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November 20, 2013

Paul Daniel Marks elected to the Family Law Bar Board of Directors

On Tuesday night, I was elected by a vote of my peers to the Board of Directors of the San Diego Family Law Bar Association.

This is a new organization formed last summer, and is the largest organization of family law lawyers in the county. For decades, the San Diego County Bar Association had a committee of its members who were certified family law specialists - close to 200 of us. I had served a full term on the Executive Committee of that group in the 1990's, and was later appointed to fill out the term of a lawyer who retired. In each case, I was filling a slot for a North County representative.

The specialists, through the Executive Committee, raised a great deal of money for the Bar, primarily by producing very successful seminars - a lot of specialists were only member of the county bar so they could be a member of that committee, and they paid a lot of dues.

There were always tensions between the parent organization and the Executive Committee. Last Summer, the Executive Committee and the County Bar decided to part company. The core idea of the new association was to take over the Executive Committee's role in speaking for the certified specialists and take over its own finances. A bolder part of the decision was to create a new family law bar association representing all lawyers who practice family law, not just the specialists, and the new group is well on its way.

The new organization is the successor to the old committee, the Board of Directors has taken over the role and position of the old Executive Committee, and the transition has largely been seamless. North County had one representative on the executive committee, and has one seat on the new Board of Directors - typically our North County Specialists Committee of about 40 members has chosen that person. This year that position came open again - my friend Paul Gavin was that person, and will be our representative to the Board.

I decided to run for one of the three "at large" positions to see if we could give north county greater representation, and, frankly, to see if I had the support of enough members to gain a seat. I didn't really hold out much hope, as only one north county lawyer has won an at large seat in as long as anyone can remember. With only 25% of the specialists practicing in North County, San Diego controls the votes.

Well, I won.

May 22, 2013

Same Sex Marriage, Cohabitation, Child Custody....

Here is a New York Times article that gives lawyers and judges one more thing to chew on in child custody cases.

A Texas court enforced an order prohibiting a same sex couple from living together in Texas with the children of one of them in the home. In Texas, they can't get married, so the court enforced a morality clause in a divorce agreement to keep them apart when the children were present. According to the story, such provisions are typical in that jurisdiction.

The last time I saw a judge in California make such an order in a case with two people of opposite gender living together has to have been 30 years ago. Occasionally there will be delays in allowing such arrangements for very young children, or when the separation is fresh, due to the impact on the children emotionally from seeing one parent moving on to a new relationship. But, in general, California judges do not consider this type of conduct to be very serious. We see few cases with same sex couples in this situation, but I doubt the rulings here will be any different, but it will be interesting to watch, no matter what side of the argument you are on.

Decades ago, I had a client move to Missouri with her children. Despite a court order from California to the contrary, she was able to get a judge in Missouri to prohibit visitation to the father because he was living here, in California, with his girlfriend. The consensus here was that the Missouri ruling was "quaint." That was the last time I had experience with such an order. Things are different here.

May 16, 2013

Collecting Delinquent Child Support, License Suspension....

Under a 2012 law, the Indiana Secretary of State suspended the licenses of two Indiana stockbrokers for failure to pay child support - one was from California, but he was licensed in Indiana. We tend to forget that this remedy is available for the very delinquent, but this case brings it back into our focus.

Through the Department of Child Support Services, such remedies have been available in California for many years,

Although DCSS requires that the recipient open a claim with that office, which has its own problems in pursuing support in many cases [including many months of delay and inadequate use of discovery to obtain information], DCSS has available to it several remedies such as this that are not available to private lawyers. We frequently have clients open a file at DCSS so that we can have the advantage of that remedy, while still representing our clients in conducting discovery to determine income and wealth, as well as doing other types of enforcement where a competent, private Certified Family Law Specialist can be more efficient and effective.

License suspension can included driver's licenses, licenses to practice law, dentistry, or medicine, real estate licenses, barber's licenses, and almost any approval from the state required to engage in business. Commonly, we are looking at suspension of building contractor's licenses. In most cases, these actions spur the payor to at least make an effort to pay what is owed, since it can impact his or her ability to earn a living, or even drive a car without fear of being stopped by the police.

Periodically, DCSS will send a list to the U.S. State Department, which interferes with the right to renew or obtain a passport for foreign travel - since you now need one to go to Mexico and Canada, and be able to return, that can cause quite an inconvenience. No more European cruises for the truly delinquent.

May 15, 2013

No Money for California Divorce Courts, etc.

In a recent article in The Recorder, it was reported that Governor Jerry Brown's revised spending plan [his 2013-14 budget] contains no additional money for our courts.

The story quotes a Judicial Counsel lobbyist as stating that the courts will not be able to make payroll by July, 2014, the start of the fiscal year, because of new changes proposed by Brown that will prohibit courts from maintaining a reserve account of any sizable amount for cash flow purposes.

If you have been in a family law department in the last year in San Diego County, you will see part of what budget cuts have done - hearings are set many months out for important issues like child support and custody - court reporters are only available in each department a few days each week, which means that there is no record of the proceedings the other days if you don't bring in your own court reporter - and, no, you aren't allowed to record hearings, so with no record there is no agreement on orders and no ability to be able to mount an effective appeal.

As usual, if you have money, you can take your case out of the court system, but the middle class can no longer afford court hearings even if they can afford lawyers.

November 20, 2011

Training Lawyers and a Lack of Legal Training...

Several years ago, a New York Times article discussed the lack of legal training designed to help a lawyer practice law, and changes coming in firms and law schools that recognize the problems this lack of training creates.

Contrary to public opinion, law school doesn't prepare a lawyer to practice law - graduating and passing the bar exam merely gives you the opportunity to practice. The system assumes some form of mentoring as the young lawyer goes from knowing nothing to bare competence - from there, skills should improve over the years as the lawyer gains experience, largely through trial and error, often making mistakes in smaller cases. As you gained skills and experience, people would h

As a beginner under the old system, the young lawyer had one advantage: Lots of free time. He or she could research any issue very thoroughly, where the older, experienced lawyer with a busy practice often relied on memory of statutes or appellate court decisions he or she had read over the years, which may no longer be fresh in his or her mind.

Continue reading "Training Lawyers and a Lack of Legal Training..." »

March 31, 2011

Divorce in San Diego, Elkins, Court Resources and Delay....

Several years ago, Mr. Elkins was getting a divorce in Contra Costa County - he ran into a buzz saw when he showed up for trial. Much to his surprise, the judge essentially wouldn't let him present a case because he hadn't followed local court rules - mainly, he hadn't reduced all the testimony he wanted to present into declaration form. Those rules were specifically designed to eliminate trials in Family Law matters in that county.

San Diego is what is known as a Reifler County - pursuant to a California court case in the Marriage of Reifler, on a county by county basis, courts have been allowed to use declarations in lieu of oral testimony in family law cases - it's clearly faster and more convenient, and in the vast majority of cases justice is done by that process - if you want oral testimony, there is a procedure to follow, but the judge has discretion not to allow it. For trials, however, San Diego has always required oral testimony.

In theory, the Elkins decision had no impact on San Diego divorce cases. Unfortunately, for most litigants it isn't that easy. After Elkins, an "Elkins Task Force" was created to solve all the problems in the family law courts. [Insert smiley face here] They ran with the ball and have managed to make a major upheaval by permitting testimony in all hearings as a matter of right, and allowing children to testify in their parents' divorce.

These changes, part in force now and part in 2012, are going to make family law cases much more expensive and much more complicated. Rather than increasing justice, they will deprive more people of their ability to effectively present their cases. In the best of times, divorce courts have been the poor stepchild of the law - the worst court rooms, an insufficient number of judges, and judges poorly trained in the subject matter.

The high volume quickly too its toll on the best of judges, let alone those with no prior family law experience. Because of the high volume of cases assigned to each judge, the emotions attendant to the decisions, the number of substantive decisions that need to be made in each case, and the effect on families of mistakes, burn out among judges often comes quickly.

Where are the judges going to come from to handle the increased work load required by so much oral testimony? Certainly not from the judges who have the seniority to balk if assigned to a family law department.

Where it may take two to four months to get a hearing on a one hour matter before the new changes in the law, what will happen if it takes twice as long to get a hearing because the judge is busy hearing hour after hour of senseless testimony? Increasing chaos, less justice, and higher cost overall.

March 17, 2011

More Divorce Lawyer's Press Releases...

Yet another press release crossed my computer desktop from a lawfirm that handles divorce cases in San Diego County, braggin about the firm having shown up to do its job. Apparently, if they actually get their clients what they are entitle to receive, they consider it a big deal in their office. :)

In the press release, the lawyers are bragging that one of their own managed to get their client a 50/50 division of a pension. I think that is what is supposed to happen, although the other side doesn't always cooperate. It is also possible they didn't tell all the facts, and there may be a real reason this was a victory. [In fairness, it appears the other side had already collected some of the monthly benefits, and the court ordered half of those paid to the client - but that is what is supposed to happen.]

They go on to brag that the court had the other side pay a portion of their client's fees. That's pretty typical if there is a large disparity in earnings or assets between the two parties, or even an uncooperative litigant on the other side, but hardly a stunning victory. Now, if the judge had ordered 100% of their fees I'd praise them for that, since it is a rarity, but I'd hardly brag about getting "a portion" of my client's fees paid. Ok, maybe if my client's fees were $10,000 and the other side ordered to pay $9,000 I would consider that a job well done, but if that were the case I wouldn't be bragging that I'd gotten "a portion" of the $10,000.

Does anyone really pay attention to this stuff, or is it just Internet junk we could all do without?

February 23, 2011

Whom Do You Trust to Give You Divorce Advice?

As part of my practice, I have Google alerts to keep me advised of news involving San Diego Family Law. Amazing what Google sends me daily - often some blog or other website change by a lawyer trying to impress potential clients, but also stories about divorces in the news - your basic TMZ saga of a celebrity or a really rich person.

Today, one alert was notice of a "divorce and property support group" where you would talk about your rights, avoid mistakes, learn who gets to keep the house. That's practicing law, or at least teaching the subject. Who sponsors the group? A real estate broker. The charge? $50. Doesn't sound like a support group to me. Sounds like a way to make money in a down real estate market, while getting your name known to people who might need a broker because they are forced by finances to sell their home.

Now a broker might be able to sell your house, but tell you about your divorce property rights? Give me a break. When I tried to find out who was doing this, I learned there is a group passing out "certification" as real estate collaborative specialists in divorce. Their claim to fame seems to be that they can do a better job of selling the house of people going through a divorce than someone who hasn't gone through their 12 hours short course. Never heard of such a certification program before. No surprise there. They are trying to capitalize on the "Specialist" and "Collaborative" designations, especially the latter which has some real meaning in Family Law. And if you want to get your divorce information from a Certified Family Law Specialist, there is a legitimate program behind that rating.

Personally, I know several brokers who don't claim this new "certification" who have sold dozens of homes in my cases with minimal friction between the parties - these are called PROFESSIONALS. I send my clients to them because they do their jobs, and no one complains to me about the choice. And, because they are professionals, they tell their clients to get their legal advice about their property rights from a lawyer.

Then there was the press release from a local divorce mill [advertise heavily, suck in a lot of business, and higher young and/or inexperienced lawyers to work on the cases]. The release was bragging about the great skill of one of its lawyers who had managed to get a father's timeshare with his children increased from 35% to 50%.

Sounds like quite a coup, until you talk to a certified family law specialist - he or she will almost certainly tell you that such orders are really pretty routine, it just depends on the facts. Although such a court order represents a 50% increase in time, it really means adding about a day a week - often a pretty easy feat as long as the non-custodial parent is competent, the children are doing OK in school and socially, and his or her work schedule permits the extra time - the system is biased in favor of equal sharing between competent parents, especially where they live close together, even though children generally perceive a 60/40 split as about equal.

Changing an order can be pretty easy if the 35% share hasn't caused problems, the children are doing well in school, no one has been arrested for a bar fight :), and especially if Family Court Services recommends the change. FCS mediates between the parents, and makes a recommendation to the judge if the parties don't agree.

In fact, an experienced lawyer may have his client agree to a 40% times share at the beginning of a case, knowing that adding an extra 10% [36 nights a year] is pretty easy to achieve the next time the case comes before the judge - all that is usually needed is that the non-custodial parent has kept his or her nose clean, stayed involved with the child or children, and can adjust his or her work schedule to accommodate the extra time since the prior order.

Now, if the non-custodial parent worked 60 hours a week, worked odd shifts, didn't or couldn't participate in parent-teacher conferences and doctor appointments, or take the children to their after school events, different case. Show me such a parent where the timeshare increased 50%, and I'll take notice. That would require luck and good lawyering. A beginner might be lucky....

February 21, 2011

Cost of Litigation in Divorce Cases: Millions for Defense....

Here's a question: Would you spend upwards of $300,000 in attorneys fees trying to get your spouse from collecting what he or she is probably going to get anyway? Does the answer change when the dollars change? Does the answer change if the person is in a tax bracket close to 50%, and has to earn close to $600,000 to pay those fees.

Let's say, hypothetically, there is a very long term marriage. The high earner makes about $1,000,000 per year. The low earner wants support to maintain the marital standard of living. In this hypothetical, the low earner worked throughout the marraige and still works, full time, earning about $80,000 per year. Hypothetically, the temporary support ends up being around $30,000 per month. In gross terms, that leaves the high earner with about $640,000 a year, and the spouse about $440,000 per year. Sounds like a lot of money, doesn't it, but hardly unfair to the high earner after 30 years of marriage.

Temporary support in my county, San Diego, is almost always computer and formula driven: Pretty predictable once you agree on the amount for the parties' earnings and tax deductions. Our computer programs calculate net incomes and divides them on about a 60-40 ratio, although it is adjusted for the recipient-spouse's earnings and often ends up closer to 55-45 if the low earner makes a good living.

Long term support [also called permanent or judgment support] is what a judge would order after trial and the division of assets - the court must then consider a bunch of factors, and is not permitted to use guidelines. Notwithstanding that rule, long term support tends to be close to temporary support for long term marriages: Those twenty plus years, especially if a career was built during the marriage.

Knowing all of that, why would anyone spend that kind of money avoiding the inevitable? I don't have an answer, but it's a question that I ask a lot. Especially after watching it happen time and time again. Personally, I'd rather give the money to my ex-spouse than to the lawyers. The lawyer isn't going to walk my daughter down the aisle or come to my son's graduation, and at least I'm keeping the money in the family.

February 5, 2011

Divorce Lawyer Bragging Rights? Pulling the Wool....

The economy is lousy, so I expect a little puffing by my competitors to get a bigger share of business. But sometimes the claims are really silly.

I have a permanent Google alert set to send me any news about family law in San Diego, so I get a lot of weird posts from blog sites, press releases, and other efforts by lawyers trying to get noticed: I.e., to move up their Google ratings. The more their names and and web addresses appear on the web, the higher they rate, on the mistaken assumption that a lot of people are pointing to them.

Sometimes, the stories or posts read as though they had been written by a third grader who wasn't a very good student - pure gibberish, incomplete sentences, and typos in almost every sentence. [yes, I know, I make a few]

Last week, a lawyer who runs a mill and isn't a certified specialist, issued a press release bragging about the great skill of one of his employees. The young lawyer had "managed" to increase a father's custody time share from 35% to 50%. That is almost a 50% increase, but hardly one that requires great skill in most cases.

Any lawyer who has a significant volume of cases has results like this all the time, and most of the time it has nothing to do with his or her skill - usually you get such a result when Family Court Services recommends and increase, but sometimes it's not much more than a father who decides he is able to spend more time with his children, or a mother who goes to work full-time and can't care for the children all day.

It reminds me of an older post commenting on a lawyer whose website brags he is the recipient of a "coveted award." That award, in reality, used to be given out by a retired judge at our family law bi-annual dinners to point out lawyers who show up late regularly, and always have an excuse for not quite measuring up - someone we like, but not too reliable. You need to be careful with what you read - it's not always what it seems.

February 3, 2011

Co-Parent by Divorced Parents:

Here is a link to an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine from last Sunday dealing with the effects of divorced or separated parents attempts to co-parent.

I neither endorse, reject, nor comment on the contents, I am just the conduit. :)

January 10, 2011

Dogs, Divorces, and the San Diego Lawyer.

More on Doggie Divorces from the Huffington Post.

I'd previously posted about pets and divorce. Since then, we've adopted Emma, also known as The Office Mascot. Now I see the issue. No one is prying her away from me, except from my cold, dead hands :) She is wonderful.

Amazing how many of my friends and colleagues either take a pet [dog, cat, or bird] to their offices or want to but can't. Being self-employed and owning my office condo, I have control over my office policies, and we are "dog friendly." When in residence, there is a water dish by the front door.

The criminal defense lawyer across the courtyard doesn't like Emma being here, but she is a lot more desireable than his average client. :) And she leaves smaller messes. When we were out of town on vacation before Christmas, someone or something left "a present" on the back steps - probably one of them, since Emma was in Doggie Day Care, where she plays on her days off [i.e., when I'm in court and the staff doesn't need the distraction].

Her "new puppy" picture is in a prior post, showing her gazing at some big dogs for the first time. I've tried to take her photo since, but she is so blazingly fast she turns out to be a blur even with my Nikon D3 camera and a fast lens. :)

I had to go to New York City in September to meet with clients, and walking around was amazed at how doggie that city is - dogs go everywhere, including Bloomingdales. Noto Bene: Bloomies won't let you take pictures of dogs in the store, go figure. But, they are everywhere; and their parents are always happy to stop, let you pet the dog, and tell you the pet's story. Whereas in Southern California you might see a sign in a store window that it is "dog friendly," in NYC that seems to be assumed, although there is occasionally a sign that says "No Pets Allowed."

November 22, 2010

Lawyers, Clients, San Diego Congressman, Guilty Pleas in General....

Former San Diego Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham has the memory of so many convicted defendants: "I didn't do anything wrong, it was my lawyers' fault. His claims are reported in the San Diego Union.

His former lawyers no longer represent him. Not hard to figure out why. After all, why would they when they explained the facts of life to a defendant who was absolutely certain to be convicted of accepting bribes. The evidence had been fully developed by Union reporters year ago, and in terms of public opinion the evidence was so crystal clear that his only hope was a plea bargain. The lawyers "couldn't be reached for comment." In fact, they probably can't comment on their discussions with their former client without violating the attorney-client privilege.

Duke accepted expensive gifts from contractors who benefitted directly from his votes. He lived on the boat of one of them, nicknamed "The Duke Stir," obviously named for the congressman. Oh, yes, he lived there free. He sold his Del Mar house so far over market that it caught the reporters' attention - he was able to use the inflated proceeds to move to prestigious Rancho Santa Fe. The buyer of his Del Mar home later sold it for a huge loss at fair market value, even though the real estate market had seen increased prices between the two transactions.

Let the poor guy rot in prison. Who cares that the government seizes his pensions to pay the unpaid back taxes on the bribes he accepted? I don't feel any more sorry for him that for Bernie Madoff - to sides of the same coin.

Duke claims he got sucked in because he couldn't say "No." The evidence shows that he solicited bribes because he deserved them. He was an arrogant bastard throughout his military and political careers, and now has gotten justice. He won't testify in accordance with his prior statements against one of the persons charged with having participated in his schemes - I assume he expects that person to rescue him financially for his newfound fidelity to his friend [more fidelity than he felt for the voters he represented.

June 9, 2010

Divorce Lawyers and the Client's File...

My office retired a copy machine a few months ago, having worn it out - more than 2 million copies ran through it. The replacement is faster but also scans and e-mails. We make a lot of copies, and buy a lot of copy paper. It has been her long enough that we became attached to it and the repair man who came more and more frequently to replace parts.

The need for a reliable machine came to mind when we received about 800 pages of photocopies, wrapped with rubber bands, no staples and no organization, from another law office. It is what they represented as being the "client's file." We inherit such files a few times a year when we take over a case for a client.

On those rare instances when we turn a file over to a successor law firm, we make copies of most everything in it. But, we make and keep the copies for ourselves, in case a question comes up somewhere along the line, which happens occasionally. We don't keep the original file in those instances - the original, under California law, belongs to the client. We must pass it along to the next lawyer or to the client upon request at the end of our representation.

Continue reading "Divorce Lawyers and the Client's File..." »

May 24, 2010

San Diego Judge Elections - San Diego Union Endorsements....

Many election years, I get questions from family and friends asking for whom they should vote in a judicial election. This year, the stakes are higher and there are far more elections than usual. The San Diego Union published its endorsements today.

As usual, I recommend family and friends vote for the incumbents. This year is no different from usual, but the stakes this year are more important than usual. This year, a group has organized to run against a number of very good judges. Why? Because they want the law to be different from what it is, and view election to the bench as their way of changing the law. Talk about judicial activism! They have not chosen to oppose bad judges, just anyone in office, apparently selected at random. The Union has endorsed all but one sitting judge, and made no choice for the remaining seat. I can't disagree.

One of the judges running is not well respected: Not by lawyers, and not even by many judges. That doesn't change my position, and the Union has elected not to take a position in that race.

Lawyers who run against sitting judges, in the overwhelming number of cases, aren't the best of their profession. Often, not even close. I do not know well any of the judges still in the race - two of them had long stints in Divorce Court, where I saw them do their jobs well. I see no reason they should not be reelected, and the lawyers who have appeared in front of them far more than I speak highly of each.

A third former Family Law judge, Harry Powacek of Vista, was challenged by a lawyer who didn't meet the legal standards for the office and was kicked off the ballot. Although he does not have to run, Judge Powacek had legal expenses to deal with the matter in court. What had he done wrong? Nothing. He was just an incumbent. I appeared in front of him many hundreds of times, and he always tried very hard to do a good job.

Many such challenges come from a lawyer who didn't get the result he wanted in his own divorce. Many, just from lawyers who want the publicity because it may be good for business.

As I look back over the last 40 years of such nonsense, very few poor judges were opposed for election, and few great lawyers were challenging them for the position. Those few judges who lost reelection did so largely because on some horrible publicity: One was caught tearing down his opponent's campaign signs. One was accused of putting a "little old lady" in jail on Christmas Eve on a minor traffic matter. In the first case, the lawyer one and turned out to be a good judge. In the second, the replacement turned out to be a disaster. In each case, the judge was running against bad publicity for his personal conduct, or perceived conduct. These very rare occasions, where a judge screwed up and lost an election, have given comfort to potential challengers.

A few years back, a lousy judge was opposed by a mediocre lawyer - no one wanted the judge around, but the choice wasn't clear - the judge had not had a lot of bad publicity, so he won handily. In one election, a bad judge resigned when challenged, but that was a rarity.

The problem with the process: Judges are afraid to take legal positions out of fear they won't be re-elected when they sit every 6 years. The fear isn't great, since they have almost no chance of losing - but the cost of running, financial and emotional, is high. 25 years ago, a judge made a hard call and dismissed a few dozen drunk driving cases because the DA's Office screwed up in failing to charge the cases properly - he was right on the law and felt he had no choice. One of my friends decided to run against him because he sensed vulnerability - I didn't know the judge, but opposed my friend, who then withdrew when many others came to the judge's defense.

The process is broken, especially in this political climate. It will be further damaged by voting out very competent judges. That only serves to make those who remain more scared of losing their positions, and more likely to make safe choices when hard choices are called for. Even where the Union has elected not to endorse a candidate, I recommend a vote for the incumbent - it will help stop the nonsense of challenges where there is no need for change.