Friday, February 15, 2008

Pro Se, Paralegals, and Attorneys

There are basically three ways you can bring your family law case to the courthouse. The first is filing and handling the case Pro Se (Pro-Say), this is where YOU act as your own attorney and handle the case yourself. The court has a Pro Se help unit established to assist in filing cases. Although they are called the Pro Se help unit, they are more like the “We’ll Give You Some Forms Unit.” The help you receive, if you receive any help at all, is negligible at best. They will tell you what to file and how to file, but they do not provide ANY LEGAL ADVICE. A very common phrase in the legal community is “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” The family law forms can be confusing and daunting and if improperly filled out can delay your case and cause all sorts of problems.

Another way to bring your case is to have a document provider service or a paralegal fill out your case forms for you and you handle the rest of the case Pro Se. I cannot tell you how many people tell me, “My friend is a paralegal and can do my divorce.” That is true, cheap will get you a cheap divorce, you get what you pay for. This alternative is not, in my opinion, any better than doing it on your own. Your forms will be filled out for you, hopefully correctly but you still have to act as your own attorney. In Florida, only licensed attorneys can provide you with legal advice, represent you, and appear with you in court, mediation, or a settlement conference to fight for your side of the case. You will be left adrift to navigate the legal waters on your own.

According to a recent article, in South Florida the number of Pro Se case filings in family law cases has increased at a considerable rate. These cases have caused so many problems there is now a back log which strain the courts’ dockets in the region. These cases take longer to resolve which means your divorce takes longer. The problem is so bad in Broward County they have established Pro Se dockets to deal with the problem. In Miami Dade and Palm Beach, there are no such special dockets so your case will linger in the system until resolved. Some of these problem cases have resulted in post judgment hearings which undo what has been done and create even more of a delay for your case. Another thing to consider when going this route is that if the case gets messed up you may have a hard time hiring an attorney to straighten out the mess. I know that when I get called by someone to take over their case I am very reluctant to do so. Sometimes the case has become more of a headache than it is worth. If you are fortunate enough to find an attorney to take over your case you may find the attorney’s fee is higher than it would have been if you hired a lawyer in the first place. It is always more expensive to go back and fix something the second time than to do it right the first time.

The route I recommend you take toward pursuing your divorce is to hire an attorney. I bet you would have never guessed that would be my recommendation, huh? An attorney can navigate your case through the court system, appear with you at hearings, provide you with legal advice, and resolve your case as efficiently as possible. Studies have conclusively shown that people who have an attorney representing them in divorce cases are more satisfied with the outcome than those who proceed Pro Se. An attorney can provide you with the correct legal advice and counseling to allow you to make important decisions at a time when emotions are running high and you are vulnerable. Making a mistake at a critical stage in a divorce proceeding can be costly and you could be paying for that mistake for a very long time. The money you tried to save by going it on your own can actually end up costing you more, a lot more, in the long run.

If you insist upon representing yourself, Florida uses standard family law forms and all the forms can be found for free at:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How is child support determined?

This is another question I get asked quite frequently. In Florida, child support is governed by Statute. The Statute contains a table of the child support amounts to be paid depending upon the parent’s income. The amount in the child support table is presumably the amount required to support a child in Florida. The incomes of parents are combined, the table is referred to for an amount for the combined income. For example, if one parent has $3000.00 per month of available income and the other parent has $1000.00 per month of available income, and there is one child, the court looks to the guidelines for $4000.00 and one child. At $4000.00 per month, the guideline child support amount is $828.00 per month. This is the presumptive amount to support the child. The $828.00 is divided by the amount of contribution of each parent. In this case, one parent contributes ¾ or 75 percent of the combined monthly available income. This parent would pay $621.00 per month in child support (828 x .75 = 621).

However, the Court has the authority to alter the guideline amount by plus or minus five percent after considering factors such as the needs of the child, age, station in life, standard of living and financial status and ability of the parents. As long as the court remains within the five percent, the Judge does not have to document reasons for the deviation. If the judge deviates by more than five percent from the guideline amount, the judge must make written findings to justify the deviation.

When calculating the income of the parents there are several allowable deductions which will decrease the income used to determine the child support basis. The court can also impute income to an under or unemployed parent in some circumstances. The child support guidelines range in combined monthly available income from $650.00 to $10,000.00 per month and from one to six children. For amounts below $650.00 per month, the court will determine child support on a case by case basis. For combined monthly available income above $10,000.00 per month, the court will use a percentage based mathematical formula to calculate the child support.

There you have it, the Florida Child Support determination.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Divorce in Florida

I get a lot of calls about divorce in general and one of the most frequent questions is “what do I have to do to get divorced?” I guess this is to be expected considering the high divorce rate so I thought I would present a general explanation of the divorce process. The first step is to file a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage with the Circuit Court. This petition starts the lawsuit for divorce, lists the facts of your case, and asks the Court to grant the requested relief. The relief requested in a divorce case is the dissolution of the marriage. The second step is for your spouse to file and answer to the petition, sometimes they don’t file an answer. The answer is where your spouse states the facts as seen from the opposing side. In the answer, your spouse can also request dissolution of the marriage. The third step is where the process gets tricky and the road to divorce comes to a major fork. If there is agreement between the spouses as to all issues, the case can proceed to a final hearing. If there are issues which the parties do not agree upon the case is contested, this is where a divorce can get very expensive. Your attorney may file motions, conduct depositions, interrogatories, requests to produce, and requests for admissions among other things. If the issues are worked out the case proceeds to a final hearing, but if there are issues remaining to which the spouses cannot agree upon, the case will proceed to trial. It all depends on which fork in the road your case proceeds down. An uncontested divorce can be granted in rather short order but a contested divorce can drag on.

But before you can even walk up the courthouse steps, you must first satisfy several requirements to obtain a divorce in Florida, these requirements are:

1. The marriage is irretrievably broken, this means there is no way you two are getting back together.
2. You or your spouse must have resided in Florida for at least six months prior to the filing of the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage.
3. If you meet the first two requirements, you and your spouse must file financial affidavits with the court.
4. If you and your spouse have property, assets, liabilities, or children you and your spouse must enter into an agreement to settle these issues.

There you have it, a very simplified and general description of the divorce process in Florida. If you have any questions about divorce in Florida please feel free to ask me.