Tales from the Trenches: Family Law Edition

** Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

            Before I begin what I can only imagine will be the most entertaining item you will read all day, I must fully disclose that this idea was inspired by the previous articles of Jessica R. Grater, Esquire and Andrew J. Monastra, Esquire, both of whom have written a “Tales from Trenches” article on their respective practice areas. However, I assure you the practice areas of real estate and wills and estates have nothing on family law.

            There have been quite a few times in my career where it has been difficult to keep a straight face when clients have made requests of goals they would like to achieve in their cases. Over the years, you end up hearing the same request over and over again and you develop responses. People love to hear horror stories so here are some I’d like to share:

 

“I want the lamp… or blanket… or toothbrush holder.”

            Splitting personal property is something the court will generally not get involved in. The parties will usually have to work out the issues resolving the personal property between themselves. My personal practice philosophy is not to spend my client’s money getting involved in matters which do not make economic sense to get involved in. It doesn’t make sense to pay me for multiple hours work to fight over something that you can probably spend less money to replace. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to sentimental items, like family heirlooms or specialty items. If it isn’t THE LEG LAMP from A Christmas Story, you probably don’t want to pay me (or any other attorney) to fight over it. Just go buy a new one.

 

“I want $5,000 for the brand new television.”

            This deals with personal property, again. The value the Court will assign to personal property is not the amount you PAID for it. It is the current market value. So the big screen television you bought last week for $5,000? The value of that is going to be essentially the Craigslist value. You may get $500 for it in a marital valuation. I refer back to my above statement. Do you want to waste your money fighting over a piece of property that isn’t going to have a high value at the end of the day? Just go buy a new one.

 

“So and So spent all of this money during marriage on I don’t know what and I want every cent accounted for and paid back.”

            This one comes up a lot in a time when most couples carry a large heft of credit card debt. One party has no clue how the other party has managed to spend so much money with nothing to show for it. The rule of thumb for this is: money in during a marriage, money out during a marriage – no one is going back to review it, unless you are claiming it wasn’t spent on marital expenses. I assure you, after doing my fair share of pouring over massive amounts of credit card and bank statements, 95 percent of all people are not racking up debt on things that aren’t marital debt.

The exception to this is if the debt is not incurred on marital expense. And sorry, but your wife’s excessive shoe habit or your husband’s need to have every single power tool that Home Depot sells? Marital debts. That being said, if your lovely significant other took, say, their paramour (the Court’s choice word for sidepiece, girlfriend/boyfriend, essentially anyone but a spouse) or six of his/her buddies to Vegas and racked up a bunch of debt on less savory life choices – that is not a marital debt.

            Once you have discerned that your one true love spent the money on non-marital expenses, we would need to do a forensic accounting to determine just how generous he/she was with the marital money. And here comes the cha-ching $$$$. Forensic accounting isn’t cheap. You are paying an expert at an accounting/financial firm to review all of your statements for usually many, many years back. Once the statements are reviewed they will compile a report with exactly how much cash Schnookums spent. Generally, we will then have to argue this in court, as most people don’t usually say, “You’re right, honey. I made some stupid choices. Let me make it right.” Especially not in a divorce.

 

“I want to daily custody exchanges… of our pet hamster.”

Okay, okay. I have never actually had anyone say this specific line to me. But I have had people fight over custody of the dog. Interestingly enough, no one has ever fought over a cat… As a dog lover myself, I understand the emotional connection with your pet. But unfortunately, this is not a custody issue. The Court will treat this as a personal property issue. So it will be handled in the divorce matter. And let me just tell you the reaction you are going to get if you are in Court fighting over a pet. It’s not going to be great.

I could go on for days about the crazy things people say when they are going through a divorce or custody case. I left the custody case stories out because it is very rare that anything in a custody case is light enough to joke about. My goal is to always recognize that my cases aren’t just cases. They involve real people and have real consequences. I also know that sometimes people lose sight of their end goals in a divorce when they don’t have an attorney that can help them keep their eye on the prize.

My practice style is to navigate clients through this difficult time without any additional heartache and without spending all of their money (unless, that is, someone wants to take me to Vegas!). Always vet your family law attorney to make sure that person’s practice style matches your goals. And make sure he or she is actually a family law practitioner. Many attorneys dabble in family law and can end up costing you lots of extra money and headache. Choose wisely so you can get through a divorce or custody case as smoothly as possible.

Julie J. Marburger, Esquire, is an attorney at the law firm of Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C.. She practices in the firm’s Reading, Pottstown and West Chester offices.  In 2014, she received the Select Lawyer award for her practice in Family Law. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, she was named as a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers Magazine in the area of Family Law. She may be reached by telephone at 610-374-2400 or by e-mail to jmarburger@wolfbaldwin.com.

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