines when each parent will have physical custody of their child. The third component is called “support,” which includes child support and medical support.

A “primary” parent does NOT mean that such parent is the primary decision maker for the child. If one parent is designated as the “primary” parent, this simply means that such parent has the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child.

  1. What are the pros and cons between the Court deciding my case versus reaching an agreement? Where does mediation apply in all of this?

There are not many pros for allowing the Court to decide your case, but sometimes, it is inevitable and necessary. Reaching an agreement with your spouse, whether informally, through attorneys, or through alternative methods, such as mediation, is often preferred and recommended because in such instances the spouses retain control of the major decisions that divorce requires. As soon as two spouses enter a Courtroom, they lose complete decision making power and control, and instead hand this ability and right over to the Court. Mediation is a common alternative dispute resolution tool used in divorce. Mediation is helpful when the spouses have reached an impasse, either with or without Attorneys, and need a neutral, third party mediator to guide them to an agreement. However, in some instances, agreements cannot be reached and Court intervention is necessary, especially when family violence is involved.

  1. What is collaborative law? How is collaborative law different than mediation? Is my case a good candidate for collaborative law?

Check out our link, “What is collaborative law?” at www.nataliegregg.com:

“Very simply, collaborative law is a legal process through which divorcing spouses agree to settle matters privately and outside the courtroom from the beginning.” – Natalie Gregg

Many people wonder what the difference is between collaborative law and mediation. Collaborative law is a way to get divorced; whereas, mediation is a way to reach an agreement. Collaborative law often uses mediation, but mediation, by itself, is not collaborative law.

Whether or not your case is a good candidate for collaborative law is a complex analysis and depends on many variables, including but not limited to your relationship with your spouse, your goals, your interests, your estate, and the unique intricacies of your case. For example, if you and your spouse cannot agree on the color of the sky, collaborative law is probably not the best option for you.

  1. Can I represent myself in my divorce?

“Did you know it is legal in Texas to remove your own appendix? Well, it is, but I would not do it.” – Judge Mark Rusch of the 401st Judicial District Court, Collin County, Texas.  Another famous quote (by anonymous): “A lawyer who represents themselves has a fool for client.”

Defining a Complex Divorce: There is No “TRY”— only “DO”

Complex divorce- loveThere is no TRY in divorce.  That doesn’t stop clients from trying to fix their own problems before even asking for help.  When a client walks into my office for a first consult with a printed spreadsheet detailing the division of the estate, I am impressed and worried at the same time.  He/She will proudly explain to me that “everything is decided.  All you have to do is draft it.” Famous last words.

This same client will explain that even though their estate may look complicated, it’s not.  Even though their spouse may seem needy, hateful and strange, they are not.  They might even brag, “This is the easiest divorce you will ever have.  I bet we’ll never even have to talk again.”  We can TRY.  But, I have a sneaking suspicion, that what we DO it, things may not seem so simple.  I am a person who enjoys efficiency and streamlining.  Thus, when I define a divorce as complex, there is a good reason.  I refuse to over-promise and under-deliver.  So, ladies and gentlemen, here is the not-so-scientific formula in life to define a complex divorce:

People part-

  1. Can you tell me in three words, why the other party is crazy?
  2. Are you or opposing party psychologically diagnosable?
  3. Is parental alienation occurring?
  4. Have there been one or more stays in rehab or a mental institution by children or parties?
  5. Is there a history or pattern of family violence, child abuse or neglect?
  6. If you had to add the LPC’s and Ph.D’s on this case, is the number greater than 2?

Money Part

  1. Do we have assets with difficult values to assign?
  2. Are we dividing special or hard to value “stuff”?
  3. Are you or your spouse obsessed with the fact that there are hidden assets?
  4. Are you uncertain the nature of the asset- when or how you acquired it?
  5. Is there a business interests to divide?
  6. Do you have too much? Too little?
  7. Has there been fraud or a whiff of bad faith money transactions?
  8. Does lifestyle conflict with the alleged income?

High conflict personalities gravitate to complex divorce. Likewise, if your spreadsheet doesn’t make sense to both parties, then we have a problem.  I think that most people like simplicity in theory, but in practice, life gets in the way.  Nobody wants to self-identify as “complex divorce.”  But then again, nobody wants the check-the-box route either.

As a divorce client, challenge yourself to DO rather than TRY, to trust your gut. When the value for an asset feels wrong, or the narratives of your children feel too polished, question them.  DO ask the tough questions and get it right the first time.  DO trace funds and get psychological evaluations if they shed light on a dark tunnel.  Don’t TRY to brush things under the rug- whether for budgetary reasons or to avoid confrontation.

Your divorce is your first and best bite at the apple, so assess it properly.  And remember: just because your divorce is complex, this doesn’t mean the rest of your life will be.

 

Top 10 Parenting Tips and Quips from Family Court Judges and Attorneys

Mean JudgeOne of my favorite Collin County judges enjoys admonishing clients at most hearings involving children of the following: “The most important parenting decision that you make is the person you choose to have sex with.”  After that, the rest is history.

I have compiled a list of my top ten favorite phrases that family court judges and attorneys alike use in our daily life to explain the phenomenon of parenting:

  1. Shoes come in pairs.
  2. Takes two to tango.
  3. You choose her/him.
  4. Apples don’t fall far from the tree.
  5. Crazy is as crazy does.
  6. A one-night stand can last a lifetime.
  7. At some point, it was LOVE, or something close.
  8. Sex is a moment. Parenting is a lifetime.
  9. If he wasn’t that great after a few drinks, imagine parenthood.
  10. Don’t let your bad choice hurt your child’s future.

I challenge you to be prepared for this one-liners delivered in your direction from the witness box or being lectured to you by the judge post-hearing. That way, you won’t be as insulted/shocked when delivered in your general direction.  Advice for processing these comments?  Do not respond with argument or explanation as this may not end well.

Beware of Modifications: Pandora’s Box

Nobody starts anything hoping to fail.  Especially in litigation, we strategize, project and predict the outcome before even filing many times. This rings true especially in family law modifications- where we are seeking to change the terms of custody, child support or access in suits affecting parent-child relationships.  In Modifications we are potentially opening Pandora’s Box.

Opening Pandora’s Box refers to getting into a situation over which one has very little control over. Sometimes, we cannot predict how the dominoes will fall, one-by-one, and at times inadvertently hit a target seemingly free from this pathway. So, when I review an egregiously terrible Final Decree (not written by my firm of course), either by drafting or merit, and the client pandora_box_by_shadertattoo-d6fl4afwants to disembowel the order, I must ask the client: “are you ready to rumble?”

There is nothing simple or black and white about proving a “material and substantial change.” Conversely, when you open the door to this pathway of missteps, you send an invitation to the opposing side to join you in this Molotov cocktail tossed into a sea of gasoline contest. Beware. Expect salacious allegations, tit-for-tat, creative evidence, and probably a Temporary Restraining Order to bootstrap the mess into a decipherable, legitimate problem.

Many family lawyers will over-promise and under-deliver to lure clients into modification.  It’s your last glimmering hope to right the wrongs of your past.  Yet, it could result in a lawyer tab with a lot of commas and many zeros. Expensive.

If you open the door, you send a written, flaming invitation to challenge even the good parts of your underlying order.  Those well-written, solid terms that you wanted to retain are now subject to argument.  I call this decree erosion. While you perceived that you were merely tweaking the terms, everything is now at stake, and even the good language may accidentally erode in the wake of the cleansing the bad.

I am not writing to discourage modifications with merit.  I am merely encouraging clients to engage in a good self-examination to analyze whether modification is your best path.  In fact, 50% of my business entails modifications of orders in family law, so I would be a hypocrite to suggest that they are useless or wrong.  However, after defending against those unmeritorious modifications, I highly recommend asking the following questions:

  1. Is there a true “material and substantial change” since the last order?
  2. Am I filing within one year of Final Order? If so, there are heightened pleading requirements. Such as, “an imminent threat to the safety and welfare of a child” or an instance where a child above the age of 12 confers with the court to discuss choice of primary parent).
  3. Am I attempting to create new evidence to justify modification?
  4. Does this modification serve my child(ren)’s best interests?

People spend more time creating a dating profile, analyzing the terms of a home refinance or a car purchase sometimes than diving off the cliff to modification.  I merely want to caution and educate the world about modifications.  And just think for a moment of Pandora’s Box.

10 Reasons that You Should Not Represent Yourself in Divorce: Doing it Right the First Time and the Pitfalls of “No Contest” Divorces

Family lawyer

There are somethings you can afford to cross your fingers and hope to get right without much effort.  Divorce is not one of them.  Too often, I get hired to “fix” the wrongs of a couple who thought (admirably so), that they would agree to all the terms of the divorce, only to wind up three to six months now in the office of the divorce lawyer that they never intended on using in the first place.  Why does this happen?

Just like I would never do surgery on myself, I would never suggest the do-it-yourself divorce.  A do-it-yourself divorce may be so attractive and seemingly inexpensive- especially at time when money is the commodity that we are fighting over.  I tell potential clients that walk through my door, “Whether you have one cent one million, you still need an attorney to represent you.”  The following are the reasons why:

  1. Parenting plans are hard to draft and to understand until you put them into practice. If you lock into a schedule for access, if may be unenforceable later on, or worse yet, not in your child’s best interests.
  2. In Texas, beware: to change an order in less than one year of the date of finalizing the divorce, you have a high threshold to show imminent harm to the safety and welfare of the children if the child remains in the primary custody of the other parent.
  3. You can forfeit assets that you didn’t know existed.
  4. You can accidentally assume tax-burdened debt and be liable for your ex’s creditors.
  5. Although there are guidelines for child support and spousal maintenance, there are many exceptions to the rules.
  6. Your relationship may (and odds are will) change with your spouse after the divorce. What seemed reasonable on date of divorce may be unfathomable due to remarriage, new conflict, and changed relationship dynamics.
  7. The check-the-box pro se (Latin for unrepresented litigant) forms through the counties’ law libraries and websites are not designed for anything custom. They lack the level of detail that most clients need.  Often times, I’ve seen petitions and decrees that are self-contradictory, and must be rewritten by an attorney to remedy the errors, costing more than if you hired a lawyer to do it the right way to begin with.
  8. Modifications of Suit Affecting Parent-Child Relationships (if you want to change orders) are expensive and high conflict.
  9. Sometimes we make bad choices when we are sad, lonely and ready to end the conflict. This is the perfect storm for being “too generous,” acting from a place of fear, and potentially regretting your choice to go unrepresented in divorce.
  10. There is a reason divorce lawyers cannot be outsourced to call centers in foreign countries. You need a real person to listen to your goals, interests and needs, and most importantly, to help you face this huge life transition.

Another way that I have seen clients try to save money and not hire two attorneys.  Instead, they decide for one party to hire a lawyer and the other to go unrepresented.  There is a common misnomer that one attorney can represent two parties- which is patently false.  According to our fiduciary duty and the nature of the one-way attorney-client privilege, no attorney can represent husband and wife without a conflict of interest.  So, if your spouse presents you with a deal too good to refuse from “your mutual lawyer,” don’t bite.  There is no mutual lawyer nor is there a quick fix.

While you may feel that you are saving money in the short-term, think of the investment and security of knowing that you have a well-drafted order that is enforceable and has protected your financial interests and the best interests of your children.  While I am all for saving money when and where you can, I highly recommend hiring an advocate who can take care of those interests while you take care of healing and transitioning through this difficult time in your life.

 

“Breaking” Tradition: Filing for Divorce During the Holidays

Snowflakes at Christmas

Let’s face it.  Nobody wants to be alone during the holidays.  From the carving of the turkey, through the eggnog and onto the matching Christmas pajamas, morning giggles of sheer delight from the children, we all love the holidays… at least in theory.   Being apart—announcing divorce or separation during the holidays jeopardizes that image of joy and hope.  In some of our heads, this would mean that we declared war during Thanksgiving or Christmas.

And just like staying together for the children is a farce, staying together for the holidays is too.

Many of my clients are playing the waiting game until the kids/grandchildren go back to school and the Christmas tree is wrapped up in the attic- no trace of holiday cheer.  However, many of my clients state that the inevitability and acceptance that this divorce was not optional, was a motivating factor in expediting the process.

Pam told me her story. “Once I accepted that divorce was my only choice, not even the holidays could prevent me from filing.  I filed in November and my divorce was finalized in January.”  Did it hurt to see her “replacement” sitting at her place at the Thanksgiving table on Facebook postings?  Absolutely.  Does she regret leaving her dysfunctional and painful years of dedication to a dream that didn’t exist? No.

Other clients claim that delaying divorce to avoid short-term pain is going to hurt in the long-term.  Jackson, a newly divorced single dad of two little ones, shared: “If you are not filing near the holidays because you are worried about how it would look or feel to others, then that means that you have the wrong perspective on why to do it.  If it’s time, it’s time.”

Jackson emphasized the effect that your indecision has on others by stating, “You will make the holidays harder on everyone by stewing on your imminent decision.  It’s going to hurt the people that it will hurt regardless of when you do it. “

What matters more than when is how you do it—be caring and compassionate in how you deliver the news to those immediately affected, especially you kids.  Be sensitive to the exact time (i.e., don’t do it Christmas morning), but don’t delay a whole season.

Timing is key.  One friend Jessica, mother of two little boys learned of her divorce when she was blind-sided and served with her divorce petition two weeks prior to Christmas.  Jessica was forced out of Christmas Eve dinner with family and eventually forced out of the family home due to the hostility of the living situation.  The “surprise attack” of being tossed out on Christmas left Jessica feeling empty, alone and hurt.

Jessica wishes that her ex had included her in the decision and not unilaterally made this choice to, “throw away their ten year marriage so casually during such a special time of year.”  Lesson learned: don’t use divorce during the holidays as strategic weaponry—especially when children are at stake. Honor the family as you built it by honoring your spouse.  You should not “fake it” for the children, but you also should not be at battle during a sacred season, using the season as your sword.

Max, father of two elementary school children, was served with a Petition for Divorce one month prior to Christmas.  However, he and his ex-spouse flew under the radar for a period of time and intentionally did not tell the children or proceed with the process of divorce until after the holidays were over by mutual agreement.  His impression of timing of divorce during the holidays is that, “divorce is painful no matter what time of year.”

Max shared that his divorce was extremely high conflict, and that “the days and months leading up to the holidays of his divorce were extremely painful.” However, ultimately, the silver lining in the filing prior to the holidays is that the holidays can be the light at the end of the tunnel.  For Max, “it gave the children something positive to focus on, something exciting to look forward to.”  Likewise, “it forced us as parents to be loving and attentive to the children before we had to accept the reality that our family as we knew it was over.”  When you focus on your children and their joyful experience of tradition and celebration, no matter what time of year, you have made lemonade out of lemons.

Divorce is like surgery.  There is never a good time to do it. Plus, this could be the last one with your in-laws.  There are pros and cons, but the buildup of tension or bad associations of divorce with Christmas, Hanukkah or other traditions can have negative lasting reverberations through the generations. So, tread lightly with your choice to file, and consider the experiences of others who have offered nuggets of wisdom:

  1. Everyone agrees that despite timing, divorce is going to hurt.
  2. Don’t taint future positive holiday memories by struggling through current negative ones.
  3. Live for your authentic self- not for your projected image, Facebook, holiday card.
  4. Stop playing the waiting game. After New Years’ is Valentine’s Day.  There is always another holiday, birthday, occasion that merits delay of the inevitable. 
  5. This isn’t a contest for the last man standing. It’s about the first to walk away gracefully.
  6. Next holiday season is a gift, a time to make new traditions, new lovely memories and to follow the new “normal.”

So, as the holidays lights twinkle, the magic of the season ensues, consider how you want to leave your legacy of holiday tradition with your children, your family or your spouse.  Even if children are not involved in this divorce or separation, honor your spouse, because at one point, there was something sparkly and beautiful that you found in that person that deserves to be recognized and preserved.

 

 

Chicks Unhitched: Why You Should Consider Leaving Home to Heal from Divorce

Divorce is Tough–But you Are Tougher!

Chicks Unhitched

A year ago almost to the day, I visited a place that I consider one of the most physically beautiful, cloistered sanctuaries in the country, located one-hour outside Asheville North Carolina, called Lakeview at Fontana.  This year, again I traveled to this North Carolina retreat center, for a program called Chicks Unhitched.  However, this year I came for an entirely different reason.  My initial trek from Dallas to the Smoky Mountains last year was to explore options to help my divorce clients to find retreat centers where they can heal from the upheaval of a broken marriage.  This time, my sole mission for taking a week off of my busy, divorce litigation schedule was to heal—from my own divorce, freshly five months finalized.

As soon as Tetia McMichael, friend and founder of Chicks Unhitched, heard of my divorce, she invited me, arms wide-open, to come to Lakeview at Fontana.  She gently nudged me with care-packages and encouraging emails to try it out as a consumer this time, offering me a unique opportunity to find peace and a pathway to recovery. And I couldn’t get there fast enough.

Healing and Fear

Healing happens gradually. There is no magic formula, no spell or wand that can wipe away our sorrow or regret.  But it helps to have a team of supportive and strong women, gorgeous scenery and focus.  One of the life coaches from Chicks Unhitched shared with us that, “fear is the greatest obstacle to joy.” When the bottom falls out of our relationships, the sense of fear is overwhelming and often debilitating– joy seems like distant memory.  Healing seems impossible with this inherent fear.

Welcome to Your Journey

The six ladies who joined me during my journey at Chicks Unhitched shared their common fears:   “Am I a quitter? What could I have done to have salvaged this? Am I lovable? What if I never find love again? What if I run out of money after this is all over?” Fear is an insidious and strong emotion and an enemy to healing.

Every day we faced our fears at Chicks Unhitched.  Just getting there, on day one, literally was an obstacle for some.  Traveling by trains, planes and automobiles, some from as far as Canada, these ladies left busy career calendars, children and the hustle and bustle of daily life to focus on themselves.  They arrived to Lakeview at Fontana for this chance to meet new friends and to swap tales of woe and triumph.  It’s not easy to tell strangers the intimate details of just how bad it got before you called it quits or why your husband/boyfriend left you for an upgrade.

These women described in heart-breaking detail how their relationships deteriorated to the point where they had to file for divorce or leave.  These brave women candidly shared their narratives:  the gut-punch of decade-long affairs, the mid-life crisis wife trade-ins, partners who suffered grave addiction and mental illness, and men who bailed at the mention of one of the ladies being diagnosed with MS. There is no one-upmanship in these conversations, just empathy.  We all got here somehow, and we all had one thing in common: we were ready to move on.

I met my six new “insta-friends” on Sunday evening when I arrived, and continued to chatter with them as if I’d known them since elementary school until I departed the following Friday.  During that week, we cried, shared stories, did yoga, white-water rafted, rode horses through the Smoky Mountains and had a champagne shopping spree together. However, the most important part of this journey was not the zip lining, ropes course, or even the amazing nightly organic meals—it was just being there.  We were in a safe place, feeling nurtured and loved, and so the healing part was easy.  Nightly, we were in our pajamas outside on the patio, recapping the day and fantasizing about how brilliant our new lives were going to be when we returned home.  I felt like I was 13 years-old planning out how it was going to be “when I grew up.”

This above beautiful breakfast buffet awaited us daily- nurturing good mornings.

The Ropes Course: Facing Our Fears

The most significant day of the retreat occurred on day two.  On the second day, we braved a ropes course that challenged even the most athletic of the bunch.  (Now I know why day three is designated spa/shopping day).  Our Iron Woman athlete, Amanda, who literally is a serial marathoner and self-assigned fearless leader, coached us through the ropes course.

As we whined, cursed and grunted our way through rope webs, swinging logs, free-form obstacles and gravity-defying feats four stories high in the air, this team of women quickly became a resounding unit of “yes you can!”  There were a few challenges that made me feel like an ill-prepared contestant on American Ninja Warrior or Wipeout.  Although I was not climbing the formidable K-2, many times, when I literally almost lost my footing on the ropes, or was hanging upside down without a plan to right myself, I felt like turning back.  I wanted to press the “easy” button.  But just as in life, there was no easy way down.

Ann, our consummate optimist and full-belly laugher, told me that the ropes course defined her experience.  Ann described that the ropes course, “was a game changer for me and so many women.”  She explained that, “my life experiences and the voices in our heads (as women), that told me ‘you can’t do this,’ disappeared into a faint whisper, and with the support of our peers, we all conquered every obstacle. It’s like a metaphor for the obstacles that keep us from moving on in our lives.”

Barbara, our demure, world-traveled artist, told me: “The moment that defined my week was when I let go of the rope on one platform, and crossed the threshold to a next challenge.”

Graduating from Fear and Learning to Take Care of YOU

In order to walk through the fear, I explain to my divorce clients how they must start to heal. I often refer to the oxygen mask metaphor, and Chicks Unhitched reinforces it from the moment you arrive.  Ladies, the oxygen mask must go on your mouth after a sudden change in cabin pressure.  If you can’t help yourself, you cannot move on and function in this world.  In the healing process, when breathing is even harder to do, the oxygen mask must go on your face first.  As moms, mothers, girlfriends and nurturers, we are constantly putting our needs aside to attend to others.   However, the fallout can be catastrophic.  If you can’t breathe, neither can your children, friends or partners.

So, when that plane, (insert marriage or relationship here) goes down with a vengeance –a sudden change in cabin pressure, please put that mask on your mouth first.  Chicks Unhitched taught and reinforced this concept from the moment through our morning French Press coffee, yoga, massages, pep talks and life coaching.  We had dieticians, aestheticians, yogis and guides to educate us how to start putting ourselves first: through diet and exercise, goal-setting, and just literally prioritizing our needs day by day.  By the end of the retreat, we all felt like we were breathing 100% oxygen.   Our masks were on.

Who should attend Chicks Unhitched?

Amanda, aka “Iron Woman,” whom I referenced earlier, identified who may be a good candidate to attend Chicks Unhitched.  She delineated that this is not just for “the newly divorced, but also for those still struggling or trying to build or rebuild their own life at any time after the end of a relationship.  Whether it ended 6 months or 6 years ago, there’s still an enormous amount of value in taking time to look at your life and to continue moving forward to hopefully make it match the vision you have for yourself.”

Amanda also provided insight on our collective mission and how it worked to create a new vision after leaving.  Amanda explained, “We were all there to try to forge change in our lives and as the days passed, our walls continued to crumble, allowing us to be wholly and completely ourselves, with no judgement.  These women, despite our obvious differences, have become invaluable to me in my journey.”

Another friend, Ann, returned for a second trip to Chicks Unhitched– not because of a recent breakup or divorce, but to remind herself why she’s worth it.  Ann, who has a job that entails nurturing and educating others, with her infectious laugh and great attitude, explained that sometimes she failed to nurture herself.  She learned at this retreat that you must, “nurture yourself as much as you nurture others. If life, past relationships or your internal voices tell you that you can’t, prove them wrong.”

Jessica, an unassuming, spiritual, mother-of-three young children, said that Chicks Unhitched taught her one that she was capable of a great transformation.   Jessica promised, “only expect not to be the same person when you get home.”  Jessica acknowledged that while, “I’m sure that you can recharge going on a weekend trip wherever with a friend, this structured program- with its provoking life coaching sessions and physical challenges, also gave me an inherent connection with other women which is unparalleled with any other divorce retreat center that I researched.”  Jessica emphasized the clarity she received from this experience was a major gift.  She saw that there is now, “an end to the fog I’d been living through (post- divorce).”  Connection and challenge lifted Jessica out of a fog, she told me, emphasizing her new-found clarity after the retreat.

As a participant in this week-long transformation of Chicks Unhitched, I can tell you that this is no adult sleep away camp where you gather pen pals and archery skills.  As I “went to the mountain” at Lakeview at Fontana, to discern my new post-divorce path, I learned some valuable lessons, which are forever embedded in my thinking:

  1. We are stronger than we think we are;
  2. Female connection is universal and sacred;
  3. Physical challenges can change the way our brain works;
  4. You have to want to change something badly enough before you start to change it;
  5. There are no magic tricks to heal and process your fear and grief.

I am humbled and inspired by the six women that I met.  My gratitude for this experience is overwhelming and, and I hope that the words of these wise and lovely women guide you to find change in your life.   While it may seem an expensive investment of time and money to travel across the United States for clarity and strength, you are worth it and will surely find a new vision through this journey.

Rethinking Passwords: the Ashley Madison Hack

On August 18, 2015, a group calling itself the Impact Team busted into 33 of the 36 million email addresses from users of AshleyMadison.com.   This lewd and lascivious site designed for married people to meet other married people online and engage in a previously anonymous, adulterous sexcapades, (i.e. affairs), was hacked.  The threat was to release all 36 million users unless its partner sites, “Cougar Life” and “Established Men” were shut down.  And now, as you sit here today, the average American with an internet connection can see if their dear husbands/wives were part of this data dump.

Angela Moscaritolo, writer for PC Mag, unveiled a simple way to find whether your special honey has an Ashley Madison account.  A programmer with the Twitter handle @hilare_belloc created a tool that lets you quickly check if a particular email is on the list. Simply head over to ashley.cynic.al/, enter the email address you want to check, and press the Search button. That covers the first 33 million addresses.

Would you like to know why it was so easy for hackers to get into the email accounts to reveal these philanderers?

Approximately 24 million of the roughly 36 million accounts leaked online had verified email addresses. Although Ashley Madison’s ethical underpinnings and business operations were questioned, the firm allegedly used “robust and respected encryption for its user passwords,”  as Natasha Lomas, form TechCrunch, reported in her article, “Ashley Madison Hack Latest Reminder that Stupid Passwords are Stupid.”

However, one of my favorite sayings is, “you can’t fix stupid.”  This applies in a major aspect of the Ashley Madison hack.

Even high security bcrypt-hashed passwords can be discovered if the user chooses a stupid, obvious password, like for example, the top one: “123456” followed only by “password” as number two choice, and “12345” as number three password choice.  According to Nastasha Lomas, “Avast security firm has been able to crack 25,393 hashes-out of which it says there were only 1,0664 unique passwords.”

The top ranked Ashley Madison passwords are slightly hilarious as an outsider, and beg the question, whether it was nerves, sex drive, or pure stupidity that generated the following list of ridiculously obvious top passwords.  Ms. Lomas, in her TechCrunch article, revealed the top 20, and I’d like to share them with you for your edification regarding password privacy and for your entertainment post Labor Day, after a long weekend.  The top 20 passwords are:

  1. 123456
  2. password
  3. 12345
  4. 12345678
  5. qwerty (this is the top row of letters on a keyboard in typed in order)
  6. pussy
  7. secret (as in “secret password?”
  8. dragon
  9. welcome (to identity theft…)
  10. ginger
  11. sparky (the first adjective used on the list)
  12. helpme (clearly)
  13. blowjob (I was surprised this one ranked so low on the totem pole)
  14. nicole (why not Ashley?)
  15. justin
  16. camaro (average car of the average user?)
  17. johnson (does this indicate a British contingency?)
  18. yamaha (no clue- motorcycle or piano do you think?)
  19. midnight (when the cheating occurred)
  20. chris

Some believe that downloading the Ashley Madison database is a huge no-no.  On August 22, 2015, USA Today’s writer Elizabeth Weise highly cautions against downloading the Ashley Madison database because, “no matter how curious you are, there are two reasons not to download the Ashley Madison database of would-be cheaters: It’s potentially dangerous and it’s stolen property.”

However, as a divorce attorney, and private citizen who is not suspicious of a cheating spouse, I find the earlier mentioned searchable tool most user-friendly for the first 33 million users who were identified.  For the rest of you out there, wondering if your spouse is on this list of the unidentified 3 million, you can be the judge of how important this information is to your marriage.

Even today, as of September 8, 2015, the website boasts now 40,770 users, (increased by roughly 4,000 since the hack), and brags of “100% discreet service” and has an icon reading, “Trusted Security Award.”  I guess you can’t trust everything that you read.

Happy 40th Birthday to The Texas Board of Legal Specialization!

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Above-pictured are the attendees who were honored at the event: Mr. Larry Harvey Schwartz of Schwartz & Earp in El Paso, Mr. Donn C. Fullenweider of Fullenweider Wilhite in Houston, Mr. David Greenfield from Austin, Mr. John F. Nichols of Nichols Law in Houston, Mr. Curtis Marvin Loveless from Denton, Mr. Philip C. Friday, Jr. of Friday, Milner, Lambert & Turner from Austin, Mr. Charles H. Robertson of Charles H Robertson, Inc. from Dallas, Mr. Herbert Lee Hooks of The Hooks Firm in Dallas, Mr. William R. Neil W.R. ( BILL ) of NEIL & ASSOC. from Dallas Mr. Harry Lee Tindall Tindall England PC Houston Mr. L. A. (al) Greene, Jr. Zapata Judge Robert J. Kern Senior Judge Houston/Sugar Land

This year on August 5th, at the TAFLS dinner at Advanced Family Law 2015 Texas Bar CLE Course in San Antonio, the Texas Association of  Family Law Specialists gathered to commemorate 40 years of board certification for family lawyers.  What type of birthday present did the lawyers who have been continuously board certified in family law since 1975 get? 25 elite attorneys received free registration at the 2015 Advanced Family Course, State Bar of Texas CLE and special recognition at a reception.  So, the reward for being excellent and accomplished:more education.

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Pictured above, Gary McNeil, Executive Director of Texas Board of Legal Specialization on the left and on the right,Rick Robertson, President of Texas Academy of Family Law Specialists.

Executive Director of the Texas Board of Legal Specialization

I spoke with Gary McNeil, Executive Director of the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, about the history and purpose of family law specialization.  In 1975, the board certification in family law commenced alongside criminal law and labor law.  Mr. McNeil shared that the purpose of board certification is to, “acquire expertise in a specific area and to have recognized, objective criteria for excellence in this area.”  McNeil articulated that, “the net effect of board certification is dual: to provide clients with additional marketing information to inform their choice of attorney, and to honor the cream of the crop in family law.” Mr. McNeil had this message for the accomplishment of the 25 elite lawyers who were honored at this year’s event: “Thank you for being trail blazers, pathfinders and leaders.  You have done so much for our profession.”

If you are a family attorney who has been practicing more than five years, and focusing at 35% of your practice on family law cases in the past 3 years, and you meet the extensive criteria set forth in TBLS.org, you should consider being part of the cadre of excellence. To watch video interviews about those honored this year, tune in to TBLS.org in the next few weeks. The upcoming family law specialization exam is October 19, 2015, and the application period is currently sealed.  Those who wish to apply for next year, should submit applications in early 2016.

Parental Alienation: Who Puts Kids in Jail for Not Seeing their Dad?

On July 10, 2015, Detroit’s Judge Gorcyca, found three siblings in contempt of court and sent them to a juvenile detention center/sleep-away camp in Oakland County, for “failing to maintain a healthy relationship with their father.” The reason: the 15, 10,and 9 year-old siblings refused to have lunch- much less any contact with their father at all- for the seven months prior.

According to court transcripts, Judge Gorcyca admonished the children, “You’re so mentally messed up right now, and it’s not because of your father… In fact, he has moved mountains to become a part of this family.”

Judge Gorcyca draws parallels between the children’s abnormal enmeshment with mom and outward disrespect to law enforcement to the cult-like behavior Charles Manson’s followers.   She ordered that the children be separated from one another within the quarters of the juvenile detention facility, arguably to take away the power of this toxic sibling set.  Likewise, mom, Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni, and her family are prohibited from contact while the children are in custody.

Is this too extreme of a measure? “This is really a draconian remedy,” CBS News legal expert Rikki Klieman said Friday on “CBS This Morning.” “This gives new meaning to the phrases ‘scared straight’ or ‘tough love.'”

However, Judge Gorcyca justified her actions: “While the court’s actions might seem extreme, so is the notion that these children are being taught that the only way to love the mother is to vilify the father.” She underscored the idea of parental alienation by stating “that in the past five years, the court has received no evidence that the father has done anything to negatively impact the children.”

Either way, this case decidedly marks a distinct case of parental alienation.  The 2010 contentious divorce turned saga of strained parent-child relationship lasting five years later, is not only sad but too common.  While finding blame helps some rationalize behavior, we should be looking for solutions instead.

A non-profit called Overcoming Barriers (OCB) marks this seminal case as a call to action to resolve the failure to treat alienation within the adversarial system.  Dr. Matt Sullivan, co-founder of OCB commented on this tragic story:“While each family member plays some part in the overall dynamic, the child is never to blame and should never be the subject of punitive action by the court system under the guise of protecting or promoting the child’s welfare. To do so is to blame the victim, just as when individuals are victimized by domestic or sexual violence.” Dr. Sullivan, asserted that,”the child’s behavior is symptomatic of the system’s failure.”

There is no simple answer.  Is the two-week respite from mom going to repair five years’ worth of damage? Probably not.  However, this judge is sending a message that we cannot allow parents to act as puppeteers- controlling their children.