The Hidden Hardship in Family Law
What do Microsoft and the practice of Family Law have in common?
Both are in industries that make a lot of money for attorneys feeding from their offal. Last year, over $8 billion was paid to attorneys who practice Family Law.
Jilted spouses and abandoned plaintiffs will readily concede that they were worth every dime. Who can argue when the battle is joined in the interests of providing for the reasonable needs of the marital children?
The conflict is often a titanic struggle. To the victor goes the spoils.
Lawyers skilled in the fine art of discovery lay open the financial affairs of private individuals and arrange them on a platter with all the flair of a master chef. Opposing attorneys agree to argue, for an advance retainer, the benefits of orthodontics, the requirement of psychological counseling, the long-term effects of fecal-retention syndrome, and the doubtful merits of Missy's horseback riding lessons.
Before you know it, you've run up a hefty six figure legal bill and a visitation schedule that is more complex than the 1991 battle plans for Operation Desert Storm.
I should know. My ex-spouse's divorce tagged me for nearly $120,000 in legal and professional fees. It destroyed two professional practices and cost me my job at a third. The action followed me for six years from North Carolina to California then back to Pennsylvania. It froze my bank accounts, my investment accounts, my pension accounts, and resulted in the cancellation of $1.2 million in life insurance trusts for the benefit of my children.
Much to their misfortune, those events are going to adversely affect the welfare of my children for the rest of their lives.
It is a system gone badly awry.
The tactics long-employed by pugnacious law firms but previously reserved for drug cartels have become so effective in Family Court matters that they were recently adopted by the United States government in order to apprehend high-profile corporate criminals and foreign terrorists.
Somebody ought to put the interests of the family back in Family Law.
That's hard to do in states where Attorney Generals are stumping for re-election, where the legislators in many states are attorneys, where member firms support the local legal society, where judges who were once attorneys at these member firms establish case law and precedent, and when there's so darn much money to be made.
It is a regular feeding frenzy. The participants in Family Court actions are not only viewed as cannon fodder but also as a recurring source of legal fees. Are you an attorney looking to buy another vacation home? Just file half-a-dozen motions this afternoon. Are private school tuition payments due for your children? Pull out your out-of-state dads file and go for a few default judgments.
The stock boom of the 1990's did more than increase the size of many marital estates. It also increased the motivation of parties in this now flagging economy to defend a right to their fair share of the spoils. Even if the spoils no longer exist.
Although the stock market Crash of 2000 may likely be remembered for the torrid cash burn rates that preceded the Internet Bubble's busted flush, the practice of Family Law appears to be flourishing. In fact, it has become a veritable billing field.
The children are the innocent casualties.
Parenting, as I knew it before my divorce, was a shared responsibility. It still is. Somewhere along the way, the courts appear to have ruled that only a father had the responsibility to support the children. This seems odd, particularly when college-educated, income-producing women often play an active role in managing the fuse on their biological clocks.
When a mother who has neatly painted herself into the I am a victim of the other woman corner goes to court, at what point does she become responsible for financially supporting the children and accountable for carrying out a legal vendetta that results in the total destruction of the family father figure?
Justifiably, some deadbeat dads need to be drawn and quartered. Their children will one day become future citizens, taxpayers, and more likely than not, parents of the same. Somebody needs to discipline these dads about their financial responsibilities. If you can't support your children, you shouldn't have them.
The same goes for women.
The recent perp walks by deadbeat dads and their public spanking not only reinforced the notion of the FBI's mastery in solving domestic crime, but it also made moms everywhere feel good.
The return to family values momentarily appeased even those who were disappointed in the efforts of the CIA, NSA, FBI, and combined United States Armed Forces to locate and apprehend Osama bin Laden. Victimized spouses short on shopping funds and long on their credit cards agree that nailing those domestic terrorists masquerading as deadbeat dads was good for the country.
And it taught all a lesson that American soccer moms, comfortably ensconced in their SUV's and standing firmly behind their bulldog attorneys at local Family Courts, are not to be trifled with or taken lightly.
I had no idea of any of this in 1962 as I fervently recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Mrs. Reed's 4th grade class. Even those get under the desk, close your eyes, and turn away from the window drills for that extra margin of safety in a nuclear blast provided no hint of the scorched earth tactics that would be used against me during my divorce thirty-five years later.
These days, a new legal landscape has been carved out of the heart of this once-fine country.
I asked my mom, now age 77 and who single-handedly raised five children after my dad died of a heart attack after nine years of battling kidney failure, how she would have faired if the specter of legal blather from Family Law attorneys were added to her pile. She replied, Honey, the Family Law industry didn't exist when your dad and I were married. We never knew anyone who needed the counsel of an attorney in handling a divorce. That's what friends were for.
My, how times have changed.
Today I am nearly penniless and barely breathing after the nightmare of the last six years. Even the U.S. government's legal spat with Microsoft's ambition of owning the computing world was resolved in less time.
The results of my seventeenth hearing in the North Carolina Family Court system on August 5, 2002, now attorney pro se because I can no longer afford to pay for one, left me feeling as though I'd been teleported to a pro-Taliban high counsel in Kandahar wearing an American flag and a kick me sign.
These days, a totally different dynamic is in place in most family court systems where any semblance of justice has been tainted by biased judges, greedy attorneys, and intractable ex-spouses. Can anyone explain to me how the tactics of these individuals are different from al Qaida who have pledged Jihad?
Although the scandal within the Family Court system erupted a long time ago, the results currently meted out by some Courts have become more lop-sided than a Duke University v. Radnor High School basketball game and nearly as predictable as Big Ten officiating.
It is no surprise that the stink in some courtroom decisions suggests the process has even become more corrupt and dirtier than politics.
Yet these metaphors do not hold a candle when describing the home court advantage afforded Wake County residents in the North Carolina Family Court system. Particularly when the opponent is an out-of-state dad wearing a scarlet letter A on his jersey and who lied about it his first appearance in court.
Am I the only individual in the country who was ashamed to admit such an indiscretion and a breach of the for better or for worse marital vows?
Right. I thought as much. When a partnership fails, there is more than enough fault to go around.
Caught in the undertow of an unforgiving stock market, an unmercifully harsh economic climate, and a job market that exists only in the minds of a few, I still paid child support. Only after depleting all of my savings and exhausting all other alternatives, I filed a Motion to Reduce child support in September, 2001.
I needed the reduction for several reasons.
Three years is a long time for a brutal bear market.
My misplaced belief in the independent advice of Morgan Stanley's Mary Meeker, Merrill Lynch's Henry Blodgett, and Gruntal's Joe Battapaglia caught me flat-footed when the bottom fell out of the market. The doubtful veracity of corporate financial results filed with the SEC and the talking heads on CNBC added fuel to the fire and incinerated in a few short months a net worth that had taken thirty years to build.
My average income for the last three years has been $14,000. I have no house, a negative net worth, and drive a car with 170,000 miles on the odometer. Although the utilities are current, I have not had the money to pay rent for several months.
After retaining an executive counseling firm, applying to over 6,000 jobs, paying nearly $20,000 in job hunting expenses, and taking interviews in eight different states without an offer, I had run out of money.
Newspaper headlines across the country seemed to agree that the economy had also run out of jobs.
It just simply was not possible to pay $2,000 per month in child support for four children and an additional $350 or so for medical expenses on what I was making. Those amounts were more than I earned. How was I to pay for visitation expenses? How was I to live? How was I to render unto Caesar the requisite federal and state income taxes?
Even when the children were with me for the summer, I still had to pay child support to their mother. Does that make sense to anyone?
My ex-spouse was a college graduate, had in excess of $600,000 in assets, a house that was fully paid for, and an income producing job that paid her $21,000 this past year. She also had in me an ex-spouse who drove over 40,000 miles the last three years to visit his four children during the one weekend per month permitted by the court. When times were better, I had paid over $110,000 in previous child support, alimony, and medical reimbursements.
You should have heard her howling in court the moment after the judge dismissed my motion for temporary reprieve. Her invective-laced sobbing accompanied by screams of relief made you wonder about her motives during her victory lap.
The choreography was superb.
It was a public display of a hate so criminal that it should have been jailed. It froze the bailiff in his tracks and stunned the gallery in the court. The judge waved a finger at me and said: If you say one word, ONE WORD, you are going down.
How appropriate it occurred in North Carolina, land of lynching repute.
The judge's ruling was based on the Wolf case that was decided by the North Carolina Court of Appeals on July 16, 2002.
In that appellate case, the court refused to modify support determined on the basis of an individual's earning capacity instead of his actual income.
How that case applied to me was anybody's guess. I had logged over 2,000 hours looking for additional work in the aftermath of my job termination through sanctioned Family Court action, the Stock Market Crash of 2000, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the longest recession on record since the Great Depression. I provided over 1,500 pages of job listings, emails, rejection letters, and many of the financial documents that supported my efforts to demonstrate that my circumstances had indeed changed.
Surely some form relief was warranted.
Like many American citizens these days, I was involuntarily underemployed, not unemployed. So too were hundreds of thousands of other well-educated individuals in the wakes of the Enron, Arthur Andersen, Adelphia, World Com, and Tyco debacles. So were those individuals laid off or who had their hours reduced from nearly every major company in the United States. The sectors included the telecom, airline, investment banking, venture capital, and brokerage industries and nearly every other as companies downsized and attempted to cut their way to a profit.
Equally unemployed were many of the good citizens of North Carolina, which, according to the September 2002 Bureau Labor of Statistics had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
But if anybody was wondering about the justice for out-of-state dads in the North Carolina Family Court system, well now, there is no longer any need to wonder.
There is simply no justice for out-of-state dads where the North Carolina Family Courts are concerned. The recent decision in my hearing rendered by the Wake County Family Court judiciary has cast doubt upon the veracity of their entire legal system.
The court once again deviated from their own guidelines for support and ordered me to pay $2,000 per month plus all medical. How is such a decision possible for a dad with no home, no net assets, and no money?
There is, of course, much more to the story.
The Wake County North Carolina Family Court system feeds those who make their living frequenting the court rooms on the 8th and 9th floors and the judge's chambers. In fact, the system exists to feed itself. Attorneys with their over-sized legal bills always stand at the front of the line.
The system takes money from their dad and gives it to their mom with virtually no accountability. Despite the overly generous amounts I have paid in child support, their mother has been starving them. She testified she spends $350 per month on food for one adult, three teenagers, and an eleven year-old. She has made them buy their own clothes, intercepted my letters to them, withheld their CARE packages, and routinely made them unavailable for visitation.
On one occasion, I flew from California to North Carolina for my court-approved visitation only to find the house dark and empty. Her boyfriend had taken my kids and her to a concert.
I will be the first to say that she has been a real pain.
During the last six years, I have appeared in front of three different judges in the North Carolina Courts as an out-of-state dad in what has now become seventeen hearings. I have lost every one: the fourteen I had when I could afford an attorney and the three that I had when I could not.
I have appeared in court by flying six times from San Francisco, a 5,600 mile round trip, and by driving eleven times from Philadelphia, an 850 mile, sixteen hour drive.
That's 33,600 miles of flying and 9,350 miles of driving to attend Family Court hearings. Three hearings were continued. On one occasion, although the Plaintiff's attorney appeared, the Plaintiff did not, hoping for the convenience of a default judgment.
It gets better.
I filed the Motion for Change in Circumstance on September 30, 2001. Although the Plaintiff and her attorney appeared in court on November 26, 2001, they requested additional time and the judge granted their motion. One more wasted drive. The plaintiff's attorney took my telephone number and deftly handed me his business card with the invitation to call so we could coordinate our schedules.
But all I got from his secretary when I called was that he didn't have his calendar with him. Apparently, ever.
During the next 210 days, the Plaintiff's attorney refused to answer any of my correspondence or take any of my telephone calls to discuss the case. Seven months later, having failed to obtain my day in court, I filed a complaint with the North Carolina State Bar citing unethical behavior on the part of the attorney. I provided copies of my phone records to the law office where I left nearly a dozen different messages as well as certified mailing receipts. After a pro-forma investigation, the North Carolina State Bar determined there was no basis for my claim.
During the June 3, 2002 hearing which was again continued to a later date, the Plaintiff's attorney told the Court I had been in Raleigh, North Carolina visiting my children and that I had hardly been inconvenienced by driving 850 miles for the scheduled hearing.
It was a lie, and of course, I told the judge so. I had the toll booth receipts in my car from that morning's 425 mile drive. The Ft. McHenry tunnel receipt in Baltimore, Maryland and exactly one hundred miles outside of Philadelphia is nearly one-quarter of the way to Raleigh, the capital of the Tar Heel state and home of the infamous Wake County Family Court.
I pointed to the attorney and called him a liar. The judge told me to sit down and shut up or I was going to jail.
Properly chastised, I filed a second complaint with the North Carolina State Bar against the Plaintiff's attorney citing the lie. I also provided copies of toll booth receipts for the Delaware Turnpike and Ft. McHenry tunnel. After a second pro-forma investigation, the North Carolina State Bar determined there was no basis for my claim.
No foxes in this henhouse, said the fox.
On August 5, 2002, over eleven months after I filed my motion, the case was heard. How Pollyannaish was it of me to think that justice might be blind? But then again, perhaps it was merely short-sighted.
The plaintiff's attorney reveled in my job misfortunes and my failure to produce a greater income. Theoretically, I should be making a much higher wage as an MBA and CPA. It didn't matter that fifty year old MBA's were a dime a dozen or that thousands of CPA's were out of work.
Reasonable people would agree that hypothetical earnings should not count for much unless child support can also be paid with hypothetical dollars. They have learned that lesson from World Com's smorgasbord of income manipulation that hid over $9 billion in real operating losses with theoretical accounting adjustments.
The attorney on the other side of the aisle objected to substantially all of the evidence I attempted to enter into the court record. The judge largely agreed. He didn't want to slog through the more than 1,500 pages of discovery I had been asked to provide. Besides, he was on his way to lunch with another judge, and clearly had no time, patience, or sympathy for an underemployed, out-of-state dad.
He instructed me to pick one of the documents and he would allow that document into evidence.
After his lunch, in no uncertain terms, he denied my claim for relief. He also denied the Plaintiff's claim for legal fees. The judge also instructed the Plaintiff's attorney to draft a proposed order and mail it to the applicable parties for review.
Five days after I received the proposed order, I provided an alternative proposed order. I faxed it to the judge and mailed it via first class mail to the Plaintiff's attorney.
A week later, with neither order entered by the court, imagine my dismay to find a new Motion to Show Cause in my mailbox. A nice transmittal letter was attached. It stated there would be other follow-on motions filed by the Plaintiff's attorney. Although readily admitting the recent order had not been entered in court, they also demanded their legal fees. My estimate of their fees for this action was something on the order of $8-12,000.
I could spend 100% of my time just answering their motions and driving back and forth to court. How does that benefit my children?
Unfortunately for the attorney involved, he also should also have requested a peer review by the North Carolina State Bar since many of the dates in the new motion citing previous orders were wrong. They even cited references to 1993 court orders pertaining to my case. I was still married in 1993 and at least four years away from the receipt of their first legal letter.
It is absolutely amazing the kind of legal drivel you can churn out with a good secretary and word processor. The regularity of these harrassive motions, unlike the regularity of a good bowel movement, is enough to torture my honest soul. But if this is what Alan Greenspan had in mind the day he begrudgingly acknowledged an increase in productivity, then will somebody please take me back to the Stone Age?
I filed my third complaint to the North Carolina State Bar as a result of this new motion which appeared to be crafted from some prior, unknown, but it's stored-on-the-computer-so-let's-use-it filing.
The toxic forum provided for out-of-state dads by the Wake County North Carolina Family Court System has all but strangled the life out of me. While it has been a regular ATM machine for the attorneys and law firms involved, it has taken its toll on all of us. What remains of the family, the children included, is weary of the process.
I have never seen such a wholesale destruction of wealth in my lifetime.
A sympathetic police chief and friend of long stature tracked me down, wondering why those whose company we once enjoyed had not heard from me. For years.
I provided him with the 10,000 foot fly-by version of my story. With good intentions, he offered a remarkably simple solution. One of my deputies is going through a divorce. I suggested the 20-50 plan: pay $20K for a Harley and $50 for a sleeping bag. You need to serve me? Then find me.
That, of course, works for awhile. As long as you don't have kids that you're just madly in love with that are held hostage by some Family Court order. I had ruled that option out years ago. Besides, these days, I couldn't afford to pay for even a used Vespa.
But child support is based on income. They can't take more than you make.
In North Carolina, oh yes they can.
Although a simple class in Economics 101 will convince you that you cannot spend money you do not have, the laws in the North Carolina Family Courts appear to condone deficit spending.
They most certainly tolerate the legal shenanigans that lead to such troubling decisions.
This past summer, my oldest daughter filled a backpack with her precious things, called a cab from her mother's home, and took the train out of Raleigh to live with her dad. She attends public school in Philadelphia. It marked a turning point in her life where the detritus of her mother's unfettered enmity towards her father finally drove her away. In a few short years, her siblings may follow.
I don't know that I would have had the courage at age 17 to make such a decision.
She is doing very well, thank you, without the benefit of the faulty vision of the North Carolina Family Court judiciary system. The recent motions filed by her mother conspicuously omit the fact that the oldest daughter has been living with her dad for the last five months.
This year I have worked four jobs: as a web site writer, as an accountant, a handyman, and a painter. I celebrated my 50th birthday on September 17, 2002 at the top of a twenty-eight foot ladder painting the trim on a warehouse in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
I have been reduced to selling personal items on eBay in order to pay for some of the past due child support. Holiday and birthday gifts may have to wait a few years. Be sure you bookmark my auctions. I would greatly appreciate it.
I am still battling with the Internal Revenue Service over the exemption for the children. My ex-spouse mistakenly believes she is entitled to take them as dependency exemptions on her income tax return and has done so since 1998. She earned no money and received the appropriate amount of child support. Although I have been a practicing CPA the last 24 years, I simply am incapable of understanding the IRS's reasoning.
It is a darn shame that I am still required by North Carolina to pay an ex-spouse child support for a child who is no longer living with her. Especially since my daughter has SAT's and college application fees coming up.
Don't even start with me about how I plan to pay for her college.
The punishment to my daughter does not fit the crime. In fact, she committed no crime. She simply loves her dad. And I need her. She has been a delight in my life. One day, all my kids will somehow grow up and make their own decisions. Yours will too.
Wherever I live, the Welcome mat for my children is always out.
But what do you do about Hairbow hate crimes still hiding behind the skirts of Family Court systems? It is indeed unfortunate for the civilized members of society that the judges and bottom-feeders at the Family Court trough have yet to realize that they have exacerbated the problem. In North Carolina, there is currently no family in the Family Courts.
Indeed, the courts in North Carolina appear to have targeted the wholesale destruction of the once sacred institution of fatherhood.
They have certainly confiscated its dignity.
I am now on the record with my opinion that North Carolina is a state that more closely resembles a Dante's Inferno that has shaken my belief in the judicial system to its core. Family Court is little more than a country road game of chicken where attorneys are driving eighteen-wheelers and out-of-state dads are riding bicycles.
The credibility of those courts is in tatters as a result of the disconnect between Family Court decisions and an ability to pay.
You must give that matter some serious thought before you consider moving to North Carolina. It can be a nice place to visit. But would you really want to live there?