On the Home Front…

Is your home secure during your divorce or after divorce?

Having a home may be considered more of a luxury than ever before, now with the loss of income during the coronavirus pandemic being added to the drain on families caused by litigation expenses.

Are you or someone you know at risk of losing a home because of court expenses such as high attorney’s fees and bankruptcy? If you are post-divorce, are you afraid you will not be able to afford to keep your home after spending so much during the case, especially if child custody was disputed?

Our hope is that with Georgia courts being temporarily closed for health preservation, that more people will stop, learn and listen so that they can avoid further loss and injury related to child custody and divorce litigation. This applies especially to parents who are usually so busy with their child’s school and sports activities to learn what they might be missing in terms of resolving conflict and protecting a child in need of attention.

A few tips:

  1. Save all of your lawyer’s emails as PDF’s and put in a folder. If you can make searchable PDF’s, that is even better. If there are communications between your lawyer and other professionals involved in your case that you have not been copied on, meaning the entire email exchange was not forwarded to you, this is another issue to raise, and one for which you may need to obtain help.
  2. Create a sub-folder for emails, letters, pleadings related to financial matters, including costs of litigation and strategy pertaining to homes and other property. Pay attention, especially, to any communication that hints at a trade-off around child custody and property.
  3. Write out questions about any wording or issue you are not absolutely certain about as to meaning and the effect on your family.
  4. Print out all billing statements from your lawyer and other other professionals involved in the litigation; compare records for duplicates or any other sign of over-billing. Print your contract with professionals and read it carefully, and compare what you agreed to with what you have been billed for – this is a learning process.
  5. If your lawyer has not provided you with detailed billing statements and in a timely manner, this may be an issue you want to raise with the State Bar or a local Bar Association in your area.
  6. Look for and ask about communications specific to your property and how awards around marital division, homes, accounts/debt, and attorney’s fees and other expenses are being handled.

Sometimes, it is what you do not see or do not know (yet) that you need to look for, which may mean asking your lawyer to ensure that you have an unedited copy of every single email/text and document related to your interests and case. With some lawyers, it is not until a specific request is made, for example to have a copy of your entire legal file made, that you do not realize what else may be going on, or not going on, that you should know about. While we do not provide legal advice, we do know which lawyers will give you straight answers and help you fill in missing pieces of the picture.

Examples of Issues to Watch Out for:

  • Do you have equity in your home? Involved in marital dispute over division of equity? Learn more from real estate agents and financial advisors so that all of your understanding is not reliant on your domestic lawyer’s perspective.
  • Are you at risk for having to file for bankruptcy? Make sure to consult with a bankruptcy lawyer separate and apart from your domestic lawyer, and ideally not with one referred by your domestic lawyer.
  • Is your partner/spouse or former spouse/partner at risk of filing for bankruptcy – or in bankruptcy? If yes, then you may want to consult with a bankruptcy lawyer yourself, and also separate and apart from your domestic lawyer.

Could this be you or someone you know? Is your home at risk?

Conflicts have been seen with domestic lawyers where property division and fees are concerned, such as:

  1. In Cobb County: after three years of convoluted litigation, attorneys discussed with the judge how the court expenses would be covered. It turned out that from the judge’s perspective, there really was no need for all the legal battles that were waged – there was no dispute and no decisions for the judge to make when they appeared in court for a “hearing,” so the judge looked at the lawyers, and both sides (lawyer for the mother and the opposing counsel for the father) flushed red. Before that moment the only focus was on which parent had more equity in their pre-marital home as the attorneys wanted the judge to issue an order about who was paying what attorney’s fees (and guardian ad litem fees). What came out is that the case was not about the children, but about how long the case could be dragged out to increase the fees; clearly the lawyers knew there was equity in the homes to take – and they did. Both the mother and the father appeared to not realize what was going on and neither knew how to protect themselves, or how to avoid losing equity or property.

2. Recently in Gwinnett County: a divorcing couple with children went through marital division of assets and the fees incurred were extraordinarily high, well over $50,000, which is not unusual.

In order to get a judgment in his client’s favor on financial support and fees, the mother’s lawyer decided to falsify the father’s income in pleadings to be higher than reality, an act that set the father on course for bankruptcy; this is also not uncommon. Maybe the mother was so busy managing the children that she did not realize her fees were being unnecessarily driven up by a lawyer misrepresenting numbers to the court, and did not realize this would ultimately cost her more than it helped her and their children.

The mother likely did not learn on her own what using inflated numbers could mean for her, and therein lies the risk. She probably trusted her lawyer to only serve her interests and not put the home in jeopardy.

When her lawyer pursued the father to collect the attorney’s fees of over $50,000 and the bankruptcy court became involved, it was revealed that the lawyer did not protect his client and the marital home could be forced into a sale and used to cover the fees driven up by the lawyer; of course, the mother may have no way of knowing she could lose the house. If she believes that her lawyer’s collection efforts are “normal” and not putting her at risk, she may be caught off guard. In this case, the lawyer failed to have the father removed as owner of the property, so as it is a part of the estate, it can be used to cover debts. This situation and others like it are why our founder, Deborah Beacham, observes lawyers in courtrooms, studies transcripts, billing records and orders, and encourages parents to learn more in advance and to try to resolve as much outside of the courtroom as possible. Situations like this one are also why she engages legal malpractice lawyers in discussions – education and preparation are key to preventing the kind of shock and loss going on in this example.

3. In another metro Atlanta divorce, the mother’s lawyer helped her stage and provoke a stressful situation they called “domestic violence,” so that the father would have to leave his pre-marital home; the litigation was dragged out for years, with multiple professionals involved to run up fees & turn what could have been a straightforward resolution into a high conflict mess.

Not only did positive co-parenting go out the window, putting much greater stress and shame on the child, but because of the way the father was set up, falsely accused and kept from his home office and equipment, his business failed; the total loss that followed resulted in his business partner giving up hope and taking his life. From where we sit, studying hundreds of similar situations all around Georgia and in other states, this loss of life – and the loss of a small business and loss of the father’s home due to attorney’s fees – was avoidable.

What could have been saved if this family learned to get the right kind of help before entering into the legal process? Everything.

Unfortunately, the above examples barely scratch the surface in explaining what families and children are experiencing. In a better, safer world, parents will be more informed and prepared to avoid such outcomes.

Solutions are available to protect children, homes and reputations.
~ Deborah Beacham

Let’s start here. By raising awareness and building legal protection funds, we can guide parents to safety, and stop the current trend of destabilizing families and children.

We can save homes, jobs and health, and most importantly, the parent-child bonds that children need to thrive.

Due Process is a Thing?

Why would I question whether or not due process, fairness protected by law, truly matters to our courts?

My question stems from a critical problem in domestic law, especially in child custody cases, because laws governing fairness and constitutional rights so often are not applied in family conflict. Parents are stunned, many to the point of feeling disabled and hopeless, and left wondering why reasonable notice and the ability to present evidence and defend themselves are rights that seem not to matter during what is called “civil” litigation.

When parents are deprived of basic rights in legal disputes, any sense of civility goes out the window. It is a horrific shock to a loving parent to find out too late that due process, the rights which can easily make or break a parent’s ability to be involved in their children’s lives, seems to not have a place in the trial courts where children are divided much like a 401k.

Fairness to a parent entering family court is like gloss over an attention-grabbing ad campaign to make it seem safe to enter a legal process as a parent. The gloss, however, fades after one makes it far enough in past the storefront for reality to set in. It is not just a disappointment when laws providing for a fair process are not applied, it is traumatic.

In watching the video of the oral argument shown below, you’ll see that the Georgia Court of Appeals panel is quite passionate about this subject.

What I’ve observed in person in many child custody cases makes no sense in light of that passion.

That due process is missing, even unknown to many parents and children, including teens who believed they had a right to choose their primary parent, is one of the reasons I believe in being able to film in courtrooms, which I do often by filing a request to record as permitted by USCR 22 (Rule 22). Even with the revised Rule 22 seeming to encourage more widespread use of recordings, when done properly, there is still much effort in some courts to provide cover for the kind of statements and attitudes revealed in this video of the argument in the Georgia Court of Appeals. In every situation where a lawyer has objected to my request to record, the proceeding yielded an opportunity for that lawyer’s client to benefit from a lack of transparency. In every proceeding where a request to record has been denied in accord with the objection, an injustice, a lack of fairness towards a safe, loving parent, hung in the air like a heavy, mold-laden curtain. This may sound overly dramatic or even unrealistic, but when you watch the Judges’ responses in this video, you’ll understand I’m right on point.

I’ve actually heard lawyers in domestic circles say that due process does not matter or does not exist in family law, even though there are rules and there is plenty of case law that talks about the ramifications if a party is deprived of due process, if a specific civil right is denied. How can lawyers have this attitude that conflicts so dramatically with the beliefs of appellate court judges? How can due process not be “thing” if Judge Dillard and other Judges in the Court of Appeals react as they do in oral argument below?

After years of seeing enormous, life-altering – and in a bad way for children and safe, loving parents – voids (a black hole likely to allow no safe return) when it comes to having opportunity to be heard and having rulings, let alone timely rulings, I was encouraged to see this issue argued so passionately in our Court of Appeals. I saw it because a news media team featured it on The Reveal, a unique show produced by Atlanta’s 11 Alive, and I hope it makes its way to the eyeballs, through the brains and into the hearts of our domestic lawyers and family court judges. Yes, I believe anything is possible.

Grab a seat and be ready to take notes. For sure send your comments through social media or contact me here.

Follow the Court of Appeals online and watch for cases that involve issues of due process, fairness and civil rights that yield family stability and protect mental health. How many more arguments of this kind would you like to see in our appellate courts where you can learn directly from our Judges this way?

I’m especially appreciative of the fact that our appellate courts in Georgia allow filming of oral argument, and I’d like to provide more coverage of such cases in the Court of Appeals to see reactions to similar due process issues.

As a lawyer or judge, ask the tough questions about the case before you; dare to spend extra time checking your work as it applies to due process. If you have a case you believe is heading towards oral argument which involves parental rights, I’d like to know.

What if more arguments like this resulted in relief that restores parent-child bonds and ensures due process in child custody and other domestic matters? Would that be a good thing for our society?

I think we can expect a great impact on our culture and in our communities by paying attention here, so please send me a note with a case number once docketed in the appellate court. If you know of a lawyer who has argued before the Court of Appeals to ensure due process is afforded to parents and children, please make an introduction or share the standout points made and how the Court reacted.

Relief. That is what due process would provide should it be restored to parents and children relying on our laws to protect their right to be together and to be safe from harm.

Thank you for taking time to read and to watch Georgia’s Court of Appeals make trend-changing statements in this case!

Deborah Beacham

Thank you, Congress, for Putting Child Safety First!

Important update!

Congress passed House Conc. Resolution 72 on September 24th, late into the evening.

This was a bipartisan effort with tireless support from child advocates, lawyers and legislators from across the country. This was a tremendous first step toward improving safety, mental health and family stability for children!

Watch this video courtesy of C-SPAN to hear what Representatives from both the Republican and Democratic parties have to say about this new mandate to states and courts. The video is linked in the previous sentence. To comment on this legislation and story, please use the Contact form here.

My Advocate Center supports Georgia Courts in improving child safety and mental health.

Why did My Advocate Center begin publishing information about this proposed resolution back in April of 2018?  The answer: child safety and emotional well-being should always be the first priority of every legal matter involving children. Always. Most of us, however, could not fathom that this has NOT been the case; in fact, the true needs of children, including protection from an abusive parent, are often ignored.

You’ve seen the news reports, heard the stories and talked about it on social media, or maybe only quietly shared it with your counselor when privately grieving what has happened to you or to your loved ones.

The next step for Georgians is to ask our policy leaders to help create momentum on this issue. Please sign the petition below and get to know your U.S. Representatives by sharing your experience with them.

What is the overall goal?

Keeping our children safe, our families stable and healthy, protecting our rights as parents and grandparents to care for our own children. To do this, we need to improve how our courts and legal professionals manage family disputes that enter the the legal system.

Did you know? We reached over 1000 signatures on our previous petition, so just imagine what we can do now!

Fatalities in Georgia related to Stalking: Annual Report 2017

Georgia’s Commission on Family Violence and the Coalition Against Domestic Violence provide us each year with an annual report that is more than just stats, it’s a roadmap to saving lives. The 2017 report focuses on stalking and is a must read for all responders and advocates. It’s especially important for victims and family members or friends of victims.

 

Georgia Domestic Violence – Fatality Review Annual Report 2017 by Deb Beacham on Scribd

Protected: Children Traded as Commodities

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Protected: In the Name of Justice

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The Right Bug Repellant

Years ago when I first started studying the conduct of professionals who assist families during times of conflict, I noticed something interesting. When someone who is intensely worried and frustrated believes they have the right counsel, they will dress as they are told, cut their hair and change various behaviors for the sake of achieving the objective of the day. These changes in behavior and style and speech seem to happen quickly, without study, due diligence or challenge.

Imagine if a man relying on counsel is heading into the woods instead of into a courtroom.

He’s mainly worried about mosquitoes.

He asks his highly recommended counsel to hand him bug repellant to save him from the buzzing mosquitoes. He’s assured that if he applies this spray liberally and forges ahead, he will come out fine on the other side of the woods.

As he heads into the woods, believing he is covered and really has only about 100 yards to go, the buzzing sound goes away but he notices something else. He pulls up his pant legs to find a handful of ticks – you get the picture.  Ticks dig in and they are hard to get out. Treating disease caused by ticks? Expensive, time-consuming, stressful, and not always possible.

The man is confused. He has no reason to believe that his counsel would not give him the right advice or that he wouldn’t receive the protection he’s paying for and expecting, so he starts looking around trying to figure out where all the ticks came from and why he wasn’t warned about them. The ticks are much more threatening and painful than the mosquito bites he was trying to avoid…so what to do?

He calls out to his counsel who offers to sell him another bottle of spray and some ointment. So the man pays for what he is handed, takes the bottles out of the bag and begins spraying and applying the ointment. While he’s busy with these bottles another problem hits him. He can’t see his feet…or his ankles any longer. While applying the ointment to the back of his legs and prying out ticks, he doesn’t see he’s been standing in quicksand. He panics – he’s never seen quicksand before and realizes it seems to be pulling his legs in an inch at a time!

Now angry and scared, he calls out loudly to his counsel. Then he pauses.

He sees his counsel and a couple of other suits approaching with shovels and barbed wire. Quickly he tries to rationalize how they are going to save him with barbed wire? Is the shovel enough to move the quicksand away as he is now in up to his hips?

Feeling stuck?

You know what to do now, right? Click here for the right tools.

 

Cameras Needed in Courtrooms

Do Cameras in Courtrooms Make a Difference?

There is no question that our citizens are safer when there is transparency in legal matters, but some judges are going out of their way, even issuing gag orders to media in addition to parties and sealing records in select cases, to prevent a review of what goes wrong in child custody matters when laws, facts and evidence are ignored or concealed from the court.

For several years I’ve been observing, analyzing and reporting on issues in family conflict matters that are causing avoidable stress and loss to children and to loving, safe and available parents. At the center of all of my research and reporting is the needs of children, which too often are forgotten or just set aside. The reports are not what matters, but the possibility of improving outcomes for children; the correct term for this form of journalism is Solutions-Based Journalism.

This form of news media and investigative reporting may not be popular in some circles as it challenges the dangerous status quo, but if it didn’t matter, we wouldn’t be talking about Rule 22 laws and cameras in courtrooms in this state. This is a critical topic the public needs to know is being debated and decided, so I’ll share more of my work and that of other journalists to support understanding and participation in this debate. In the meantime, please ask video journalist Nydia Tisdale about her experience filming public events and proceedings, and ask how you can support her efforts to inform citizens and increase transparency. Her unique work has been featured by news media not only in Georgia but by the Associated Press for her bold moves to support open government and greater public participation.

The more you know, the greater likelihood you’ll contact your legislators and your local news media because we do need cameras in courtrooms and we do need ongoing reporting about how family conflict and legal matters are managed.

A major issue for all, including for ethical, talented legal and healthcare professionals, is that foul play by certain other professionals is rampant and worsening with each year. In part this is due to a vulnerable and unsuspecting public but is also due to a cloudy courtroom landscape where it is easy to disguise bad faith and unethical tactics used to increase billable hours.

Another factor in the worsening of predatory & harmful case management is that certain judges are willing to play along, such as in this highly unusual Augusta situation which was investigated and reported on by local news media.

In the case featured in the news report below, the judge gave custody of the mother’s daughter to her ex-boyfriend when he gave custody of her two sons to this man, their father. However, the man has no biological or legal relationship to the girl, meaning this child and her mother were tormented and torn apart unnecessarily. Note: I have no connection to these parties, no bias or preference other than for facts and laws to count for the children involved. After studying dozens of cases closely in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, collaborating with local news media & seeing news stories through to completion, I know these courtrooms and local practices well and stand by my work and these news reports. Also worth noting, this is not water under the bridge for these children and their families; the damages are ongoing, and more families are being harmed in similar ways as you read this.

The Featured Report:

If the facts and evidence of this case justified an award of custody to the father of the boys, that would be reasonable, but the court also ignored the physical, visible evidence of family violence.

In a separate conversation we’ll feature more of the instruction for judges pursuant to the Georgia Domestic Violence Bench Book, which should be required reading for court officers and court staff such as clerks, social workers and others working with judges on these cases. This Bench Book is available online and published as a 10th edition, with participation from dozens of professionals from around the state of Georgia, so it’s not a secret to our courts that family violence, including in making determinations of custody and visitation, is a matter to be taken seriously.

Please review this news report and ask yourself how this could happen, why a judge would do this, and if the judge is making this kind of ruling, what else is going wrong in his courtroom.

Another key question is whether or not this court and this family could have benefitted from the application of instructions found in the Judicial Guide to Child Custody.

Solutions to Consider:

First, learn about your local courts before you enter into a legal action. Learn about practices of professionals before you sign agreements and pay retainers. Understand why so many families are losing their homes, health and jobs during or following litigation and especially why so many children are kept in or moved to unsafe environments.

Next, learn about accountability systems that exist to provide oversight of professional conduct, including judges and other court officers and experts who help determine outcomes. Do you see any consequences being given to professionals in your area or are you familiar with any investigations into questionable conduct of those managing these types of cases?

Learn from the testimony of lawyers, doctors, teachers, parents, grandparents and others who are brave enough and articulate enough to state clearly what they experience or witness, and who are willing to call it what it is – especially if something improper has transpired, as in this Augusta news report.

Remember that all of these court professionals, including judges and child custody experts, are human, meaning they make mistakes, become fatigued and even worn out by the extreme emotions displayed in these cases; none of them, and none of us, are perfect. But the reality is that they have sworn to uphold our laws and they have a duty to do what is right by the children caught in litigation and who are often torn apart in the process.

Where you have the opportunity to encourage the use of cameras in courtrooms, with proper approval of Rule 22 Requests to Record, Videotape and/or Audiotape, to Televise or otherwise make publicly available these proceedings, please do so as it is highly likely you will help save lives.

Please contact My Advocate Center and let me know if you have questions or would like to contribute toward making these solutions available.

Thank you,

Deb Beacham, Founder