Recently in Divorce Law Category

October 8, 2014

The Unofficial, Long-Term Marital Separation

Thumbnail image for The Unofficial, Long-Term Separation By Andrea VaccaSomething I have been seeing more and more in my practice as a mediator and collaborative attorney are couples living apart for long periods of time, without being legally separated.

For various reasons, many married couples decide to separate for years without having any legal agreements in place. They don't realize until years later when one of them is seeking a divorce that the legal, financial and emotional issues caused by the years of separation can become very difficult to resolve.

Below are just some of the pitfalls that people encounter when they separate unofficially:

  • When two spouses start living separately, the clock starts ticking on a new status-quo. Eventually, the lifestyle maintained by the lower-earning spouse during the separation can become the standard for the amount of spousal support that is required in the future.
  • Non-legal separations do not necessarily end the legal financial union between spouses. That means all the money earned - or debts being incurred - by either spouse may still be considered part of the shared marital estate.
  • The higher earning spouse is not necessarily going to get credit under the law for the amount of support they've been providing.
  • Once a couple moves into separate residences, communication between them can break down even more than it was while they were living together, which makes negotiating a separation agreement even harder than it has to be.
  • If either spouse starts a new relationship and spends money on the new partner, it can be considered a "waste of marital assets," which can result in complicated requests for repayment (financially as well as emotionally).

Often times, clients will be dealing with many of these consequences all at once. For example, a client of mine was supporting her husband for 10 years after she moved out. He was still hurt by the fact that she left him and, because she felt guilty, she still gave him access to her credit cards and she was still depositing her paychecks into a joint account. They hardly spoke and had each moved on to new relationships but the hurt and guilt was still there.

I had to tell her that her husband had every right to expect that the comfortable lifestyle she had provided for those years would continue. It was difficult for her to accept this fact, but she eventually agreed to give her husband some significant real estate holdings she had acquired during their separation in order to reach an agreement with which he was comfortable. This was despite the fact that she had already paid a small fortune to support him and they had lived the majority of their married life apart.

As we were getting ready to sign the settlement agreement, she explained the reason for her generosity:

"I know I gave him more than I needed to, but I was ready to finally move on with my life and I decided it was better to give my money to him instead of our lawyers."

Why unnecessarily give money to anyone? If you are ready and willing to deal with the legal, emotional and financial issues of your separation, before you actually decide to move out, you will be better-protected in the long term. Let a mediator or collaborative attorney help you negotiate a written agreement where the needs of both you and your spouse will be considered. It will not only help to bring emotional closure to your relationship, but will protect both of you from potential legal and financial entanglements in the future.


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Andrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
avacca@vaccalaw.com

August 31, 2014

Maintaining Control in the Midst of Divorce

Maintaining Control in the Midst of Divorce By Andrea VaccaThe feeling of or ability to be in control can be an elusive concept to many, and the lack of control can be a source of anxiety to those who crave it. When it comes to personal matters, like divorce, the need for control may be even greater. The feeling like one is not in control of his or her own future or relationship is a common frustration expressed by divorcing couples who are litigating and at the mercy of the court system. Luckily, there are alternative options for couples wishing to seize control of their divorces.

Mediation and collaborative law are private processes. These processes keep everything between just you, your attorneys and any other professionals who you invite into your case.

Besides offering privacy and dignity, the mediation and collaborative law processes also provide a degree of control that is absent from the court system:

  1. You meet at times that are convenient for you and your spouse and that work with your schedules, not the judge's.
  2. You're not sitting around the courthouse, for hours at a time, waiting for your case to be called while your attorney is billing for the time she is sitting next to you, checking her emails.
  3. While you are expected to provide full financial disclosure, you're trusted to do so and you will be asked questions in a respectful way.
  4. You won't be cross-examined and attacked by your spouse's attorney.

Over the years I have noticed that mediation and collaborative law tend to attract many business owners and consultants. My theory is that these types of clients are used to having more autonomy and control over their personal lives, and they don't want to give that up just because their marriage is ending. Yet, striving for this type of control around your divorce process makes sense even if you are holding down a job with regular hours. Divorce is hard enough without also fearing that you are going to lose your job, or that your childcare provider is going to quit on you because you can't keep your schedule regular.

In mediation and the collaborative process, you and your spouse are in control of the times when you meet and the issues that are discussed at each meeting. You are encouraged to say what is important to each of you as you work toward your agreement. If you expect that this kind of communication will be encouraged in court or that you will have the chance to "explain your story to the judge," you will be very disappointed. Once you are in litigation, not only will your attorney tell you not to talk to your spouse, he or she will also make it clear that you are not to speak to the judge unless you are asked a direct question. While the attorneys are arguing your case to the judge and arguing with each other, you and your spouse will be expected to sit quietly and just wait to be told what's going on.

Don't just sit there! Take control of your divorce by exploring mediation and the collaborative law process at www.vaccalaw.com.


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Andrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
avacca@vaccalaw.com

June 19, 2014

Financial Infidelity and Divorce: It's Complicated

Financial Infidelity and Divorce: It's Complicated By Andrea VaccaThe legal, emotional and financial needs of couples divorcing due to "financial infidelity" are often complex.

When many people hear that "infidelity" was the reason for a divorce, they automatically assume it has to do with sex. More and more often, however, I see that "infidelity" with money is the reason why marriages are ending.

Where physical infidelity may have happened once, twice, or within a limited amount of time, financial infidelity has probably occurred over an extended period, and has done much greater damage.

Financial infidelity includes such actions as:

- Not paying taxes that your spouse believed had been paid
- Secretly spending money to fund an addiction
- Using a spouse's Social Security number to open new credit cards, and proceeding to max them out

This type of betrayal usually goes on for years before the unsuspecting spouse wakes up and realizes its extent. Maybe the unsuspecting spouse had a feeling that something was amiss, but he or she did not want to look too closely for fear of having to change the family's lifestyle. (The financially-dishonest spouse is usually the higher wage earner.)

Whenever the extent of the betrayal is discovered, it is not uncommon that a harsh light will be shone on the relationship and awaken other issues in the marriage.

Whether the financial betrayal is the result of trying to "look good" in the face of an unsustainable lifestyle, or needing funds to feed an addiction, the end result is the same: the divorcing couple is in deep legal, emotional and financial distress.

Financial infidelity is not easy to simply "forgive and forget." If the couple divorces, they will be dealing with the emotional pain of betrayal and the long-term financial implications that result. Reacting by hiring an aggressive attorney may seem like a rational response, but given the often precarious financial situation these couples are in, it's often far from the smartest reaction.

More pragmatic couples will let the hurt, shame and anger subside a little before moving forward with the divorce. This allows them to see that - just because trust was badly abused during the marriage and there was little to no transparency around finances - it is still possible to come to a fair and equitable agreement outside of court.

Not only do these divorcing couples need specialized legal assistance (whether in the areas of divorce, tax, and/or bankruptcy law); but they can use coaching to help them work together in spite of the emotional pain; and financial advice to help them clean up the mess and move forward with their divorce - and their post-divorce lives.


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Andrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
avacca@vaccalaw.com

March 14, 2014

Questions to Ask Before Hiring Your Collaborative Divorce Attorney

Questions to Ask Before Hiring Your Collaborative Divorce Attorney By Andrea VaccaIn my last post, I explored the idea of "doing no harm" as a collaborative divorce attorney. Some of the comments I received focused on what it means to be a collaborative professional, while others lamented the prevalence of lawyers who call themselves "collaborative" when their actions are anything but.

If you are a client who wants to use the collaborative process and stay out of court, you want to know that your attorney is actually committed to that process and understands the different mindset that it requires on his or her part. To get the information that you need, these are the questions I would suggest you ask a collaborative attorney and the types of answers that you want to hear:

How concerned are you about whether my spouse gets what he or she wants out of this divorce?

This question gets to the heart of whether an attorney understands the difference between collaboration and cooperation. Collaboration is about making sure that the other person's goals are met, even if they aren't the same goals as yours. This is a lot harder than simply cooperating, which is about working together for mutual benefit toward common goals.

I've been doing this work for more than 20 years and I don't know many couples who share an abundance of common goals at the end of their marriage. Sure, couples will often be equally committed to keeping their kids out of their conflict and maintaining an amicable relationship with each other, but they rarely have common financial goals for their lives after their divorce. One may want to own a home, while the other is comfortable renting. One may feel confident in her career, while the other sees layoffs all around him. One may want to have access to cash, while the other feels comfortable investing in real estate.

Agreeing to work collaboratively at the beginning of the process requires each party to respect the other's concerns and goals, and understand that an agreement cannot be signed until each of their goals are met.

Do you believe that people who are truly in conflict can engage in negotiations without drawing lines in the sand and using threats and coercion to get what they want?

An attorney trained in collaborative law will answer "Yes" and will go on to explain the difference between a position and an interest.

Maintaining a position is insisting on a specific outcome. That's the "line in the sand."
Negotiating with interests in mind is being open to different outcomes that can meet that underlying interest.

Collaborative lawyers encourage their clients to articulate their interests rather than take positions. This opens up options and often clears a path to an outcome that can meet both parties' individual goals.

How comfortable are you using other professionals as part of our divorce team?

The answer that you want to hear is that these attorneys have had positive experiences working with different divorce professionals including:

  • Financial professionals who help to clarify each party's financial concerns and help structure an agreement that meets each party's financial goals;
  • Divorce coaches who help with communication and emotional issues that can hijack the negotiation process; and
  • Child Specialists who bring the voice of the child into the negotiations.
Attorneys with a collaborative mindset will be able to give you examples of how their other clients have reaped the benefits of having these specialized professionals on their team, and how their divorces generally ran more smoothly as a result.

Are you a member of any collaborative practice groups? What types of trainings have you had?

If you live in the New York metropolitan area and you are looking for a collaborative attorney, ask if he or she is a member of the New York Association of Collaborative Professionals. If you live elsewhere, it shouldn't take too much time to research the affiliation of collaborative professionals in your area. Membership in these types of groups can help you determine if someone is committed to working in the collaborative law process and receiving ongoing training.

Knowing that your attorney is committed to the collaborative mindset is essential to the success of the process. The above questions will enable you to weed out the committed collaborative attorneys from the less so and help you to trust that the process will move forward in the manner you envision.


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Andrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
avacca@vaccalaw.com

February 12, 2014

To Do No Harm

To Do No Harm By Andrea VaccaThe Hippocratic Oath, which reads in part: I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel, is often summarized by the phrase "Do no harm." This simple yet powerful credo is an excellent approach for solving problems in many situations, including divorce.

Contrary to the approach of traditional divorce litigation, which often serves as a poison pill, the approach of collaborative lawyers is to do no harm. When our divorcing clients come to us, they are scared, angry, and confused. Our job is not to instigate and play on those fears and anxieties. Our job is to help calm them down by helping them to find their voice and get their needs met in a way that will help them move forward with their lives. It is for this reason that I choose to collaborate, rather than litigate divorce and family law cases.

Not every attorney sees things this way. An example is a conversation I recently had with a woman just starting the divorce process. She told me that although she wanted her divorce to be as amicable as possible, the last attorney she had called immediately told her he would file motions with the court to "scare" her husband. He bragged of his experience using the courts to intimidate people, and he promised her that he would win her as much money as he could. He basically said, "We'll go after your husband with no holds barred."

On the other hand, sometimes it is the client who insists on going to court. For example, if betrayal is the reason for the breakup there may be a high level of emotion, which might compel a party to want his or her "day in court" to air the grievances. This knee-jerk reaction to betrayal and anger may be understandable on the surface, but people who expect to have emotional needs met in a courtroom are always disappointed.

I encourage my clients to try another way.

The collaborative law process is a less harmful alternative to litigated divorce. It starts with a contract signed by both the attorneys and the clients affirming that:


  • The attorneys and clients will not act in an adversarial way toward each other.

  • There will be no use of threats of any kind.

  • If there are children, their best interests will be the priority.

  • The clients are encouraged to work with other related professionals, such as mental health and financial professionals.

  • If an agreement cannot be reached in the collaborative process, the clients will retain other attorneys to litigate the case for them.


By following these basic tenets, we as collaborative attorneys are promising to do no harm and honoring the trust that our clients are placing in us.

But it is up to the clients to explore all of their options and choose the right lawyer for their needs. Clients need to understand that if they immediately choose to litigate and start their divorce within the court system, they will likely miss the opportunity to come to a peaceful, thoughtful and voluntary settlement. Working with a collaborative team helps spouses reach an agreement that meets as many of their their long- and short-term needs as possible - as opposed to the scorched earth and poisonous, winner-takes-all model of litigation.

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Andrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
avacca@vaccalaw.com

January 6, 2014

Tips to Help Reduce Time and Costs When Negotiating Divorce Agreements

Tips to Help Reduce Time and Costs When Negotiating Divorce Agreements By Andrea VaccaIt is possible to make the divorce process more time- and cost-effective?

When potential clients consult with me in connection with their divorce, one of the first questions they ask is, "How much do you expect this to cost?" and one of the second questions is, "How long do you expect this to take?" Time and money are, understandably, major concerns of anyone entering the divorce process, so I know that these clients want to hear answers that reflect a best case scenario. I can never predict the exact end date or the costs involved, but I can tell these clients that the more of these tips they follow, the more likely their divorce process will run smoother and be more cost-efficient:

1. Make sure your spouse knows that you want to end the marriage. It's understood that asking a spouse for a divorce can be difficult, emotional and frightening, but try to find a way to broach the subject before you retain an attorney. Perhaps you can engage a therapist, marriage counselor or trusted friend to help you have this conversation. One of the least productive ways to start the conversation is to have an attorney send a letter to your spouse announcing your intention to divorce him or her. Remember, your spouse will have to first get over the emotional shock before any productive discussions can take place.

2. Resolve some of the less emotional topics on your own.
Before you meet with your lawyer, find a way to have a discussion with your spouse to determine what issues may be easier to resolve. Perhaps you can agree about how to divide certain assets. Or maybe you've already agreed on a parenting schedule. Any issues that you can agree on ahead of time, even if just in theory, will help you create a framework for the lawyers to work with and speed up the negotiation process.

3. Aim to be amicable. Finding solutions to unresolved issues will go a lot faster if you both intend to work fairly together to reach a compromise. Hire amicable-minded attorneys who are either collaboratively-trained or very settlement-oriented. These attorneys will encourage you to focus on your interests as opposed to your positions and they will help you stay out of court because they are used to settling their cases without relying on the involvement of judges.

4. Utilize other specialized professionals. If agreeing on financial aspects is the largest hurdle, hire a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst to help sort out the details. If emotional or communication issues are causing roadblocks, consider a divorce coach. Relying on your attorney for emotional support or for technical financial assistance can be unproductive and can lengthen the time before settlement is reached. You also get more for your money - these specialized professionals will charge much lower hourly rates than your lawyer.

5. Meet regularly. To prevent the process from stopping, starting, or even regressing, be as prepared and organized as possible and be willing to meet regularly so the settlement process can move forward in a linear fashion.

6. Cooperate, collaborate, compromise. Holding firm to your position and drawing a line in the sand will take more time and therefore cost more money. Be honest, ready to negotiate, and willing to give in on some issues.

The legal, financial and emotional complexities of your divorce will undoubtedly influence how long the issues take to resolve, but by following these tips you can be assured that the process will move forward as cost-effectively as possible.


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Andrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
avacca@vaccalaw.com

October 21, 2013

The Legal Implications For Same-Sex Couples Living in Non-Recognition States

Divorce in Non-Recognition States by Ellie AckermanThe New York Times recently published an editorial about Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, who is recruiting same-sex couples living in states that don't recognize same-sex marriage to marry in his city. His admitted goal is to bring in millions of dollars to Minneapolis through the hospitality industry and in taxes. And, now that the Supreme Court has overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), he is quick to point out that same-sex marriages performed in Minneapolis will be recognized under federal law, even in non-recognizing states.

While, as the Times wrote, Mayor Rybak's actions make for a "fun" story and a "refreshing" reflection on how far marriage equality has come, same-sex spouses who marry in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage and then move to a non-recognizing state should be aware of possible problems regarding a potential divorce. While progress has been made on the same-sex marriage front, the situation is more complicated for same-sex divorces because these marriages are not "portable." Couples who marry and divorce in a recognizing state should have no problem. However, couples who marry in a recognizing state and then move to a non-recognizing state may find themselves in a no-man's land of sorts: They cannot divorce in the state where they married, because most states (including New York) have a residency requirement that must be met before the state will adjudicate a divorce, and they cannot divorce in the state in which they reside because while the federal government has to recognize legally entered same-sex marriages, the states do not, and a couple cannot divorce in a state that will not recognize its marriage.

Some non-recognizing states may grant divorces, or may grant civil union dissolutions rather than divorces. The latter could cause problems in other states in which the same-sex couple would still be considered married; a civil union dissolution may not meet the requirements for divorce. However, there is still significant uncertainty about how same-sex divorces would be handled even in these states.

Additionally, even while the couple is married, problems arise in non-recognizing states. The couple would have to review any legal document in which they refer to each other as spouses (such as wills and powers of attorney) and change that language so that the state will enforce it.

While, as the Times wrote, same-sex couples can certainly go to one of the 13 states that has legalized same-sex marriage to get married, they - and all legally married same-sex couples - should consult a matrimonial attorney and a trusts and estates attorney before moving to a non-recognizing state. These attorneys will be able to advise same-sex couples of the potential hazards of living, divorcing, and even dying in a non-recognition state.

Ellie AckermanEllie Ackerman
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
eackerman@vaccalaw.com

October 14, 2013

Changing Course (in your divorce)

Changing Course (in your divorce) by Andrea VaccaIf you're in the middle of a litigated divorce and are unhappy with the way things are going, you can change course.

You might have started the divorce process with the goal of ending the marriage quickly and feeling as financially secure as possible at the end. You might have hired the first attorney who came highly recommended from a friend or relative who has been through their own divorce. And all seemed fine in the beginning. Your attorney said she understood that you didn't want to make your divorce World War III. She understood that you wanted to remain friends for the sake of your children. But as soon as it became clear that you and your spouse saw things differently, and conflict arose, the battle was on. Your attorney told you the judge is likely to see it your way and may have even encouraged you to write down all the divisive and emotionally painful issues between you and your spouse that would help you score points in court. And of course, your spouse's attorney told him or her the same thing.

Now, 6 months or 1 year later, you see how combative and unproductive the legal proceedings actually are, you're feeling more anger toward your spouse than ever and you're wondering, "How did I get here? This isn't how I wanted my divorce to go."

It's not too late to change course. For parting spouses who find themselves in an unwanted battle, turning away from litigation and toward a less adversarial approach to their divorce is still possible.

Some recent experiences with couples who moved from traditional (and costly) litigation to mediation or collaborative law have provided me with insights that I would like to share with you, or anyone you might know who is going through a divorce:

  • If you don't like the way things are going, explore a different approach: If you feel that the original process you chose for your divorce was a mistake, make a change as soon as possible. The longer a divorce continues in court, the more positional each side becomes. Things are said in court that cannot be "unsaid." Emotional damage can be done in the process that could make it more difficult for you and your spouse to ever come to a resolution or to be cooperative when living your post-divorce lives.
  • Your divorce lawyer is unlikely to be supportive of you trying a different process: He may tell you that he does not believe your spouse is capable of being reasonable and you need the "protection" that a court can provide. What he may not tell you is that he doesn't want to lose you as a client. This may be especially true if you still have a robust sum in your checking account. All attorneys hate to lose a client, but this is especially true when the client can afford to pay legal fees. If your attorney attempts to dissuade you from trying mediation or collaborative divorce, certainly listen to what he is saying, but remember that you are the one going through the divorce - not your attorney. The choice of process needs to be up to you and your spouse.
  • It takes two reasonable people to move away from litigation and toward a non-adversarial process: You may need to be the brave one who initiates a conversation with your spouse to find out if he or she is also unhappy with the litigation process. If you haven't had a civil conversation with your spouse in months, this can feel pretty scary. In that case, you may need some outside advice about how to facilitate the conversation. There are excellent divorce coaches who can help you get clear about what isn't working for you in the current process, what your true goals are for this divorce and how to explain all of this to your spouse in a way that feels safe.
If you have questions about divorce mediation and collaborative law and how they can change the tone of your divorce into one characterized by cooperation, call me at 212-768-1115 or visit my website.


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Andrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
avacca@vaccalaw.com

August 6, 2013

The Team Approach To Divorce

An article entitled The Team Approach to Divorce was published in the July 2013 issue of New York Family Law Monthly, an ALM publication. In the article, I explain how the professional-team approach works in the collaborative process and how attorneys who primarily litigate can use aspects of this approach to help settle their family law cases.

Read an excerpt below and the whole article by clicking here.


The Team Approach To Divorce

Using Financial and Mental-Health Professionals When Settling Family Cases

By Andrea Vacca

The Team Approach to Divorce

Most family law attorneys, whether they litigate or collaborate, have a go-to list of aligned professionals upon whom they rely to assist them and their clients in more complicated cases. We regularly consult with or directly refer our clients to accountants, appraisers, therapists and other professionals to help them achieve the best possible outcomes, given their particular circumstances.

There is a difference, however, in how litigating attorneys and collaborative attorneys use the advice and guidance of these other professionals. Litigating attorneys commonly use them in later stages of the case and bring these professionals in as experts in support of their clients' economic or child-related claims. Collaborative attorneys begin working with financial and mental-health professionals from the inception of the case, with the goal of working together as a team and helping the clients move toward resolution.


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Andrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
avacca@vaccalaw.com

July 31, 2013

How to Have the Nastiest Divorce Possible

Note to readers: I've been wanting to write about how to avoid "nasty" divorces without all the gloom and doom that usually accompanies such a topic. And then it struck me: Use equal parts facts, sarcasm and humor!

Vacca - pB - image - Nasty Divorce - SKT - July 30 2013.jpgIf you and your spouse have decided to end your marriage and you want to look back on the divorce process with as much anger and resentment as possible, then this recipe for a nasty divorce is for you!

Step One (1) - Hire a bulldog lawyer who will:

  • tell you she'll get you everything that you want...
  • tell you that you have a winning case...
  • tell you she settles most of her cases - but will file an action for divorce before ever trying to reach an agreement outside of court...

This will ensure that you pay thousands of dollars in motion fees asking the judge to make temporary decisions such as how the bills will be paid and when the children will be sleeping in your home. It will also ensure that you and your spouse are adversaries for the next couple of years and will need lawyers to do most of the communicating between the two of you.

Step Two (2) - Don't explore mediation or collaborative divorce: Consider this nightmare scenario: You and your spouse being guided by professionals who are committed to helping you communicate effectively to resolve serious issues. Why would you want that? What will you have to add to the conversation when your friends complain about how badly their divorces are going?

Step Three (3) - Fight for your principles: Principles are the best way to make sure you spend exorbitant amounts of money on expert and lawyers fees. Principles are also a great way to prevent long-term compromise that will make sense a few years down the road.

Step Four (4) - Listen to the Greek Chorus: The Greek Chorus is always there to help set you back, whether it's by trash talking your spouse or making you second guess all your choices - and the advice of the professionals who are trying to help you get through this process. By far the wisest members of the Greek Chorus are other people going through divorce. Generally, the nastier their divorce, the more advice they offer. They are obviously doing something right.

Step Five (5) - Insist on having your day in court: By having your day in court you're going to tell your story to the judge. You want that judge to hear everything that your spouse did wrong, and rightfully so. You will have years to hone your argument and gather more evidence, in addition to the opportunity to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal and expert fess while you wait for that special day.

For those of you who want to ensure that you are fighting with your estranged spouse for years to come, I hope this post has been helpful.

For those of you who prefer to move on with your lives and feel that you and your spouse did the best you could to have a civil divorce, the good news is there are mediators and collaborative professionals out there who can help you achieve your goals, too!

Vacca - image - headshot - skt - apr 18 2013.jpgAndrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
avacca@vaccalaw.com

July 2, 2013

Supreme Court Strikes Down DOMA

Vacca - DOMA.jpgOn June 26, 2013, the United States Supreme Court declared parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. The decision, a huge civil rights victory for the gay community, will require federal law to recognize same-sex marriages the same way they recognize heterosexual marriages. This will grant same-sex spouses (at least in states that recognize same-sex marriage, such as New York) countless benefits that had previously been denied them under the statute. Now, same sex couples will be able to file joint income tax returns, enjoy spousal and survival status under Social Security, inheritance and estate laws, and be entitled to COBRA and other health insurance benefits. Effects on immigration have been among the most dramatic and immediate, as American citizens can now apply for permanent resident visas, or green cards, for their foreign-born same-sex spouses. Couples began receiving notification of approval for green cards as early as June 28.

As matrimonial attorneys, we are excited about this decision, not only because of the impact it will have on the same-sex couples that are married or contemplating getting married in New York, but also because of the ways in which it will affect the practice of matrimonial law. Previously, any agreement between same-sex couples, whether prenuptial or separation, required drafting around the federal benefits to which married heterosexual couples are automatically entitled with no way to compensate for the omission. Granting same-sex spouses the same federal rights as their heterosexual counterparts allows not just for more equality but also more uniformity under the law.

We applaud the Supreme Court for recognizing this and look forward to further advancements in same-sex rights.

Vacca - image - headshot - skt - apr 18 2013.jpgAndrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
avacca@vaccalaw.com

April 18, 2013

The Road Map to Collaborative Divorce

Vacca - pB - The Road Map to Collaborative Divorce - SKT - Apr 18 2013.jpgThe setting in which Family Law attorneys work is often not a courtroom, but a complicated landscape of their clients' needs and emotions. Because many of these emotions are difficult to experience, it is natural that a divorcing couple might want the process to conclude quickly. But moving forward too quickly without sufficient understanding of each party's true needs and goals risks the integrity of the final product. To ensure a settlement agreement has the durability to last and keep both sides satisfied in the long term, many collaborative professionals use a roadmap that helps to illustrate for their clients the stages of the collaborative law process. This roadmap helps to slow down the tendency to prematurely rush ahead toward solutions that may have little connection to actual interests and goals by helping the parties to see where they're going in the process and also how far they've come.

A TYPICAL COLLABORATIVE ROADMAP IS COMPOSED OF THE FOLLOWING STEPS:

  • Setting the Framework: This initial phase of the process involves explaining to both parties how the collaborative process works and describing each person's roles and responsibilities.The clients will discuss why they have chosen to work collaboratively and what their goals are for the process. We also "assemble the team," deciding which other professionals will be necessary to help see us through the various issues in the divorce. How can a child specialist or a divorce coach assist in this process? What issues may be more easily resolved by working with a neutral financial professional?

  • Gathering Information: Here we identify the potential conflicts that need to be resolved and gather the facts and information about those issues that will help settle them. Different members of the team in place may now be called on to assist. For example, if the divorcing couple has children, at this stage the coaches and child specialist will gather information about the emotional and personal relationships between the couple and their children. We'll want to know whether there are any special needs of the children or emotional issues that must be addressed. The financial professional will start gathering information about the parties' assets, debts and income and the attorneys and clients may have an open discussion about the law at this stage as well.

  • Developing a Shared Understanding: This is where we define the interests of the parties. We take a look behind the stated positions of each side to examine not what the parties claim to want, but why they need it. When one spouse insists he or she needs to "keep the house" we look to see what the reasoning behind the request is. Is the real issue that one of the parties needs to stay in this particular home because the carrying charges are low? Or is it because the grandparents live nearby and help out with the child care? The goal here is to get away from blanket positional statements and look at the underlying reasons for those positions.

  • Generating and Evaluating Options: By this stage, we are looking to find an actual solution that works for both parties by looking at the available options. Each party will consider and evaluate the options to see whether they satisfy each of their main interests. We can also test out possible solutions. For example, if we're dealing with an issue that is financially related, the financial professional will "run the numbers" and do a side-by-side comparison of the different options under consideration. We can pose the question, "what amount of cash will each party have left after taxes over the next 20 years if we divide the assets this way as opposed to that?" This approach allows each spouse to see what choices are preferable in the long term and make decisions based upon this information.

  • Reaching Agreement: When each party is satisfied that its concerns have been addressed and feels secure about the compromises made, it is time to actually draft and sign an agreement. As you can see, by the time we get to this last step, each party has had many opportunities to have his or her voice heard and interests addressed.

An agreement reached by following the collaborative roadmap means more than just the paper it is printed on - it is significant because it was the product of both parties making decisions with all necessary information before them, listening to each other and cooperating with one another. This not only makes the divorce process a lot less unpleasant than an adversarial action in court but can also provide the parties with a method to solve problems together in the future.

Vacca - image - headshot - skt - apr 18 2013.jpgAndrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1600
New York, NY 10022
avacca@vaccalaw.com

November 21, 2012

Use of Technology to Reduce Conflicts in Co-Parenting

A recent article in The Huffington Post summarized a University of Missouri study that analyzed the way divorced parents use technology to facilitate (or hinder) their co-parenting arrangements. According to the study, parents with effective communication used technology to improve parent-parent communication as well as parent-child access, while parents with ineffective communication used technology to frustrate both their relationship with the other parent and the other parent's relationship with the children. Establishing positive communication practices between spouses not only maintains a level of civility between the parents; it also provides a more pleasant environment for the children. Whether a couple engaged in litigation, mediation, or collaborative methods in obtaining their divorce, limiting post-divorce conflict between parents is imperative to helping children adjust.

Below are some tips for using communication technology effectively as a tool to foster positive and successful co-parenting arrangements and limit conflict:

• E-mail: E-mail can be a useful way for divorced parents to communicate with each other. Risks inherent in telephone communication are largely absent in e-mail communication: telephone conversations can be impulsive and rash, and since they are generally not recorded, a parent may feel entitled to make any manner of accusation toward his or her ex. Parents can also use the telephone to avoid communication, by ignoring phone calls and voice messages. By contrast, e-mail affords a parent with the ability to express himself or herself, then edit the message to ensure that only a calm, rational tone is used. E-mail also provides a communication trail, which makes it more likely that a parent will limit his or her hostility.
• Text Messages: The idea behind using text messages to communicate is similar to that of e-mail. Text messaging is more immediate, but still allows each parent to edit their message for the appropriate tone, and creates a communication trail.
• Calendar Sharing: With Google calendars or iCloud, parents can share calendars with each other. This can ensure that each parent has access to the children's academic, extra-curricular, and social activities. Shared calendars can also provide a method by which parents can keep tabs on parenting and vacation schedules, including travel details and changes in the usual parenting plan. Creating a shared calendar thus minimizes the likelihood that a parent will miss an important event in the children's lives, while mitigating the interaction between parents regarding their own schedules and those of the children.
• Online Co-Parenting Software: In the event that parents prefer help with limiting conflict in multiple areas, including parenting schedules and child support payments, co-parenting software is an option. The software, which has gained popularity over the past year or so, provides calendars, expense logs, message boards, and child records (medical, academic, etc.). These features allow parents to keep track of schedules and expenses, and to communicate with one another directly. Examples of available software are Our Family Wizard and ShareKids.

As noted in a recent article in the New York Times, communication technology is becoming popular not only with divorced parents, but in the courtroom and amongst lawyers as well. According to the article, settlement agreements often include provisions for non-custodial parents to Skype with their children, and at least one judge has ordered a couple to use Our Family Wizard to avoid disagreements.

Each of the above-mentioned tools can build a successful co-parenting environment for parents and children. As the University of Missouri study concluded, parents who had good relationships effectively used these tools to maintain contact with their ex-spouses and to facilitate the children's transition between parents. As with all aspects of divorce, the children's best interests should be paramount and, to the extent that communication technologies can advance this goal, they should be widely considered.


October 3, 2012

How to Protect the Family in the Face of Divorce

I help couples end their marriages without destroying their families. That's not just a tagline on my website or part of my elevator speech; it's the actual reason that I no longer use adversarial methods to help my clients who are divorcing or separating. An article in the New York Times that focused on Al and Tipper Gore reminded me that all families - even celebrity families - benefit when the parents are able and willing to divorce with as little acrimony as possible.

By way of background, after more than 40 years of marriage, Al and Tipper Gore separated in 2010 when they grew apart and realized they wanted different things out of life. The article focused on where they and their 4 adult children are now in their lives post-divorce, and how the family support system has remained intact.

A friend of the Gores from Nashville, Christine Leverone Orrall, was quoted as saying that "Tipper and Al may live in different parts of the country, and may be very happy with their own lives these days, but the children always bring them together. I think they're showing how you can be happy and healthy apart while still focusing on their children and their life together as a family."

According to Tony Coehlo, chairman of Al Gore's 2000 campaign, "Al and Tipper were the happily married couple of American politics for 30 years. They packaged themselves that way for political consumption, and have unpackaged that image in the interest of their own happiness. They are still a family, but they have become the kind of family that they want to be."

Whether a couple is contemplating a late-life "gray divorce" and have adult children, like the Gores, or whether they've been married just a few years and have a toddler at home, the goal can be the same: it is possible to end the marriage while protecting the family.

Many couples stay together for the sake of the family while sacrificing their own individual happiness in the process. They may consider divorce, but after witnessing the struggles of friends and family members who divorce with a lot of animosity and anger, they want to protect themselves from that sort of pain. But divorce does not have to acrimonious. It is rarely - if ever - easy; and there is no question that it can be incredibly difficult financially, emotionally and spiritually. However, when both spouses are committed to respecting each other and keeping the animosity and anger in control, they can each move through the divorce and toward a new life that isn't weighed down by the difficult emotions that were played out in their divorce and/or exacerbated by attorneys who are trying to "win" their case.

One important lesson I have learned in my 20 years of practicing divorce law is that no one wins at the end of an adversarial litigated divorce. Neither spouse is happy, the children have frequently suffered, and an enormous amount of money has been spent fighting a war which simply cannot be won.

Regardless of their age, children want and need parents who are there for them emotionally as well as physically; but this may not be possible when their parents are suffering in an unhappy marriage. Couples who are committed to divorcing with respect and dignity are not only setting a good example for their children during the divorce process, but are better able to keep their family strong and healthy after it is over.

September 17, 2012

The Role of a Child's Wishes When a Parent Wants to Relocate

Clients often ask what role a child's wishes should (or do) play when one parent is considering moving them to a new location, away from the other parent. A New York Court has recently issued a thoughtful decision regarding this issue.

New York law tells us that when considering a custodial parent's request to relocate, several factors need to be examined to determine what is in the child's best interests. In addition to the child's wishes, other important factors to consider include the reason that the parent is seeking to move, how the move would impact the quality and quantity of the child's contact with the other parent, and the potential economic, educational and emotional enhancement of the child if the move were to take place.

In Byron v. Davis , the Court considered the request of a mother who had primary residential custody of her children, to move them from Rochester, NY to Washington, DC so that she could accept a position as an associate dean at a university. The job offered substantial career advancement and doubled the Mother's salary. The Father objected to the relocation on the basis that it would substantially interfere with his relationship with his 11 and 14 year-old sons. The Court found that both parents were loving and caring parents and both offered valid reasons for their positions regarding whether it was in the children's best interests to stay in Rochester or move to Washington DC. For the Court, the decision came down to the desires of the children.

In rendering its decision, The Court examined various factors to determine whether the relocation would be in the children's best interests:

• Physical and emotional state of the children

The court noted that the parents described their sons to be highly intelligent, well-rounded, and in excellent health. They played sports and were involved in other activities as well. There was no evidence of any impairment of their judgment.

• Parental influence

Both parents were deemed to be stable and neither of them attempted to improperly influence the children in their decision or promote their own agendas.

• Constancy of children's preference

The children "remained firm" in their desire to stay in Rochester. Additionally, they were aware of the standard of living they would have if they stayed with their father who earned a much smaller income than their mother's future income.

After examining all of the factors necessary to determine the children's best interests in this case, the Court decided that the children's valid reasons for wanting to stay in Rochester with their father trumped their mother's desire to move them to DC.