Texas Alimony Law Changes September 1, 2011

Big Changes in Texas Alimony Statutes

By Marissa Balius

The word “alimony” often evokes strong emotions for people who are facing a divorce. For those paying alimony it may feel like a penalty for staying in a tortured marriage as long as they did. For those receiving alimony it may feel more like a punishment for all the years spent staying home to take care of the kids instead of pursuing a career.

Although alimony in Texas (which is referred to as “Spousal Maintenance”) has historically been considered remedial in nature and scope, big changes are coming, effective September 1 of this year.

While someone seeking alimony still has to meet the threshold requirement of showing that he or she does not have sufficient property and income to meet his/her minimum reasonable needs, there have been some changes in who qualifies for spousal maintenance, the duration of a alimony order and the amount that can be ordered. Now it’s up to the judges in Texas to objectively apply the law to the facts in each case.

Some of the highlights of the new statutes that will take effect for cases filed on or after September 1, 2011 are:

  • Removal of the 10-year marriage requirement for eligibility in limited circumstances.
  • Increasing the cap on the amount of alimony that can be ordered to the lesser of 20% of a spouse’s gross monthly income or $5000 per month.
  • Increasing the maximum duration of spousal maintenance payments from three years to a sliding scale of five to ten years depending on the length of marriage.

Marissa Balius is an experienced family law litigator with sixteen years of experience, and a Partner at Albin | Harrison | Roach. including ten years as an Assistant Attorney General in the Child Support Division. If you have questions about whether or how these changes to the law may affect your rights, please call or email us to schedule a free initial consultation.

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Facing Divorce in an Uncertain Economy with Collaborative Law

First Posting:  Huffington Post on 2/5/11

By Curtis Harrison

These are uncertain economic times for all of us. While the outlook is slowly improving, news updates still occasionally toss around scary catch phrases like “double-dip recession,” and “double-digit unemployment.” And for those facing a divorce or a post-divorce modification suit, the fragile economic forecast can make an already uncertain future feel more like a double-looped roller coaster.

Take heart, because you still have options. You don’t have to raise the debt ceiling just to survive this period of transition in your life. It is a matter of enlightened self-interest. You and your spouse may not be able to agree on anything else, but most couples can agree that they don’t want to bankrupt themselves in the process of getting a divorce.

While some may be able to achieve a “kitchen table” solution, for most folks, the issues are too complex to resolve without guidance. But that guidance doesn’t have to come from a trial attorney. You and your spouse can choose to keep your divorce out of the hands of judges through a process known as Collaborative Law. There are several compelling reasons why Collaborative Law may be the right tool for those concerned with their financial resources:

1. In traditional divorce litigation, both the husband and the wife can waste thousands of dollars preparing for a contested final trial that usually does not take place. Why? Because the vast majority of litigated divorce cases wind up settling prior to trial.
In collaborative cases, 100% of every dollar spent is dedicated toward achieving the goal of settlement. 0% is spent preparing for trial.

2. In traditional divorce litigation, both the husband and the wife can waste hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars with their lawyers fighting over what documents will or will not be produced to the other side. Why? Because the goal in litigation is to beat the other side; and one way to do that is to resist producing documents and information during discovery in the hope of bushwhacking the other party at trial.

In collaborative cases, the parties exchange documents freely, informally, and inexpensively. Transparency is paramount.

3. In traditional divorce litigation, both the husband and wife can waste thousands of dollars by hiring competing expert witnesses to value businesses, trace assets, or make recommendations regarding custody of the children or possession of the children. Why? Again, the goal is to beat the other side, and another way to do that is to hire experts to do battle either at the negotiating table or at trial.

In collaborative cases, experts are jointly engaged and serve as neutrals. They don’t take sides or play favorites. For most cases, no more than one neutral financial expert is needed. So there are generally no competing opinions do battle. If a second opinion is desired, they too can be jointly engaged.

4. In traditional divorce litigation, neither you nor your spouse exercises much control over the process. You have virtually no control over the outcome. Why? Because the judge or jury makes the decisions at trial; and frequently the cases that settle short of trial actually settle as a result of emotional or financial exhaustion.

In collaborative cases, the spouses control both the process and the outcome. Texas was the first state to pass a collaborative law statute that actually strips the courts of the authority to make decisions in a collaborative case. As a result, both spouses share an incentive to operate efficiently and effectively. If they can agree on nothing else, they can usually agree that they don’t want the lawyers to make off with their estate.

These are just some of the economic advantages the collaborative law model offers over traditional divorce lawsuits. The current economic climate may be tenuous and the future unknown. But if you are facing a divorce you need not climb aboard the litigation roller coaster. Consider keeping control over the process, the costs, and the outcome by learning more about the collaborative law method.

Curtis W. Harrison, Collaborative Attorney
Board Certified – Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization
Albin | Harrison | Roach; 5601 Granite Parkway,Suite 400; Plano, Texas 75024
Telephone: 214-423-5100; Fascimile: 214-423-5111
www.ahrlawfirm.com

Logic doesn’t drive the Divorce Train

We’ve all seen news accounts about the financial nightmare called divorce. You may have heard tales of woe that go something like this: “The Smiths just got divorced and John told me it cost over $100,000 – for each side!”

Such a price tag might draw a yawn or a snicker from the blue-blooded family dynasty members, the technology titans, and the Hollywood elites. But for the vast majority of the so-called “working wealthy” (i.e. those who have been labeled by the taxing authorities as “rich” but who still have to work five to six days a week to pay the mortgage) an expensive divorce would devastate the family’s financial future.

Divorces don’t have to cost the equivalent of a college education, nor should they. So why is it that some do? Why do otherwise rational people consciously choose to put their financial future and their children’s into a potentially terminal nose-dive? The simple truth is that they fail to take ownership of the fact that divorce is not a rational process for the participants. It’s an emotionally-driven one.

People in the midst of a divorce make emotional (read “irrational”) decisions almost as frequently as you or I might accelerate through a yellow light – and with about as much forethought. For example, a judge recently told me about a trial in which the husband took a gallon of white paint and literally walked up and down the wife’s closet pouring paint all over her shoe collection. What was the logical reason for that?

In another case the parties argued over every knife, fork, and spoon in the house, and even placed values on the picture frames – separate from the pictures themselves. At the conclusion of the trial one of the parties filed a motion for new trial because she wanted a lamp that the judge had awarded to the other party. What was the logical reason for that?

Examples like these defy reason because the decisions are rooted in emotion – negative emotion. Left unchecked, these negative emotions tend to manifest themselves in every-increasing acts of lunacy that divorce lawyers call the “crazy cycle.” Once the spouses step onto the crazy cycle the legal meter starts spinning faster than your electric meter. Phone calls, emails, letters, motions, depositions, hearings and trials – they all take the lawyer’s time, which means they all cost you money. What is the logical reason for that?

To make matters worse, the traditional method of getting a divorce, which is called litigation, actually exacerbates the problem by intentionally pitting the spouses against each other in an arena we call a courtroom. In some cases the arena seems to more closely resemble an M.M.A. grudge match than a crucible for truth. Litigation, by its essence, encourages the parties to attempt to destroy each other emotionally and financially. What is the logical reason for that?

Logic doesn’t drive the divorce train. It’s an irrational, emotional process from start to finish. But that doesn’t mean it has to be ugly or costly. Even some of those Hollywood elites are choosing to step off the crazy cycle: http://tiny.cc/zoof0.

If you are facing a divorce, beware of the crazy cycle, beware of litigation, and beware of divorce lawyers who seem a little overly eager to wage war on your behalf. You do have options and you can avoid or at least minimize all three dangers briefly outlined above with a little foresight, quality solution-oriented professional guidance, and some self-discipline. Properly trained and experienced family law attorneys can serve as professional guides through the minefield. They can match clients with financial experts, counselors, or pediatric therapists as appropriate in order to minimize the collateral damage typically wrought by divorce.

If you would like to learn more about those options, including the non-adversarial Collaborative Law approach to resolving family law disputes, please contact us by email or call me at 214-423-5100.

Curtis W. Harrison, Collaborative Attorney
Board Certified – Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization
Albin | Harrison | Roach; 5601 Granite Parkway,Suite 400; Plano, Texas 75024
Telephone: 214-423-5100; Fascimile: 214-423-5111
www.ahrlawfirm.com

Three Things You Should Not Do in a Divorce

Curtis Harrison is a Plano-based attorney with the law firm of Albin | Harrison | Roach. He is board certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in Family Law and is a member of the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas and the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.

After sixteen years of practicing family law in and out of the courtroom I like to think I’ve seen or heard just about everything. Of course, that’s hyperbole, but the truth is that clients have a hard time surprising me anymore. And I have noticed over the years that even the most gentle and considerate of people fall prey to the universal human instinct for survival when faced with a divorce. This instinct can temporarily override common decency, parental wisdom, and even rationality.

Why is this? Almost without exception, folks facing the prospect of a separation or divorce feel extraordinary pressures. Those pressures are usually rooted in fear: fear the unknown; fear of the perceived lack of control over the future; and fear of how decisions others make during the divorce will affect them. These fears drive many divorcing couples to make terrible mistakes that will haunt them and their children for years to come. Some of the mistakes are made long before either spouse consults with a divorce attorney.

While the list of “do’s and don’ts” is long and detailed, here are three fundamental things you should not do in a divorce:

  1. Don’t involve the kids
  2. Don’t make unilateral decisions
  3. Don’t “over-lawyer”

Don’t Involve the Kids

Although this should be obvious, it is one of the most of the common – and by far the most tragic – mistake that I see couples make. Examples abound:

  • Mom and Dad cannot or will not contain their so-called “adult conversations” (arguing) in the presence of the children.
  • Dad picks up the kids to take them for the weekend and Mom tells the children she will miss them terribly instead of encouraging them to have a great time.
  • Mom is forced to tighten the budget at home out of necessity while Dad, who has recently moved into a bachelor-pad apartment, starts lavishing the children with Wii’s, off-road bicycles, and trips to Disney.

All of these examples, and countless others, place the children squarely on the chessboard of the divorce. The parents — whether they realize it or not — have made their own children the pawns in the chess match. And we all know what happens to the pawns in chess.

Don’t do it.

Don’t Make Unilateral Decisions

Cleaning out bank accounts, buying a new car, and leaving town with the kids are all examples of decisions most people would never consider making without discussing with their spouse. Yet, faced with divorce, that little voice in our head we call common sense seems to take a vacation. Making important decisions that affect others without discussing it with them virtually guarantees you a quick trip to the courthouse for a contested hearing.

Don’t do it.

Don’t Over-Lawyer

You can tell a lot from a name.

I frequently meet with potential clients who have already been served with a divorce suit and I have learned that you can discern a great deal about how ugly and expensive a divorce is going to be simply by looking to see who the other lawyer is. Individual lawyers have individualized reputations, and if a spouse wants to hire a Rambo-style litigator it is not difficult to find one.

Why do people in this day still seek out that kind of lawyers? Fear, grief, and anger are powerful emotions. Those emotions often drive otherwise rational people to make decisions that are not in their own best interests, much less in the best interest of their family. Ironically, folks who seek out the Rambos typically do so either to (i) get their “fair share”; or to (ii) get their pound of flesh. There really aren’t any other reasons.

The irony is that they will pay a $25,000 initial retainer to Rambo to fight for a larger piece of what is left over after he has picked over the carcass of your estate instead of seeking out an attorney with a reputation for problem solving that charges significantly less. As for getting the pound of flesh, nothing is free: Every pound of flesh you “acquire” will cost you something. That something could be the nest egg,  the children’s emotional well-being, or bitterness in the person’s heart that reduces  his or her quality of life for years to come.

Don’t do it.

Fortunately, there are qualified professionals in the industry who are trained to help couples end their marriage without scorching each other, the children, or the estate. If you would like more information about available options when it comes to divorce, including the Collaborative Law option, please feel free to visit our website, or contact me by email.

Making Every Dollar Count – Divorce in a Soft Economy

These are uncertain economic times for all of us. Daily news updates toss around scary catch phrases like “double-dip recession,” and “double-digit unemployment.” But for those facing a divorce or a post-divorce modification suit, the sour economic forecast can make an already painful and uncertain future feel more like a double-looped roller coaster.

Take heart, because you still have options. The current soft economy has served to highlight several important reasons why Collaborative Law is the right tool for these times:

No Trial means No Trial Expenses

In traditional divorce litigation both the husband and the wife can waste thousands of dollars preparing for a contested final trial that usually does not take place. Why? Because the vast majority of litigated divorce case wind up settling prior to trial.

In collaborative cases, 100% of every dollar spent is dedicated toward achieving the goal of settlement. 0% is spent preparing for trial.

Producing Documents is Minimized

In traditional divorce litigation both the husband and the wife can waste hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars with their lawyers fighting over what documents will or will not be produced to the other side. Why? Because the goal in litigation is to beat the other side; and one way to do that is to resist producing documents and information during discovery in the hope of bushwhacking the other party at trial.

In collaborative cases, the parties exchange documents freely, informally, and inexpensively. Transparency is paramount.

No “Expert” Witnesses to Pay

In traditional divorce litigation both the husband and wife can waste thousands of dollars by hiring competing expert witnesses to value businesses, trace assets, or make recommendations regarding custody of the children or possession of the children. Why? Again, the goal is to beat the other side and another way to do that is to hire experts to do battle either at the negotiating table or at trial.

In collaborative cases, experts are jointly engaged and serve as neutrals. They don’t take sides or play favorites. For most cases no more than one neutral financial expert is needed. So there are generally no competing opinions do battle. If a second opinion is desired, they too can be jointly engaged.

Control over the Process

In traditional divorce litigation neither you nor your spouse exercise much control over the process. You have virtually no control over the outcome. Why? Because the judge or jury makes the decisions at trial; and frequently the cases that settle short of trial actually settle as a result of emotional or financial exhaustion.

In collaborative cases, the spouses control both the process and the outcome. Texas was the first State to pass a Collaborative Law statute that actually strips the courts of the authority to make decisions in a collaborative case. As a result both spouses share an incentive to operate efficiently and effectively. If they can agree on nothing else, they can usually agree that they don’t want the lawyers to make off with their estate.

These are just a few of the economic advantages the Collaborative Law model offers over traditional divorce lawsuits. Even within the collaborative case there are ways to use the model more efficiently and cost-effectively in this soft economy. If you are considering a collaborative divorce or modification, you might consider discussing with your attorney ways to fine tune and streamline the process to make it even more efficient and cost effective. Here are a few options to consider:

Agree – In Advance – to use the Collaborative Model

Have everyone review and sign the Participation Agreement (and other documents needed to enter into the collaborative model) in advance of the first joint meeting. Why? It saves time (i.e. It saves money). And this leaves more time to discuss substantive matters during the joint meeting.

Stay Focused on the Process: Use a Neutral Communications Coach

Insist on the use of a neutral communications coach (a mental health professional with special collaborative training). There are several advantages to this approach: (1) This person proctors the joint sessions instead of the lawyers. As a neutral who is specially trained in the art of effective communication, this person can foster greater confidence in the process, more constructive dialogues between the spouses, and higher productivity both during the meetings and outside of them. Increased productivity leads to a shorter process, thereby saving both spouses money. (2) This person can work with you and your spouse in offline meetings without the attorneys to explore and develop and parenting plan. Once again, this is a potential time-saver and – that’s right – a money saver.

Use a Financial Expert who understands the Collaborative Process

If property identification or valuation will be an issue, agree to use a single, collaboratively-trained neutral financial expert. This person can serve as the focal point for all document exchanges and can both assimilate and analyze financial data more effectively than the lawyers. And, unlike the communication coach, the financial neutral may not need to participate in every joint session. For example, if the topic of the joint session focuses on the parenting plan, the financial neutral can be given a holiday.

Capture Unused Joint Meeting Time

Plan ahead to capture any unused joint meeting time. Usually, there is a set agenda for each joint meeting and each meeting is scheduled to last for a fixed period, such as two hours. If you get through the agenda early, with a little planning and coordination you can reclaim the remainder of the budgeted time by moving directly into an offline discussion with the financial neutral, the communication coach, or even your own attorney to discuss substantive matters needing attention. This is yet one more way to maximize the efficiency of any already efficient process.

Gather and Organize your own Documents

Do some of the legwork in your case. Gathering and organizing documents take time. Lawyers charge for time. Save them time and save yourself money by helping them with your case. As an added benefit you will learn more about your own case than you would otherwise.

The current economic climate may be tenuous and the future unknown. But if you are facing a divorce you need not climb aboard the litigation roller coaster. Consider keeping control over the process, the costs, and the outcome by choosing the Collaborative Law method. If you would like more information about Collaborative Law please feel free to visit my website, or you can contact me by email.

Curtis W. Harrison, Collaborative Attorney

Board Certified – Family Law – Texas Board of Legal Specialization

Albin | Harrison | Roach; 5601 Granite Parkway, Suite 400; Plano, Texas 75024

Telephone: 214.423.5100     Facsimile: 214.423.5111

www.ahrlawfirm.com

Curtis Harrison is a collaboratively trained family law attorney working for the law firm of Albin | Harrison | Roach in Plano, Texas. He is board certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and serves on the Board of Trustees for the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas.

Divorce – Rights vs. Results, by Curtis Harrison

People facing divorce usually want to know what their rights are. Who will get the children? How much child support can be expected? Who is responsible for the credit card debt? What happens to the house? The 401(k)? The list of questions goes on and on.

Yet, the core of these questions is not really about rights. Rather, it is fear of an unknown result. This distinction highlights one of the many advantages of the collaborative method of resolving family law issues:  Spouses become the decision-makers instead of a judge.

It is a novel approach, but it is also supremely intuitive. After all, who better to make decisions regarding a divorcing couple’s children and their finances than the spouses themselves? Even through the pain and the other negative emotions that accompany a divorce, divorcing couples can still make better choices for themselves and their children than a judge or jury. This is where the professional team comes in to help guide the couple through an otherwise overwhelming process. And when the question turns to “What are my rights?” the trained collaborative team of lawyers and neutrals will be there to restore the focus to achieving a result that both spouses find acceptable and in their children’s best interests.

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