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.

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!

Protected: Children Traded as Commodities

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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

 

Where There’s a Will

The Will of a Loving Parent

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

We believe that to be true, but another way to put it, especially if you’re caught in a family conflict or in our court system, is where there’s willpower (and a fat checkbook), there’s a way to avoid accountability and even to harm an innocent party.

In every jurisdiction we’ve studied, multiple cases have surfaced in which innocent parties – especially parents – are being set up to fail.  This happens frequently in the form of false allegations of some form of abuse or fraud, targeting the innocent party to take the blame and the consequences of the party actually breaking the law and doing damage to the children and other parent.  Our mission began with sorting out why this was happening in family law or domestic cases but the same foul play occurs, of course, in other types of cases.

Our priority at My Advocate Center is the children who are caught in these battles and getting dropped through the cracks in our system, regardless of which court or which type of process is being used.

When children are suffering because someone they need is being intentionally and wrongfully targeted for failure, and when a judge, attorneys, guardians and especially DOCTORS just stand by or even participate in this foul play, we should all stop what we are doing and do not pass go until this problem is solved. And that is where we are in Georgia.

To learn more, to offer support, present a useful resource or to report a case, contact us here.

First Amendment Rights Protected

Pro Advocate Radio is needed as a Voice for Families, Children and for Professionals Committed to Resolving Conflict in ways that Serve the Needs of Children.

For bloggers, citizen journalists advocacy groups, etc.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/01/20/defamation-bloggers-supreme-court/4658295/

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — A federal appeals court ruled Friday that bloggers and the public have the same First Amendment protections as journalists when sued for defamation: If the issue is of public concern, plaintiffs have to prove negligence to win damages.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial in a defamation lawsuit brought by an Oregon bankruptcy trustee against a Montana blogger who wrote online that the court-appointed trustee criminally mishandled a bankruptcy case.

The appeals court ruled that the trustee was not a public figure, which could have invoked an even higher standard of showing the writer acted with malice, but the issue was of public concern, so the negligence standard applied.

Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press said the ruling affirms what many have long argued: Standards set by a 1974 U.S. Supreme Courtruling, Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., apply to everyone, not just journalists.

“It’s not a special right to the news media,” he said. “So it’s a good thing for bloggers and citizen journalists and others.”

Crystal L. Cox, a blogger from Eureka, Mont., now living in Port Townshend, Wash., was sued for defamation by Bend attorney Kevin Padrick and his company, Obsidian Finance Group LLC, after she made posts on several websites she created accusing them of fraud, corruption, money-laundering and other illegal activities. The appeals court noted Padrick and Obsidian were hired by Summit Accommodators to advise them before filing for bankruptcy, and that the U.S. Bankruptcy Court later appointed Padrick trustee in the Chapter 11 case. The court added that Summit had defrauded investors in its real estate operations through a Ponzi scheme.

A jury in 2011 had awarded Padrick and Obsidian $2.5 million.

“Because Cox’s blog post addressed a matter of public concern, even assuming that Gertz is limited to such speech, the district court should have instructed the jury that it could not find Cox liable for defamation unless it found that she acted negligently,” judge Andrew D. Hurwitz wrote. “We hold that liability for a defamatory blog post involving a matter of public concern cannot be imposed without proof of fault and actual damages.”

The appeals court upheld rulings by the District Court that other posts by Cox were constitutionally protected opinion.

Though Cox acted as her own attorney, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who had written an article on the issue, learned of her case and offered to represent her in an appeal. Volokh said such cases usually end up settled without trial, and it was rare for one to reach the federal appeals court level.

“It makes clear that bloggers have the same First Amendment rights as professional journalists,” he said. “There had been similar precedents before concerning advocacy groups, other writers and book authors. This follows a fairly well established chain of precedents. I believe it is the first federal appeals court level ruling that applies to bloggers.”

An attorney for Padrick said in an email that while they were disappointed in the ruling, they noted the court found “there was no dispute that the statements were false and defamatory.”

“Ms. Cox’s false and defamatory statements have caused substantial damage to our clients, and we are evaluating our options with respect to the court’s decision,” wrote Steven M. Wilker.