WE HELP FAMILIES RESOLVE CONFLICT PEACEFULLY


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

What Does it Mean to Call Yourself a Collaborative Lawyer?

It's not unusual to hear a lawyer describe themselves as collaborative.  I've also heard "I haven't taken the Collaborative Law training, but I certainly consider myself collaborative!"

But what do they mean by that?  Does it mean they offer collaborative law as an option to their clients, or just that they're willing to start a case in out-of-court negotiations and see where it leads?  Does it mean that they understand the collaborative law principles, or simply that they try to be civil with opposing counsel?

Civility and Collaboration are not the same thing.  In fact, many lawyers think of true "collaboration" as a dirty word.  I imagine them picturing the World War II signs labeling French civilians as "collaborators" and shuddering at the thought.  The problem with this mentality, especially in family law, is it means that you are thinking of the opposing party (and their counsel) as the enemy.  You might be civil to an enemy, but begrudgingly at best.  You might cooperate with an enemy for mutual self-interest, but you'll never trust them.  You'll never truly want to work together with an enemy.

Collaborative Law asks us to take a different approach.

The opposing party in a conflict is not my enemy.  They may have some competing interests, but in all likelihood they have many of the same goals and interests.  If you ask most parties in a conflict, they would both agree that they want to minimize lawyer fees, that they want to minimize the amount of time they spend in conflict, and that they want to have control over the outcome.  In a family case, they will almost always agree that the best interest of the children is a priority and that financial stability is also an important goal.

When we recognize that the joint goals often significantly outnumber and outweigh the areas of disagreement, we acknowledge the value of working together towards a mutually agreeable resolution of the conflict.  We see the value in collaboration, because we are not enemies just because we have a disagreement.  Even if that disagreement is painful and difficult, when we acknowledge the human dignity of the other side of a conflict, we invite a mutual respect and we make room for creativity and cooperation in joint problem solving.

Being a Collaborative lawyer is not just about civility.  That should be a given anyway.  Being a Collaborative lawyer is about shifting from a mindset where the other party or counsel is the problem to overcome, to a mindset where we define the disagreement as a joint problem and try to solve it together.

So if you want to call yourself collaborative, take the time to learn what it's really about.  Challenge yourself to set aside your misconceptions about problem solving, and offer to your clients an opportunity to find peaceful resolution instead of waging war and creating an enemy.

If I've piqued your interest or curiosity, there is an upcoming training in Salem, Massachusetts on September 20 and 21.  Learn more or register here.


Bringing Home the Bacon, and Frying It: The Appeals Court Defines Economic Partnership

Guest Post from Valerie Qian*

Does it make a difference for my legal rights if my spouse and I lived together before we got married?

The lawyerly answer, which I know is one most people can’t stand, is “it depends.” The Bortolotti v. Bortolotti case, a 1:28 unpublished decision that came down from the Appeals Court in April 2018, sheds some more light on this situation. The relevant statute, M.G.L. c. 208 §48, provides that the legal length of a marriage may be extended by periods of cohabitation if the parties had an “economic partnership” during these periods of cohabitation. The Bortolotti decision clarifies that “economic partnership” exists both in situations where both parties contribute income to the household, and in situations where one party may be economically dependent on the other. The decision further notes that when a judge exercises her discretion to exclude premarital assets from the marital estate, she should use a valuation of those assets at the time of the marriage.

The Appeals Court’s approach to the definition of “economic partnership” is broader than the lower court’s, and rightly takes a more broadminded approach to what this should mean. The commonsense definition of “partnership” suggests that both parties to a partnership contribute to it. But what qualifies as a “contribution” in a marriage/cohabitation partnership? The lower court seemed to only consider economic contributions in the form of one partner’s contributions of his income to the parties’ expenses during their cohabitation. Because the other partner did not contribute financially during their cohabitation, and appeared to be economically dependent on her male partner, the lower court did not believe there was a partnership.

The Appeals Court’s broader definition of “economic partnership” suggests that contribution to an economic marital partnership may involve more than simply depositing your biweekly paycheck into the joint bank account. While one party may be economically dependent on the other, she may still be considered a “partner” in an “economic partnership” that extends the legal length of the marriage for alimony purposes. The Appeals Court keeps its rationale for this broader definition of “economic partnership” grounded in rules of statutory interpretation and in case law, but the wider implications of this definition are clear and, I think, only right. Here in April 2018, we should be beyond the point where we believe that a stay-at-home wife (or husband) who is not bringing home the bacon is not contributing financially to the economic partnership of a marriage simply because she (or he) is only frying it. 

*Valerie Qian has been an Associate at Skylark Law & Mediation, PC since February 2013.  Valerie's practice includes family law & divorce representation, collaborative law and mediation, and juvenile representation.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Will the Alimony Tax Change Pressure Couples to Finalize their Divorce in 2018?

As we have previously covered here, The Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017 Includes a Divorce “Penalty” for divorces that take place after December 31, 2018 if they involve alimony.  Prior to this act, and up until December 31, 2018, alimony was tax deductible to the payor and taxable income to the recipient, which allowed for a shifting of taxable income to a lower tax bracket.  If an agreement is entered prior to the end of 2018, and this benefit is preserved, then it continues into future years, even if the amount is later modified.  This has led many couples, already in the divorce process, to consider whether they want to work on finalizing their case prior to the end of 2018 to preserve this option.

Because some states, like Massachusetts, have waiting periods for finalizing a divorce, this law change raised a question:

Does the deadline of December 31, 2018 apply to the divorce being finalized, or just having a written agreement completed?

The answer to this question in Massachusetts, which has a 90-120 day waiting period for the finalization of a divorce after the Judgment of Divorce Nisi, could mean the difference between having to have an agreement done in August rather than December.  For more information about the timing of the divorce process in Massachusetts read our post: How to be Divorced by the End of the Year.

According to a recent post from local CPA firm, Gosule, Butkus & Jesson, LLP,
"The key for parties getting divorced in 2018 who want alimony to be deductible to the payer and taxable to the recipient is to have a written, signed, alimony agreement in place by December 31, 2018."
They note that the couple does not have to actually be legally separated or divorced for the alimony to be deductible as long as there is a "written separation agreement" with clear statements for support that otherwise meet the requirements for deductible alimony.  To read their entire rationale for this conclusion, complete with tax court citations, read their full article here: What Constitutes an Alimony Agreement?

Monday, July 23, 2018

Appeals Court Confirms Again, Verbal Agreements are not Good Enough to Modify Support

Guest Post from Julie Tolek*

In the recent case of Smith v. Smith (17-P-765), the Appeals court upheld a finding of not guilty of contempt of disobeying a court order to pay alimony, but vacated and remanded as to the retroactive modification of alimony made by the trial Judge due to the parties' verbal agreements, stating that retroactive modification of alimony requires findings “reflecting [the judge’s] consideration of all the factors mandated by” the statute. quoting Pierce v. Pierce, 455 Mass. 286 (2009).

After a divorce which included an order for the husband to pay alimony, the parties agreed among themselves that the husband would pay less than the amount of alimony in their separation agreement. Relying on this agreement, the husband contributed financially to various expenses for his emancipated children, including payment toward a wedding, down payments for two of his children’s houses, and payment toward liabilities. After receiving a letter from the Wife’s attorney, the husband began paying the originally agreed to amount. Subsequently, the wife filed a complaint for contempt for failure to pay alimony to collect the arrears.

The trial court found the husband not guilty of civil contempt as to the non-payment of alimony because although it did meet one requirement of contempt of “clear and unequivocal command” (not paying the amount of alimony required by the agreement), it did not meet the second requirement that the plaintiff show “clear and undoubted disobedience” by the husband, since he did make the reduced payments that he and his wife had agreed upon outside of the separation agreement. The Appeals court upheld this finding.

The trial court also retroactively (but not prospectively) modified alimony to bring it in line with the husband’s previous payments. The trial court based the modification on the same findings that led to the court to find the husband not guilty of contempt, however the Appeals court states that the two issues are separate and that “a party may not be in contempt, yet still owe alimony under the existing court order.” In reversing and remanding as to the modification, the Appeals court continues that although the retroactive modification is in the judge’s discretion, the judge must make findings “reflecting [the judge’s] consideration of all the factors mandated by G.L.c. 208, s. 34.” Pierce v. Pierce, 455 Mass. 286 (2009). Even prior to Pierce, case law has demonstrated that an alimony order can only be modified upon showing a material change in circumstances which involves looking at the statute at that time, the s. 34 factors, when evaluating the circumstances. Since the judge in this case did did not make findings addressing the current statute factors, the Appeals court reversed and remanded for an evaluation of the appropriate factors as well as if there has been a material change in circumstances since the divorce in relation to those factors.

As to the husband’s defenses of laches and estoppel, the Appeals court found, in accordance with case law, that laches is not a defense in a claim such as this, and that in any case where the elements of estoppel are analyzed, it should be done so relative to the required factors.

*Julie Tolek is an Associate at Skylark Law & Mediation, PC and runs her own practice, Think Pink Law.  Julie's practice includes family law & divorce representation, prenuptial agreements, mediation, firearms licensing & NFA trusts, estate planning & probate, and adoptions.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Accessibility with an Injury: The Problem with Sounding like your Mother

We recently published a post regarding the importance of making websites more accessible to all potential users where we provided some tips on improving accessibility.  Accessibility is not just an issue for those with long-term disabilities.  Access is often limited for individuals on a temporary basis due to an injury or surgery.  We asked Julie Tolek to write this follow-up post about her recent surgery and her experience with temporary Accessibility challenges.

Accessibility with an Injury: The Problem with Sounding like your Mother

a Guest Post from Julie Tolek*

Note: I use an iPhone, so this article references iPhone specific settings and apps that may or may not (but should) be available on other devices.

Earlier this year, I was scheduled to have shoulder surgery in March. I had been in pain and unable to use my arm properly for months, and when conservative treatments such as physical therapy and cortisone shots did nothing for the pain, I asked for an MRI. I knew in my heart of hearts that I had real damage to my shoulder but it wasn’t until the MRI confirmed that I had torn my labrum that I was able to set up the surgery.

One of the first things I asked my doctor was how soon will I be able to type, since getting back to work as soon as possible was important. I would be able to move my fingers just fine after the nerve block wore off, but I would not be able to move my arm for a very long time. With physical therapy, I would eventually get my range of motion back over a period of 6-9 months. But first I would have to wear a sling for 8 weeks.

Yikes!

As I started to think about the reality of how this situational temporary disability would affect my work and daily life, my first thought was that of gratitude - that my injury was repairable and that I would have use of my fingers, hand, and arm, all in due time. My next thought was how I was going to get through that time and still be able to use my arm as I could.

My top 3 observations about and experiences with accessibility while my arm was in a sling:

1. Phone numbers on non mobile-responsive websites: 
I am a website and marketing snob as it is, so visiting websites on my mobile device (I use an iPhone) only to find out that the site is not mobile responsive really aggravates me, especially because creating a mobile responsive site can usually be done very easily by clicking a checkbox or changing a setting on the back end. Specifically on mobile responsive sites, if there is a phone number on the site, usually you can tap it and your phone will ask if you want to call the number. Non mobile responsive sites do not have the phone number linked so you can just tap it, but instead force you to copy and paste the phone number into your actual phone app. I have really small hands, so it is often hard for me to use my iPhone one handed to do anything, much less copy and paste. With one arm in a sling, it becomes even more difficult, and annoying.
2. Getting to know Siri when you sound like your mom:
For the first time, I started to regularly use speech-to-text services (such as Siri) to dictate my writing. I had experimented with using Siri before and let me just say, we were not friends. Half the time she would get things right (setting alarms, asking the time, etc.), but when she didn’t or when she asked for clarification, she never understood what I was saying. By the time I used manual input to correct her or do what I was trying to do, it would have taken less time if I had fumbled my way through one handed to begin with. I decided that it was time to really try my best to use Siri as much as possible so we could become more proficient with communicating with each other. Text messages were hands down what I dictated the most, followed by emails. I am paranoid about sending the wrong email to the wrong person, so if I was starting an email from scratch, I would dictate it into notes first and send it manually later. This also gave me a chance to proofread and edit before sending. I would also dictate replies and save the drafts to send later.
Voice commands involving reading messages or creating calendar events using Siri proved to be not as useful. Often times, if I wanted Siri to read a new message for example, I had to unlock my phone with my fingers anyway.
Siri actually started to confuse my mom’s voice with mine! My mom stayed with me during the first part of my recovery. She also uses an iPhone and already used Siri much more than I did. I knew my mom and I sounded alike but when she would say, “Hey Siri!” To activate Siri, and both of our phones would reply, it was kind of weird! Her Siri would recognize my voice as well. What I found the most amusing was if one of us activated Siri, but the other's phone responded!
So I guess Siri is slightly less reliable when you and your mom sound alike.
3. Text to speech:
One of the most overlooked features on the iPhone is the ability to have it read things to you. Whether it is a webpage, a pdf document, or an email, there is another option other than asking Siri to read you something. In Settings > General > Accessibility, there are numerous settings to make the functions and use of the iPhone (or iPad) more accessible to those with disabilities. One of those settings allows Siri to read you the contents of the page by swiping three fingers down from the top of the screen. So if you cannot speak the command but you can see the screen, you can have Siri read to you manually. This setting is actually listed under Vision, in the Speech subcategory.
Once the setting is on and you use three fingers to swipe down from the top of the screen, Siri will begin reading automatically. You can adjust the speed from the little menu that pops up or set a default speed in the Speech settings. Although this method means I have to use my fingers, it is yet another (and sometimes more reliable) way to get Siri to read to me exactly what I want. If there is no readable content on the page, Siri will say so.
I have used this in the car as well when I wanted to be productive and have Siri read legal cases to me. She reads right through website extras and the stuff that you probably would not consider part of the main document, but generally you can follow her monologue.
Having limited use of my arm during my shoulder surgery recovery really got me to think about how these different ways of accessing information really make a difference for people who have disabilities, whether temporary or life long. It’s imperative that we remember, as humans, to be considerate of other people’s methods for seeing and receiving information, and communication, and that we strive to provide different ways to access and harness the same information.


*Julie Tolek is an Associate at Skylark Law & Mediation, PC and runs her own practice, Think Pink Law.  Julie's practice includes family law & divorce representation, prenuptial agreements, mediation, firearms licensing & NFA trusts, estate planning & probate, and adoptions.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Reducing the Barriers to Legal and Mediation Services: Making our Website Accessible to All

Guest post by Kristyn Stoia:

Unless you’ve ever faced barriers while using a website, Web Accessibility is probably something that you’ve likely never heard of. However, there are numerous hurdles those with various impairments face when using the web, especially since the vast majority of sites aren’t designed with these needs in mind.

A website is regarded to be Accessible when measures have been taken to make certain that obstacles are removed to give equal access to the user. It also means that regardless of someone's physical, mental, or cognitive condition that they are able to freely use a website to obtain information and services.

Userway App Screenshot from Skylark WebsiteHere at Skylark Law & Mediation, PC, we took numerous steps to ensure Accessibility for each and every one of our users. We strived to adhere to the WCAG Outlines for Accessibility which means creating a site that was perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. In doing this, we took some specific measures:

We began by adding the Userway Plugin, which can be found in the upper right-hand corner of the website and this blog. This simple widget can really pack a punch in its capabilities and benefits for our users. It allows for keyboard navigation, cursor enlargement, color contrast, text enlargement, desaturation, link highlighting, legible fonts, as well as the ability to have the page read aloud to you. All these features are huge game changers in terms of the user experience. Best of all, it will remember the settings you chose, so each time you visit the Skylark website it will be ready to go.

On more of the tech side of the equation, there were many alterations that were done deep within the site. We added alternative text captions for each and every one of our images so that they could be read by screen readers,title attributes were removed in order to prevent a reductant experience from auditory software that would read out loud more content on the site than was necessary, and Skiplinks were added to allow for further navigation on the site. These are just a few of the adjustments we made in the pursuit of creating a far more accessible website.

Implementing Accessibility into our website was one simple way to be certain that all users on the Skylark website have equal access to the same user experience. Achieving a more Accessible site benefits all users regardless of their disabilities. Not only does the site now accommodate various disabilities but it also incorporates a fluid user interface for visitors. Legal services and information should be attainable by whoever seeks them, so by improving our site; we are fulfilling our role in leveling the playing field for all of our potential clients. All in all, accessibility is a huge issue that needs to be considered in order to welcome everyone to use the services or experience the content you're putting on the web.

For more information read the Accessibility Statement on our site.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How to be Divorced by the End of the Year

How long it takes to get divorced can be divided into three stages: 

Stage 1: How long does it take you to start your divorce process?  This is completely up to you and your spouse.

Stage 2: How long does your divorce process take?  This can depend significantly on the type of process you choose.  Mediation is typically faster than going to court, for example. 

Stage 3: How long does it take for a divorce to become final once filed with the court?  In Massachusetts, once a divorce is finalized by approval of an agreement by a Judge or by a judgment after trial, there is still a waiting period before the divorce is final.  This is called the Nisi period.  In a Joint Petition for Divorce this waiting period is 120 days.  In a Complaint for Divorce this is a 90 day waiting period (though it's also important to note that a Complaint cannot go to Judgment until at least six months after the date of service). 

Given this 120 waiting period if you're looking to figure out how long it takes to get divorced you have to count back from the date you want your divorce to be finalized.  That waiting period can be calculated back to August in order to be divorced by the end of the year if you are proceeding by (or hoping to proceed by) agreement.

Often times, clients are prepared for finalization but do not anticipate the inevitable waiting period. It is important to know the steps so that couples are aware of the time it takes and what will be expected of them.

Here are our steps we recommend taking at Skylark to assure a completed divorce by the end of the year:

Step One: Schedule a Mediation with us!

The full mediation process typically takes from 3-6 months from start to finish. We recommend jumping on that early on so that you are fully prepared for the steps ahead.  Schedule online here.  If you are in full agreement on all issues then you can skip to Step Two:

Step Two: Drafting the Court Documents

Upon completion of a mediation process, the agreement, joint petition and other court documents need to be drafted before you can file for divorce.  At Skylark we prepare these documents for our clients as part of the mediation process, or if you mediated elsewhere or started out with a full agreement then you just need it to be written into the legal format.  We can be hired to prepare these documents on a flat fee basis as outlined on our pricing page.  The preparation usually takes 2-4 weeks depending on how quickly our clients provide all the documentation and review the draft for accuracy.

Step Three: Book and Attend a Hearing

So now you are at the point where you are ready for Step Three and fully prepared to attend your hearing. This part of the process varies by county.  In some counties you can get a hearing immediately, and in others you may have to wait 30-60 days for a hearing date once your paperwork is filed.

Step Four: Divorce Finalization

While there is a 120 day waiting period, there is no further action required to finalize your divorce during that time period.  Your agreement may require additional steps be taken to complete your agreed upon division of assets (such as completion of a QDRO), but these steps will not change the final divorce date.

Calculating Backwards:

The 120 day waiting period is not always exactly 120 days as explained in this prior post: When does 30 + 90 not equal 120? In Divorce Court!

For 2018, the calculation would work like this:

December 31, 2018 - Divorced by: In order to be divorced on December 31 of 2018, you would need to have the Judgment of Divorce become final on that date.  A Judgment of Divorce Nisi in Massachusetts becomes final on the first business day 90 days after it issues.  Since December 31, 2018 is a Monday, the last date that divorces can be final in 2018 is Monday, December 31, 2018.  So we count back 90 days from December 31, 2018.

December 31, 2017 - Final Divorce Date: 90 days prior to December 31, 2018 is Tuesday, October 2, 2018.

October 2, 2018 - Nisi Date:The Judgment of Divorce Nisi date has to be a business day as well.  Since this is a Tuesday it can be the Nisi date.

August 31, 2018 - Last Hearing Date: In order to have a Judgement of Divorce Nisi issue on Tuesday, October 2, 2018, the Joint Petition must be approved 30 days prior to that date.  30 days prior to October 2, 2018 would be Sunday, September 2, 2018 which obviously wouldn't work for a hearing because the court is not open on Sunday.   Therefore, the latest day you can have a hearing on a Joint Petition in Massachusetts in 2018 and still be divorced by the end of the year would be Friday, August 31, 2018.

August 24, 2018 - Safe Hearing Date: It is usually a good idea to give yourself an extra week in case anything goes wrong at the hearing, so that brings us back to Friday, August 24, 2018.

June 22, 2018 - Safe Filing Date (depending on county): This part of the process varies by county.  In some counties you can get a hearing immediately, and in others you may have to wait 30-60 days for a hearing date once your paperwork is filed. Check with a professional on the likely timeline in your county.

May 22, 2018 - Hiring Date for Agreement drafting:  It is a good idea to give at least 2-4 weeks for drafting and revisions of the document, even once a full agreement is reached.

January 1, 2018 - Hiring Date to begin Mediation: Unless you've already begun a mediation and are moving along successfully, it is unlikely you will be able to complete all the necessary steps described above to complete a divorce in 2018.

If you have completed these steps on time, your divorce should be finalized by the end of the year.  If not, your divorce will not be finalized until 2019, which affects your tax filing status for 2018.

The process obviously varies depending on your needs as a client but it is part of our job to time manage and make sure we are on task. We feel it is beneficial though for you to know on your end the lengthiness of the process and your necessary steps!

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