The “Do’s and Don’t’s” of the Initial Family Law Consultation

Deciding to pick up the phone and make that dreaded first call when you feel the time is right to contact an attorney is a petrifying moment.  It’s one of those times in your life where you just have to take the plunge, dial the phone and make the call.

Once you’ve decided on the attorney you want to meet with, a sense of relief may come over you… until the day of the appointment. Panic, fear, confusion, hurt and uncertainty are all natural expectations that an experienced divorce attorney will recognize and deal with when you arrive.  But don’t let your apprehension overcome you. You made the call. You scheduled the appointment.  It’s time. You know meeting with the attorney is the right thing to do. Continue reading The “Do’s and Don’t’s” of the Initial Family Law Consultation

One rule for him and another for her as Oklahoma Supreme Court dismisses Sue Ann Arnall’s appeal

In November 2014, Harold Hamm, the CEO of Continental Resources, was ordered to pay his ex-wife Sue Ann $995.5 million in what was described as one of the biggest divorce settlements in history. With the award representing only a fraction of Mr Hamm’s estimated $18 billion empire, Sue Ann appealed, claiming that she should be entitled to a much heftier settlement due to her significant contributions during their 26-year marriage. Conversely, Harold made his own appeal, arguing that the almost $1 billion figure was excessive.

On 28/04/15, the Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed Sue Ann’s appeal in a 7-2 decision, stating that she had forfeited her right to appeal in January, when she took possession of the marital property that had been awarded to her and cashed a cheque for $975 million. The Supreme Court did not dismiss Harold’s appeal.

The two dissenting judges branded the above decision ‘old fashioned’ and ‘draconian’. They suggested that if the only way to maintain the right to appeal was to reject the tendered cheque, this would allow the husband absolute and unfettered control over the marital property during the pendency of what could be a lengthy appeal. Not only would this provide Harold with the opportunity to deplete the marital property (admittedly a rather onerous task considering the extent of his wealth), but it would also leave Sue Ann, and other women in such a position, potentially unable to afford the cost of living in the interim period between the court ruling and the appeal. Surely it is inequitable for those who are unhappy with a court decision to have to choose between affording to live and appealing a ruling?

Not only does the Supreme Court’s ruling seem outdated, but more importantly it appears to be bias towards Harold. For if the court thinks that accepting the tendered cheque removes the right to appeal for the wife, then surely, using the same logic, writing the cheque should also remove the right for the husband. Using the basic concept of offer and acceptance, it could be argued that if there is a ‘no returns’ policy for Sue Ann, then there equally shouldn’t be room for Harold to recall the cheque that he presented to his ex-wife. It is potentially inequitable and inconsistent of the court to draw a distinction between the party’s actions.

Ironically, Oklahoma is an equitable distribution state, which means that divorce settlements must be just and reasonable. One of the big considerations for judges dealing with such disputes is what each spouse needs in order to move forward following their separation. Understandably, the judges who reviewed Sue Ann’s appeal would have found it very difficult to sympathise with an argument, claiming a life with only $1 billion is not worth living; however, they should have also considered factors such as her contributions during the marriage, as well as providing a more impressive basis for dismissing her appeal.

Craig Box, one of Mr Hamm’s attorneys, has said that it is too early to comment on whether or not Harold will appeal. However, the likelihood is that he will not and that, instead, he will be delighted with the dismissal of his ex-wife’s appeal. There is even room to suggest that Harold was content with the initial ruling in November, and appealed against it himself simply to highlight his disdain for Sue Ann’s appeal. After all, although $995.5 million is more money than most people could ever dream of earning, it is only a minute fraction of his overall wealth and therefore he could well have been relieved with the county court’s decision.

One thing that has been made very clear by the Supreme Court’s ruling is that the Oklahoma state does not believe equity necessarily requires equality. Whereas the UK has gained a reputation for being the ‘divorce capital of the world’ due to its generous divorce settlements that often entail a 50/50 split of assets, the Oklahoma courts clearly do not mirror this approach.

Don’t look back in anger? Try telling that to Dale Vince

During the couple’s relationship, the pair lived a nomadic lifestyle, surviving on very little money. Following their separation, life continued in a similar manner for Ms Wyatt, who today lives in an ex-council house in Wales with her children. However, things changed dramatically for Mr Vince when he founded Ecotricity in 1995, which is now one of the UK’s biggest green energy companies.Mr Vince’s new lifestyle mirrors his business success and he currently lives in a £3 million 18th-century castle with his new wife and their son.

At first glance, it seems obvious that any maintenance claim brought by Ms Wyatt so long after their divorce should fall flat. After all, the maths is plain and simple: Mr Vince’s success came three years after the couple divorced and therefore this surely means that Ms Wyatt’s ship has sailed and she has no right to any of her ex-husband’s earnings? This logic was certainly used by Lord Justice Thorpe in the Court of Appeal, who stated that Mr Vince was not to be Ms Wyatt’s ‘insurer against life’s eventualities’. However, shockingly, when the matter reached the Supreme Court, Lord Wilson ruled that Ms Wyatt should be entitled to bring a claim against her ex-husband and stated that the matter should be heard by a judge in the Family Division of the High Court.

When the case does come before the High Court, Ms Wyatt will likely base her claim on her significant childcare contributions over the years. Mr Vince will rely on the ridiculously long delay in the claim being brought, as well as the fact that although the couple were officially married for 11 years, they actually only enjoyed marital cohabitation for two years.

Although Ms Wyatt’s claim may not be successful, the fact that she has received permission to bring it before a Judge is still extremely unsettling for divorcees, who should not have to live in fear that their divorces, which they presumed to be ‘done and dusted’, may rear their ugly heads in the form of a claim in the future.

If nothing more, the Supreme Court’s ruling comes as a huge warning to anyone whose marriage ends in divorce, and that warning is quite straightforward: it is imperative to get a final order so that all monetary claims are dealt with together with the divorce. It is certainly understandable why many fall into the trap of thinking that a clean break is unnecessary; after all, when a couple have lived on an extremely low budget throughout their marriage, the cost of a court order is likely be viewed as an unnecessary expense. However, it is vital for couples to realise that things can and do change – one party may win the lottery, a loved one may leave a large and unexpected inheritance, or one party may start a business that reaches a level of success they couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams.

Today, separating spouses are privy to the ‘online quickie divorce’, a service that allows parties to get divorced for a fixed fee of as little as £100 plus VAT. Whilst such services may appear appealing and are often very useful for those looking to keep their divorce costs to a minimum, it is imperative for couples to understand that such a service often does not deal with matrimonial finances and instead only take the couple to the decree absolute stage of their divorce.

In order for both spouses to move on with their independent lives after divorce, it is crucial that they draft, approve and sign a final financial order before submitting it to court for approval. Whilst the cost of a lawyer drafting such an agreement may be a slight inconvenience, it will be miniscule compared to a claim that could be brought years later by an ex-spouse with a hefty sense of entitlement. Nobody wants to be looking over their shoulder after divorce and the best insurance against having to do this is to tie things up at the point of divorce instead of leaving loose ends

Artist divorce case highlights sexism of the UK courts – and it’s not the women who are suffering

A stay-at-home father who was supported by his millionaire wife is appealing a court decision that would see him receive a £300,000 lump sum, as well as a long term £50,000 annual maintenance payment.

His appeal is based on the fact that his lump sum payment is to be partially funded by the sale of the former matrimonial home, in which he still lives, as well as the fact that his maintenance payments were calculated on the basis that he goes back to full-time work and secures the salary that he had 11 years ago.

Rupert Nightingale had worked as a picture editor and photo director for Men’s Health magazine until 2003, when he gave up his full time profession to pursue a part-time career in fine art photography, whilst also acting as a househusband. He was married to his wife, Kirsten Turner, for seven years, having dated her for over a decade beforehand. Ms Turner had supported the family during the marriage, earning £420,000 per annum as a partner at PWC.

Mr Nightingale believes that he should be able to remain in the former matrimonial home, have his maintenance payments upped by 50% and continue being a househusband on at least a part-time basis. He believes that the court has been guilty of gender bias and does not think that the same order would have been made in relation to a housewife in his position.

As Lord Nicholls explained in White v White [2000] , fairness should be the ultimate consideration by a court dealing with financial distribution on divorce. However, the focus in this case should not be whether the law is fair to homemakers, but rather whether the MCA 1973 S25 factors have been applied in the same way that they would have been if Mr Nightingale had been a woman.

The strongest argument in Mr Nightingale’s favour is likely to be found through S25(2)(f) MCA 1973, under which the court must give consideration to the contributions each party has made to the welfare of the family. It has been highlighted many times that there must not be any bias in favour of the breadwinner and against the homemaker, and this has protected many women who have sacrificed their careers to be housewives and child-carers.

Surely then, Mr Nightingale, who acted in the same manner, should also receive such protection? After all, the decision for him to cease full time work will have been made jointly by him and his ex-wife, and it would no doubt have been his support as a househusband that enabled Ms Turner to progress so far in her career.

When considering financial resources under S25(2)(a), the Court is to take into account not just present resources, but also those that will become available in the foreseeable future. For this reason, a spouse’s earning capacity can be considered and this explains the court’s decision to make an order based on Mr Nightingale returning to full-time employment. However, the court does not seem to have applied this factor in the same way in which they would have applied it to a woman in Mr Nightingale’s position, as they appear to have overlooked the fact that he has dedicated the past decade to childcare, which may have damaged his earning capacity.

The financial needs of a party to be considered under S25(2)(b) can often be reviewed jointly with the standard of living enjoyed by the family before the breakdown of marriage – a consideration under S25(2)(c). Mr Nightingale would have become accustomed to a certain lifestyle when married to Ms Turner – one that he will not be able to maintain unless he returns to full-time employment. It can therefore be said that the court order does not meet his financial needs, despite the fact history has seen women successfully claim that they need three houses.

The court may, of course, argue that they have not been sexist and that they would have applied the law in the same way if the roles of the couple had been reversed. They could claim that the basis of the order rested on the relatively short length of the 7-year marriage, along with the fact that the couple’s child is now spending four nights with Ms Turner and just three with Mr Nightingale. The latter factor may also justify why the court did not deem it appropriate to keep Mr Nightingale living in the former matrimonial home.

“The difficulty for Mr Nightingale,” says Katie McCann, Head of Family for Kuits, “is that it is impossible to say with absolute certainty what the court would have done if the spousal role had been reversed. There may be those who believe that the law is incorrect and that those who are able to go back to work should have to, even if they have taken many years out to raise their children. However, this is not the question at hand.

“The imperative question is whether the law is being applied equally to both sexes, and the case of Mr Nightingale seems to suggest that it is not. The S25 factors should not be simply about protecting women who are vulnerable, but rather about protecting any spouse in the financially weaker position. This case suggests that fathers who make such a sacrifice are not necessarily guaranteed the same protection afforded to mothers who do the same.”

Family Dispute Resolution Week: A Look at Mediation

Mediation will make the divorce process quicker, fairer and more empowering for both parties, says a family law expert at Manchester-based Kuits Solicitors today to mark the beginning of Family Dispute Resolution Week.

The comments come from Kuits’ Head of Family Law, Katie McCann, in response to further advancements made by the government to encourage divorcing couples to stay out of court in favour of mediation services.

“Last April saw the introduction of compulsory Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings (MIAM) for divorcing couples,” says McCann. “The purpose of these meetings is to provide the couple with information in relation to mediation and other forms of non-court-based dispute resolution. In a further attempt to encourage divorcing couples to use mediation as an alternative to the courts, a free mediation session will now be available, as long as one of them qualifies for legal aid.”

Previously, only the party eligible for legal aid was entitled to receive a complimentary session, whilst the other party had to pay for it. The Chief Executive of National Family Mediation, Jane Robey, says that the new scheme seeks to aid people’s understanding of what mediation can achieve, presumably by allowing them to experience the benefits of it first-hand.

MIAMs, along with the free initial mediation sessions, have the potential to enable ex-couples to reach agreements regarding finances and children outside of court. Commenting on the benefits of mediation the Justice Minister, Simon Hughes states: “Mediation works and we are committed to making sure that more people make use of it, rather than go through the confrontational and stressful experience of going to court.”

As well as being less stressful than court, an additional benefit of mediation is a financial one. David Norgrove, chairman of the Family Justice Review, estimates that, if used, mediation has the potential to reduce legal aid costs by £100million – and it is not only the government who would reap the financial rewards. Ex-couples would also benefit significantly due to the fact that only one mediator is required, as opposed to two lawyers, and the hourly rate of a mediator is commonly less than that of a lawyer. However, families should be aware that, should mediation be unsuccessful and lawyers instructed at a later date, costs are likely to end up higher than they would have been if lawyers had been instructed at the outset.

“There certainly exists the potential for mediation to be a success due the fact that it allows for effective communication between the parties, who are able to speak directly, as opposed to having to pass their opinions and negotiations through their lawyers,” says McCann. “Not only can this save a lot of time, but it also ensures that words are not minced or misinterpreted. Without the court getting involved, an ex-couple can potentially reach a subjective, tailored arrangement that works best for them, without feeling that they are being ordered to do so. Significantly, it is often the non-forced nature of the arrangement reached that attracts separating couples to mediation.”

McCann also thinks that the fact that an ex-couple have managed to sit down and reach an agreement using mediation will mean that they have effectively communicated and compromised with each other. The skills acquired will hopefully allow them to renegotiate their arrangements should they require adaptation in the future, especially in relation to arrangements for the children.

“Due to the benefits attached to mediation, it is understandable why the government are encouraging more couples to attempt it,” says McCann. “Although couples cannot be forced to mediate, the existence of compulsory MIAMs suggests that there is some sort of pressure being placed on separating parties to consider it. However, the government should consider whether this pressure could potentially threaten the success of mediation, due to the fact that it removes the voluntary element – if an ex-couple attend mediation against their wishes, there may be less chance of them co-operating in order to reach a suitable agreement.”

McCann goes on to note that, even when attendance at mediation is voluntary, there are still risks attached to the process, particularly for cases involving intricate financial complexities: “Mediation does not attract the same disclosure mechanisms as the court does and therefore a party may find it easier to conceal financial information during the mediation process,” explains McCann. “This, together with the fact that the mediator remains neutral throughout the process, offering no legal advice, can result in an unfair agreement being reached. As long as both parties are aware of these potential limitations, for many, mediation will provide a welcome alternative to court proceedings.”

Ultimately, McCann applauds the government’s support of mediation: “Anything that empowers couples going through the upset of divorce is a great thing. A settlement reached on their own terms is always better than an artificial result imposed by a stranger: the judge. At Kuits, we are great supporters of empowering clients to reach fair and equitable resolutions in the quickest and most effective way.”

“Of course, while divorce cases can often be extremely acrimonious (and therefore the government cannot expect every separating couple to mediate), for the majority of separating couples, mediation provides a real opportunity for them to settle their disputes outside of the court room – and the service is set to get even stronger in the future.”

Indeed, from January 2015, the Family Mediation Council (FMC) will introduce a new accreditation scheme and new professional standards that all mediators will have to work towards. In addition to this, all mediators and those training to be mediators will have to register with the FMC. It is hoped that the stricter criteria will result in a greater confidence being placed in the mediation system, which in turn will result in a rise in its popularity. Although the government is unlikely to ever make mediation itself compulsory, if its effectiveness is well documented then couples will be eager to use it without pressure.