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Divorce Mediation Blog

Honest Abe Does It Again: Words to Practice (And Live) By

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Just when you think you've heard everything about Abraham Lincoln to inspire and admire, along comes another. At the recent 5th Annual ADR Conference (M.C.L.E.), attendees received a handout from Hon. Dennis J. Curran and Emma Kingdon called "Abraham Lincoln and ADR". At the front end of this fascinating little synopsis about Pres. Lincoln's legal career, appeared the following:

"Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often the real loser-in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough."

Abraham Lincoln (1850); Notes for a Law Lecture, in 2 ROY P. BASLER, COLLECTED WORKS OF ABRAHAM LINCLON, 81 (Rutgers Univ. Press 1953).

Every lawyer should read Judge Curran and Ms. Kingdon’s little gem, and every person who participates in mediation, conciliation, arbitration and principled negotiation should, too. They will find it self-affirming, in some cases perhaps self-correcting.

Mostly, the man could sure speak.

 

Divorce Agreements: Where Have All the COLA’s Gone? Part 3 Four Reasons Why COLA’s May Hurt

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

In previous entries, we recalled the days when cost of living adjustments (COLA) provisions were a common feature of Massachusetts alimony and child support settlements, and their virtual disappearance. Then, we focused on 7 reasons why COLA’s may be beneficial to divorcing parties.

Here, we look at 4 risks of COLA’s :

  1. COLA’s are very technical. The structure of COLA’s vary quite a bit, from “simple” to quite complex. Complexity results from the negotiator and drafter’s efforts to cut risks, to accommodate competing interests and to effectuate compromise. A “blown” COLA can result in betraying the parties’ intentions, increasing tensions and litigation costs in efforts to rectify poor or problematic drafting.
  2. The unknown is unknowable. In a relatively benign inflation environment, the sting of a periodic automatic increase may seem manageable, especially with a payor’s career ascending. But, as discussed in our last 2 blog entries, the cost of living is subject to unexpected changes. An inflation spike may be accompanied by wage hikes, or it may reverse the arc of a rising career. The payor’s perceived need for insulation from upward support modification can become a resented memory; and the recipient’s sense of protection from rising costs may ring hollow, when trumped by the other party’s poor work fortunes.
  3. The unknowable may stay that way. Mostly, the economic lives of divorced parties become opaque to each other. Certainly, houses, cars and vacations with kids give clues to changes in the other’s economic life. But, appearances can be deceiving. The flip side of the support modification disincentives noted in our last entry, is that one party may never know that he/she might be eligible for a great increase or decrease in support, for reasons that would become known only through the information exchanges that are mandatory in modification cases. The well-functioning COLA may mask other changes of circumstances that one party might dearly like to know, suggesting that a substantial shift of equities between the parties has rendered the previous deal unfair.
  4. Security can feel insecure. Being free(er) of inflation pressures (recipient), or insulated from unwanted upward modifications (payor), can make both parties feel freer to move forward with their lives, and less burdened by worry about future litigation. Yet, the parties can also come to feel victimized by their own success. A recipient who feels protected by the COLA may later encounter a judge who is less likely than otherwise to increase support. At the same time, a payor, especially one who has a COLA that is sensitive to the comparison of his/her income changes relative to inflation, may find a judge who is less apt to reduce support based in changes in his/her own purchasing power, when this issue has already been addressed by the parties’ agreement. Both parties may have compromised their access to the safety net of court-ordered modification, which for all its costs, inefficiencies and risks, may feel like a loss.

 

Masters and the Probate & Family Courts

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Probate and Family Court appoint two kinds of “masters”. A master is a lawyer who holds hearings as an extension of the Court itself. One kind is a “discovery master”. The other is a “master, facts final”.

A discovery master aids the Court’s case management by helping the attorneys negotiate, and if necessary by deciding disputes over the exchange of information, known as discovery, in the litigation process. Each side may challenge the discovery master’s decision to the appointing judge, but they rarely do so. This is because the lawyers generally feel that the master process was fair and that a judge will likely address the issue in the same or a similar fashion as the master.

A master, facts final, hears some or all of the contested case, and makes a recommended judgment. The process follows the same rules as in court, unless the parties agree otherwise. One or both parties ask the Court to “confirm” the master’s recommended judgment. If one party disagrees, he or she retains the right to oppose the entry of the master’s decision and a court judgment. The Court retains the right to accept or reject the master’s recommendation in whole or in part.

Where parties cannot settle their matter by direct negotiation, by mediation or otherwise, the use of either kind of master is a way in which they can maximize control over their case, by selecting their own master, and by pursuing what is a mostly private proceeding that most often results in the agreed entry of judgment based thereon.

With our courts in crisis, this avenue is being followed more and more. Most every judge is happy to approve a selected master and to stand by for the master’s result. When faced with long delays and abounding uncertainties in the public trial process, due consideration should be given to the use of a master for all or part of a contested case.

 

Putting the Alternative into Dispute Resolution

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

By William M. Levine and E. Chouteau Levine Putting the Alternative into Dispute Resolution

When lawyers think about how to resolve disputes, they usually first consider traditional modes such as lawyer-to-lawyer negotiation or litigation. Other processes — such as mediation, collaborative law or even arbitration — often are considered marginal “alternatives.”

Together, the traditional and alternative approaches comprise what Cleveland family law attorney James H. Cahn calls the dispute resolution “food court.” Cahn’s analogy aptly conjures an image of an easily accessed array of process options. But it also conveys a secondary principle worth considering: that, as with food court offerings, legal consumers can mix and match dispute resolution methods fluidly to address changing needs.

Parties have the ability to take control of their legal process, to change course if necessary, and to utilize a variety of approaches when appropriate and beneficial.

We all know the many advantages and limitations of dispute resolution options. We also are used to considering some or all of them with our clients.

One suspects, though, that many of those discussions are perfunctory. Yet we still too often see each alternative course as linear, in isolation, and not as complementary parts of what can be an eclectic process.

As a result, we risk missing the opportunity for a more efficient and client-friendly experience.

Take the example of traditional negotiation, in which a divorcing couple cannot agree on interim arrangements for the payment of bills, the use of assets or the sharing of parenting responsibilities. Lawyers need to attend to those matters, if only to “put out the fire” before addressing the larger, long-term issues of the case.

Sometimes, the firefighter’s water turns out to be gasoline, in the form of inflammatory letters, motions and affidavits. Goodwill is undermined, and the clients and their lawyers can get burned in the process.

Retainers are consumed before their time, but the damage is by no means financial only. Clients may become disillusioned with their newly formed attorney relationships that did not yield immediate, positive and cost-effective results. Sometimes the result is an expensive stalemate.

When early impasse does occur, the case-in-chief is at least delayed, while the parties posture about going to court and preparing motions. Then, they wait (sometimes for a long period) for counsel and court availability.

When the appointed date arrives, the parties and counsel often spend a long day in court for a contrastingly short argument. The parties then wait again, this time for temporary orders from a judge who does the best he can with minimal, overheated and frequently distorted exposure to the important “facts” in play. Usually, the decision is reasoned; sometimes it is not.

What divorce lawyer has not experienced the exhaustion, runaway costs and client-lawyer alienation of such early infighting and spiraling of an out-of-control case?

Think about a different kind of case, one in which the parties are not plagued by preliminary feuding. They are equipped to handle interest-based negotiation without mutual destruction, but they just cannot get past significant property valuation issues.

Unlike temporary support or custody matters, these litigants cannot even go to court to resolve these necessary questions that may alone stand as obstacles to a rational distributive negotiation.

Rather, the parties and counsel must complete discovery, prepare for and attend a pre-trial conference, await trial and finally try valuation.

Many thousands of dollars (the range is obviously great), and many months or even years later, a judge will finally (well, subject to appeal) settle the controverted value, but at the cost of time, money and the loss of autonomy in making both the valuation and the distributive decisions.

Enter single-issue mediation or “bullet”arbitration. Just as lawyers think of traditional representation and litigation in a linear fashion, so, too, do they tend to think of mediation or arbitration as a single means to the end of comprehensive resolution. Yet these alternatives can and do work in tandem with other processes.

Referring interim support, custody matters or a valuation question out to a brief and focused mediation can reduce the wear on the relationship among lawyers and clients at the early stages of divorce, allowing for interim resolutions at arm’s length.

For a more assured and prompt result, arbitration will put interim issues to rest and make resolution of the later, larger issue by other means less bruising for all concerned. And costs are mitigated in the process.

Mediators themselves should take note as well. Consider the same scenarios as above, but in the context of an agreed mediation process. As hard as the mediator may try, he sometimes simply cannot get the parties on track to focus on substantial, longer-term matters because of the acute focus that an early crisis provokes.

That can doom a mediation that might otherwise empower the parties to control and shape their own outcome.

Is there an alternative to abandoning the mediation, or letting it become bogged down in stalemate?

Rather than have the mediator spend all his goodwill on seemingly intractable preliminary matters, why not engage an arbitrator who will settle those early issues quickly, impartially and economically?

The parties may then return to focus on the larger issues in a renewed mediation that is less tainted by the previous impasse over which the mediator, and the parties, seemed to be powerless.

Similarly, in collaborative law, the parties may not focus on court outcomes, but the process may also never gain traction because of seemingly intractable preliminary disputes.

A mediator’s intervention or a quick and efficient arbitrator’s award may keep people out of court for good, as the collaborative practitioners keep themselves and their clients focused on the big picture.

We are not advocating for or against any one way of resolving disputes, traditional or alternative.

Rather, we suggest that counsel think about process in a more elastic way and consider interventions, perhaps cut outs, that may make the chosen primary process more efficient and less damaging for all.

The alternative in dispute resolution should not be lost to a rote adherence to one process alone when dynamic use of alternatives “as needed” just may help.

Remember the food court.

William M. Levine and retired Judge E. Chouteau Levine are the principals of Levine Dispute Resolution Center in Westwood and Northampton, Mass., where they mediate and arbitrate family law, probate and other matters..

Previously published in the May 21, 2012 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, reprinted here by permission of the author.

 

Joint Retention of Financial Experts in Divorce

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

By Heidi Walker, CPA*ABV, ASA

“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” ~ Rodney King

Hiring a financial expert for a divorce engagement involves many decisions, one of which is determining whether the expert will be separately retained by each party, or whether the parties will jointly retain the expert. Utilizing a joint expert can have its rewards; however, it is not suitable for all cases. The success of using a jointly-retained expert depends on the relationship between the parties; the issues in the case and the attorneys’ strategies for dealing with them; and the skill of the expert to operate in this unique role.

In a divorce matter, generally, a single expert may be engaged by agreement of the parties; appointed by the court; or engaged as part of the collaborative process. We will begin by describing each of these options. Then, we’ll examine the economics of a joint engagement, as well as tips for making such an arrangement a success.

Circumstances of Joint Expert Retention

By Agreement of the Parties

When divorcing parties are involved in litigation, instinct may be for each to hire their own expert. In certain instances, this may be the appropriate course of action. In others, however, the parties may be on good enough terms and the attorneys’ strategies both suitable to jointly retain the expert via a joint engagement letter with the expert. This is usually done in hopes of saving time, fees, and the emotional drain that can result from dueling experts. Choosing this course does not preclude the parties from later hiring their own expert if they are unhappy with the joint expert’s results.

Court-Appointed

A joint expert may be appointed by the court. The parties may request the court to do so, or the court may appoint one on its own. From the court’s perspective, a jointly retained expert can enhance settlement opportunities, as well as avoid the contradictory evidence often submitted by dueling experts. However, some judges may not be in favor of a neutral expert, out of concern that it interferes with the adversarial process. The scope of work may be determined by the court or stipulated by the parties. As outlined in the Family Law Services Handbook, the order or engagement letter typically includes:

  • Specifying the expert’s tasks
  • Stating basic facts (e.g., marriage and separation dates)
  • Defining compensation parameters
  • Identifying financially responsible parties and funding source
  • Addressing discovery protocol
  • Detailing communication and reporting protocols
  • Planning for possible expert withdrawal
  • Clarifying case-specific items and terminology. 

Likely, the most significant downside of a court-appointed expert is that the parties may not be vested in the joint process As such, these engagements can be as contentious (or more so) as if the parties had each hired their own expert. Further, while each party has the opportunity for cross-examination, there is no rebuttal expert to respond if one or both parties take issue with the jointly-retained expert’s conclusions.

Collaborative Process

Use of the collaborative process, whereby a “participation agreement” commits the parties to settle their issues without recourse to litigation, is rising in popularity in family law. This multidisciplinary approach often involves a financial professional, whose role is to gather all of the necessary financial information and synthesize it in such a way that it is useful to educate the parties about their options relating to settlement of their finances. For less complex cases, use of a single financial professional may be appropriate, while more complex cases may require multiple financial professionals, such as a business valuation professional, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, a tax professional, a real estate appraiser, a retirement specialist, or others.

In the collaborative process, if agreement cannot be reached, or if one or both parties elect litigation, the professionals on the team may not participate in the ensuing litigation. Each party must retain new counsel and other experts before having recourse in the courts. Thus, much of the effort put into the process must be redone, which can be a significant motivator for settlement, but is a risk not everyone is willing to take.

Does Jointly Retaining a Financial Expert Save Money?

Jointly retaining a financial expert can save time and fees over the traditional dueling expert approach, primarily by avoiding duplicative work, and also potentially by replacing a difficult discovery process with one that is more informal and harmonious. Obtaining information through a formal discovery process where experts have been separately retained can be extremely expensive. When the parties are at such odds that each and every document, question, and follow up question must be obtained via requests for production of documents, interrogatories, and depositions, professional fees can skyrocket. In one case, the in-spouse’s refusal to provide information requested for the business valuation was one factor which led to years of litigation involving several changes in the valuation date (fees), countless stops and starts on the project (fees), and significant time spent with discovery (and more fees). Expenses can potentially be contained with a jointly retained expert, as the parties may be more cooperative for an expert they believe to be genuinely neutral.

Another opportunity to save fees is upon completion of the analysis. The parties may agree that instead of the expert communicating their results via a full-length written report, the results may be expressed with schedules and/or a brief presentation by the expert. As an example, the expert may request the parties and counsel attend a meeting wherein the expert presents her work and requires the parties to provide comments within 10 days. This attempt to make sure everyone understands the expert’s analysis, and the inputs, can be very helpful in settling cases.

However, as much as both parties may be committed to using a single expert up front, one or both may disagree with that expert’s conclusions. Typically the joint engagement agreement will provide that one or both parties may retain their own, separate expert. When this happens, it can obviously wipe out any savings that may have been gained from using one expert.

Further, when the parties, or their attorneys, have substantive disagreements throughout the process and the financial expert is caught in the middle, it can be as expensive as hiring two experts. The expert’s role is to be sure that all parties are treated equally and that both sides are heard during the process. Just because everyone agrees to willingly share information does not mean they will agree on the foundation of that information, or on how much of it should be shared with the expert. We have seen cases where arguments about the correct underlying facts, or the two sides’ interpretation of them, volley back and forth between the attorneys and the parties, each rebutting the facts put forth by the other. In some cases, we have been left wondering if the parties are even talking about the same business! The expert handles this is by doing their own thorough investigation to determine the correct facts, but the more starkly different a picture eac side presents, the more time the expert has to take to determine the “truth”—a job that might be better left in the hands of the trier of fact.

Careful planning of a joint retention can help avoid the case potential pitfalls. With that, we turn to our observations about what has helped make them successful.

Tips for Making Joint Engagements a Success

Using a single expert can be an efficient way to gather facts, assess information, and obtain a financial analysis of the business, which both sides can use to evaluate the financial impact of their legal perspectives before trial. While this is an excellent concept in theory, without careful planning, these engagements can be more difficult to execute successfully. Here are a few tips on how to make joint engagements work.

Lay the ground rules up front

The most important factor for a successful joint engagement is laying the ground rules at the outset. Discovery, communication protocols, fees, timing and deadlines, and report delivery format should all be clarified up front in the engagement agreement to the extent possible to avoid missteps later in the process. It is helpful if the appraiser and both attorneys conference at the outset to iron out the details of the engagement. A clear discovery agreement that is then abided by is critical. Just as we have experienced cases where not being able to get enough information was problematic, there have been others where too much information was the problem.

Communication requires full disclosure

A joint retention involves continuing open communication between the expert and their clients (which may be the attorneys or the parties or the court). This is done with the intention of allowing all of the parties to feel included in the process and that they have “had their say”. Any verbal or written correspondence or documents should be shared with all parties, to address up front any issues the parties have with the information being provided.

A jointly retained expert considers the input of both parties throughout the engagement. They attempt to garner consensus during the process, and document it. There are cases where this works exactly as intended and others where it feels like a firestorm of discovery disputes. Thorough upfront planning, a very clear discovery agreement, and careful navigating on the part of the expert can guide even contentious parties through a joint retention in a relatively civil manner.

Attorneys and experts should be a team

Ideally, attorneys and experts will work as a team to guide the parties to successful completion of a joint engagement, setting clear expectations about how the process works. Some points to remember here are:

  • If contrary legal positions are present, the expert may need to quantify multiple interpretations of the same facts.
  • Keeping relevant facts from an expert is never a good idea, but it is an especially bad idea in joint retention, as it creates suspicion when the facts eventually come out (and they do come out).
  • Experts will ideally obtain consensus regarding their inputs along the way.

If settlement is the end game, attorneys and experts who work as a team have the best chance at achieving that result. Enhance fee collection

The engagement letters of many experts contain clauses for withdrawal for non-payment, or at the very least, a stop-work clause if fees are not up-to-date. In addition, many experts will not deliver the results of their analyses until all fees have been paid. If possible, establish a joint, community account, such as an attorney trust account, as a single payment source. This will increase the likelihood of the expert being paid in a timely manner, and allow the case to move forward as anticipated. It can also remove a potential source of future disagreement among the parties.

Recognize that some cases are not suited to a jointly retained expert

There are some cases that are simply not well-suited to the use of a single expert. As experts, we will recommend against joint retention if it appears from our initial conversations about the case that:

  • Either of the attorneys seems unsupportive of a joint engagement.
  • Excessive conflict between the parties and their attorneys is evident from the outset.
  • One or both parties are representing themselves.

Conclusion

Use of a jointly retained financial expert can be an excellent tool for settling issues in a divorce case. They can save on expert and attorney time and fees, and provide the parties a less contentious environment in which to deal with often complex and difficult financial matters. However, carefully establishing expectations and rules of engagement upfront and then adhering to those throughout the process, as well as managing the parties’ emotions and expectations, are critical aspects of the success of these engagements.

Heidi Walker is a Senior Valuation Analyst at Fannon Valuation Group in Portland, Maine. She focuses on valuation in the context of divorce and shareholder disputes.

Posted with permission of the author.

 



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