Author Archives: Greg Housewirth

Settle is Not a Four-Letter Word

Settle is a bad word in our individualistic, success-driven culture.  To settle is to fail.  If you google “never settle” you’ll see just how many companies have built their brand on our core belief that you should always strive for perfection, get exactly what you want, and never be satisfied with lesser alternatives.A family being separated in court

Now, let’s talk family law.  When you are in a divorce or child custody case, you’re often wounded, fearful, uncertain, and ___________ (insert your own adjective here.)  Your brain is in full “fight or flight mode” and you’re looking for someone or something to protect you, restore your balance, and vanquish your tormentor.

Enter the gunslinger

Somewhere in a distant land, an advertising genius told a lawyer who told 10 million other lawyers that they should seize upon the flight or fight response and package themselves as protectors of the wounded and slayers of wrongdoers. Hence, we now have legions of divorce and custody lawyers plastered across our screens, standing confidently (chin-up, chest-out) promising aggressive representation that’s “on our side.”

And, it really, really works!  If you’re hurting and afraid, the idea of some guy or gal in a suit cleaning up the oil slick that is your life while singing you a lullaby appeals greatly to your primitive brain.  So, you go, you meet, and you hire a lawyer for your family law case.

Your mother doesn’t work here

But, things change and your lawyer isn’t your mother.  By my estimation 90 percent of all family law cases find a resolution (“settle”) prior to trial.  If this is the case, when, and how, does the conversation with your lawyer pivot from “kicking-ass” to “option development?”

While the fight or flight response of the primal brain can keep us from being eaten by a bear, in divorce and custody, it’s the rational brain that gets things done.  A good divorce or custody lawyer doesn’t just feed red meat to the primal brain, he or she engages the rational brain at the beginning of the attorney – client relationship.  That way, you, the client, begin to engage your brain rather than your emotions and you don’t feel “sold-out” when your lawyer starts using the “S” word.

Learning to use the “S” word

I have a saying: “Negotiate when you can. Fight when you should.”  Hiring a lawyer for your divorce doesn’t mean you’re done making decisions.  With the help of your lawyer, you should be constantly defining your goals, assessing cost against perceived benefit, and seeking to minimize long-term damage.A divorce settlement being signed

When you learn to bend in this process without breaking, you’ll get through it and emerge safe on the other side.  Settlement is not failure. It is an alignment of interests for a mutual good.

True, you won’t be seeing lawyers wearing cardigans online anytime soon. It just wouldn’t sell. So, let’s just keep the suit, pull the shoulders back, but start talking differently about how family law works.

Adoption Options for Families

Our daughter is adopted.  Eighteen years later, I remember the experience as if it were yesterday.  All those years ago, adoption agencies controlled the process, matching birthmothers with adoptive families, presenting the adoption options and then handling the legal work on both ends of the equation.  It was very much a face-to-face business. parents holding their newly adopted child

In purely economic terms, these adoption agencies controlled supply (by recruiting and supporting birthmothers during their pregnancies) and demand (by recruiting couples desiring to adopt children).  Because the demand for healthy newborn babies far outpaces supply, adoption agencies routinely charged over $25,000 for their services as intermediaries in the process.

You know what happened next.  Birthmothers and adopting parents went online, making their own connections, cutting both costs and corners in the adoption process.  While we will never go back to the days when adoption was strictly a “brick and mortar” industry, the same rules of law apply in our culture of online searches, message boards, and social media.

If you seek to adopt a child in Texas, consider these facts and adoption options as you begin your journey.

Only a licensed child-placing agency is authorized to facilitate the adoption of children by adoptive families.  Avoid solicitations from facilitators, including lawyers, who represent they have an “inventory” of birthmothers or babies to be adoption.  Such activity is illegal under Texas law.

You can do your own match with a birthmother, but you cannot buy a baby.   Texas law does allow for the payment of some prenatal and postnatal expenses and the birthmother’s living expenses, but Texas law prohibits payment of money in exchange for a child.

You will need an adoption homestudy, prepared by a licensed social worker.  If you have an adoption match, you should get started with your adoption homestudy.  Such studies are very thorough and take time to prepare.  You are also required to produce to the court a criminal history report for each prospective adoptive parent.  To obtain the report, you must have your fingerprints taken and forwarded to Texas DPS.

If you are adopting a child in another state, you must comply with ICPC.  This is where things get dangerous… Interstate Compact on Placement of Children.

Every child has a father – – you just may not know him.  Texas adoption law requires that the parental rights of the child’s presumed or alleged biological father be terminated.  To avoid frustration and even heartbreak ahead, you need to identify and engage the father of the child in your adoption plan.

An affidavit of relinquishment cannot be signed by a birthmother for the first 48 hours after birth.  The intent of this Texas law is clear: to make sure the birthmother is not under the influence of any medications at the time she signs her relinquishment.  This time can be gut wrenching for adopting parents. The flood of emotion surrounding the birth of a child as well as pressure from other family members can unravel an adoption quickly.  A trusted adoption attorney or adoption social worker can help you develop rapport with the birthmother during the months prior to delivery.  Such a rapport can help you to develop a feeling of family that will make relinquishment less traumatic.

Complete a Health, Social, Educational, and Genetic History Report.  This report is also required under Texas adoption law.  The report, completed by the child’s biological family gives adopting parents a bit of an “owner’s manual” that can be very useful in the coming years.  For instance, you should know if anyone in the biological family had any health issues that may be passed on to your baby.

Post-Adoption contact is an agreement, not a contract.  Remember, adoption terminates the rights of the biological parents to the child and you cannot enter into a legally binding contract for post-adoption contact.  The “openness” of your adoption is something for you and the birth-family to discuss. mother and father holding their newly adopted daughter

Now that you know a little of the vocabulary and your adoption options, you hopefully you can distinguish the qualified adoption attorneys from those who are hoping to learn as they go.  I haven’t just been an adoption lawyer for 30 years, I’ve lived the life of an adoptive parent which is a gift unlike any other.

 

Why Family Courts Should Not Order Equal Periods of Child Possession

As the old saying goes, “be careful for what you ask for.”

I’ve spent years complaining that our family court judges are out of touch with modern family life in their refusal to order equal periods of possession in child custody cases.  The rule at the courthouse has always been that no judge would order a 50-50 possession schedule on temporary order.  Instead, one parent was going to get the “primary” designation and the other was going to pay support.

How things change.

tug of warIn the past month, I’ve seen three family court judges order equal parenting time after a contested temporary orders hearing and, rumor has it, such rulings are becoming more common all the time.

Should we be happy?  Is this the age of judicial enlightenment we’ve all been waiting for?  One where everybody wins and children reap the benefits of living in two different but equally loving homes?

I think not.

At the courthouse, playing the equal possession card is simply Version 2.0 of the same game of spin, distortion and manipulation we’ve played for years.  Yes, there are millions of divorced parents, equally sharing parenting time and raising happy and emotionally healthy children.  However, the large majority of these parents figured it out on their own and agreed to the terms of their parenting plan outside court.

Divorce clients who end up at the courthouse do not have things figured out.  Instead, they are coming to court to get their way; to win; to punish; and to taunt.  They don’t, or won’t, communicate with one another.  Most disturbing, is that these parents simply do not respect the other person as being a competent parent.

Court-ordered equal parenting time puts children in a world of equal and opposite forces where resentment for the other parent is palpable.  As I say, it’s like the children live in America one week and China the next.  It is sad irony when family court judges order week-on, week-off possession and, in the same breath, order the parents to limit communications with the other to postings on a web-based portal.

It’s time for our court’s to stop, look and listen to what divorce and custody litigants are saying in court and doing to one another when nobody is looking.  True co-parenting is so much more than equalizing days of possession.  When parents are so mired in conflict that they are willing to advance their agenda by diminishing and demeaning the other in court, an award of equal parenting time will prolong, rather than eliminate, conflict.

… And it’s not in the best interest of the children.

Greg Housewirth,

The Attorney General Just put your ride up on blocks

Behind on child support payments? The Texas attorney general’s office can now penalize you by blocking your vehicle registration renewal. Beginning this fall, if you have more than six months of unpaid child support, you will be unable to renew your vehicle registration, essentially losing the right to drive your vehicle.

The attorney general’s office takes the stance that this will help children and families get the support they deserve. But this policy could actually make it even tougher to catch up on missed payments. Many times, past-due child support occurs when a parent simply can’t afford to make the payments, perhaps due to a loss of employment.

Car on blocksWithout the right to drive your car, it’s going to be a lot harder to get to work. Meanwhile, child support payments still lag behind, and the problem worsens.

The attorney general’s office already has the authority to revoke your driver’s license for past-due payments. However, unlike suspending a driver’s license, the state is not required to have a hearing to deny your vehicle renewal.

If you’re more than six months past due, you will be notified of the hold in their standard three-month renewal notice, as well as receive a letter from the Child Support Division with the steps you must take in order to be able to renew your registration. The hold would only be removed by calling the attorney general’s office, making a payment arrangement, and fulfilling that arrangement.

This is just the latest in a wave of regulations and punishments imposed by the Office of the Texas Attorney General to compel the non-compliant to pay their child support. If you’re behind on your child support, you need to face the problem head-on. When it comes to child support arrearages, the problem won’t go away and, chances are, the situation will only get worse.
At Schreier and Housewirth we’ve help families negotiate with the Attorney General so they can keep their lives moving while fulfilling their responsibilities to their children. Call us to discuss your situation before it gets out of hand.

Can I get a witness? How the Rules of Evidence can torpedo your family law case

I know it’s summertime, but let’s pull out the old barrister wig, channel our inner Blackstone, and talk about evidence in family law.

In most family law cases, there’s what you know … and then there’s what you can prove.    Proof comes in the form of admissible evidence.  Admissibility is determined by the Texas Rules of Evidence.  Family court judges apply the rules.

This is why so many seemingly simple divorce or custody hearings turn sour; lawyers objecting to testimony or offers of documents and judges making rulings based on their interpretation of the evidence rules.  In court, you’ll hear some of the following objections:
can you prove it—Schreier Housewirth

  • Leading
  • Relevance
  • Hearsay
  • Narrative
  • Privilege
  • Speculation
  • Unresponsive
  • Lack of personal knowledge
  • Compound

With all these rules and their subjective and inconsistent interpretations by family court judges, it’s easy to see how what you know may not be what you can prove.

Let’s take a common example.  Texas Rule of Evidence 401 “Test for Relevant Evidence” states:

Evidence is relevant if:

a.  it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and,

b.  the fact is of consequence in determining the action.

So, evidence may be probative of a fact, e.g., the witness saw Jimmy walking down the road with a fish on a hook may tend to prove Jimmy caught a fish.  But the evidence may not have anything to do with the case at hand, e.g., does Jimmy catching a fish really matter in a child custody hearing?

You’d think there would be some uniformity in the application of these rules, but it’s not.  It’s more like calling a foul in basketball, a strike in baseball, or holding in football; it’s all on the fly.

At Schreier & Housewirth family law, we know family law evidence and help our clients prepare for their day in court.  For over 25 years, Tarrant county divorce and custody clients have turned to our law firm when proof is key and outcomes are critical.

How to tell your spouse you’re getting a divorce

So, you’ve decided it’s time to move forward with your divorce…. it’s the first of many decisions you’ll make as you unwind your marriage and move on. The next decision is how to tell your spouse you’ve file a petition for divorce in court.

Before you decide, you should know these few legal points. A divorce is a lawsuit like any other so specific rules of civil procedure apply. Foremost, is the requirement that the Respondent in a lawsuit be given proper legal notice that suit has been filed against him or her.

The most common way of providing proper notice is to have a state-approved process server personally deliver the divorce petition with a citation to the Respondent… this usually happens at home or at work. The citation explains to the Respondent that he has been “sued” for divorce and instructs that an answer must be filed with the court to avoid default. The process server executes a return of service and files it with the court as proof that the Respondent has been served as required by law.

When the lawsuit is as sensitive and emotionally charged as a petition for divorce, a stranger placing those papers in your spouse’s hands can be a polarizing moment. You may wish to consider an alternative.

At Schreier & Housewirth we often mail the petition to the Respondent spouse along with a waiver of service and an explanatory letter. This way, your spouse can process the news in private and without embarrassment. He/She simply needs to sign the waiver of service before a Notary Public and return it to our offices for filing with the court. This has the same effect as if he were formally served with the petition.

So, if you and your spouse are moving through divorce methodically and you do not have concerns about your spouse harming you, your children, or the marital estate, consider having him/her sign the waiver of service.

On the other hand, if you have concerns or have obtained a temporary restraining order at the time of filing the divorce, you will want your spouse served with the suit by a process server to help protect yourself and your children from harm.

Divorce is so much more than pulling forms off the internet. You need and deserve the counsel of lawyers who have devoted their careers to helping clients navigate divorce. At Schreier and Housewirth, we listen, we understand, and we represent.

Family Law and the New Amazon

I love learning spending time with people younger than me and finding inspiration in their new approached to old problems. So, I was all-in for a legal seminar billed as a look ahead at the practice of family law.

So, what does a generation of lawyers raised online have to contribute to a once dignified and respected profession?

person in warehouseOur first presenter, a chipper young man, spent most of his time telling us about his new Corvette and his revolutionary flat-fee billing formula for family law cases. There’s the basic fee plan, the plus plan, and the all inclusive flat fee plan. After a while, his Wizard of Oz formula with all its exceptions, exclusions, and add-on fees felt disingenuous. I guess it’s all in how you sell the proposition.

Traditionally, family law lawyers have billed their time in 15 minute increments, providing a work description to justify the expenditure. Then, a monthly billing statement is sent to the client. This is how we do it at Schreier & Housewirth… and I like my Volkswagen!

Our next visionary was from Avvo.com world headquarters in Seattle. With caffeine in his veins, he gushed that billions and billions of dollars are being poured into new and exciting online legal service providers. Pretty soon, he says, clients will get their legal needs met online… possibly without even talking to a lawyer.

The logic follows that we lawyers need to all get with the Avvo program and start chatting up prospective clients on line. Of course, if a client wants to hear a human voice, he or she can buy a phone consultation with a lawyer for $40. The participating lawyer has the Avvo app on his phone to connect with shoppers, or clients as we used to call them.

warehouseWhen I close my eyes, I see myself in this new world as a can of corn in a cavernous Amazon warehouse, waiting to be pulled from the shelf by order fulfillment.

But, family law is about humans and the human condition. A Shakespeare play or a Beethoven symphony, lives on today because these works speak to something deeply enduring in all of us.

So long as our clients have hearts and souls, we believe family law is best done face to face. We are professionals, not commodities. We provide our clients not only the benefit of our knowledge… but also our wisdom.

Hurry up and wait… demystifying the divorce court docket

Here’s a peek behind the curtain into what goes on in your typical family law attorney’s office. A case gets filed and a hearing for temporary orders gets set for hearing. The lawyer instructs his or her staff to call the client and provide information regarding the date and time of the hearing.

Going to court is serious stress for most of us.  If you’re going through a divorce or custody case, it’s the kind of stress that gnaws at you every minute of every day.  Preparations have been made for court, you have rallied your witnesses and gathered key documents.  The court date arrives: you arrive early; wait patiently for hours; and nothing happens.  You confer with your lawyer and learn you’ll have to come back another day.

clockRewind to that call from the lawyer.  Here, it should have been explained that your case is set on the court’s docket for a particular date and time.  Being on the docket and being heard by the court are sometimes two different things!

So, what exactly is a docket.  Webster’s defines “docket” as, “a calendar of cases awaiting court action.”  In Tarrant county and other large counties throughout Texas, family courts have a docket almost every day of the week.  The docket may consist of as many as twenty cases… all scheduled within a three-hour window of time.

At the beginning of each court session, the Judge will call the docket and, in response, lawyers will provide the Judge with a brief synopsis of his or her case, and an estimate of the time required to present evidence.  Depending on a number of factors, the Judge will then “order” the cases on the docket, usually handling brief, rather simple matters first, before moving on to more contested cases.  Depending on the number of cases and their complexity, some cases simply cannot be heard when they are set and need to be reset for  another date, several weeks in the future.

Why are things in family court so unpredictable?  Here, it may help to know that, on any given morning, as many as half of the cases set on the docket may settle without the need for court intervention.  For instances, lawyers and their clients will use the court setting as an opportunity to discuss the issues and work towards an interim agreement.  Because of this, family courts will often set too many cases on the docket, playing the percentages in knowing many of those cases will settle.  While it can be frustrating, and even heartbreaking at times, this practice allows our family courts to dispose of a high volume of cases each year.

At Schreier & Housewirth Family Law, we’ve been helping Tarrant county divorce and child custody clients navigate the legal system for almost 30 years.  Clients have come to respect our no nonsense advocacy and our straightforward advice.  If you are in a difficult divorce or custody case and feeling overwhelmed, turn to us for help… we’re here to help.

 

 

 

 

The Back Story – What drives decisions in divorce

Heart or BrainI attended mediation recently with a client of mine; a college professor well-versed in business and finance.   Our mediator was an equally cerebral type, a experienced lawyer and CPA who holds advanced degrees in tax law.

Yes, I openly admit to being the dumbest guy in the room.

Quickly, these two very accomplished men dove into a detailed analysis of marital assets, comparing the relative tax impact of each, and pondering different division strategies.  Throughout the day and into the evening, we sent our mediator to convey a variety of settlement proposals to the wife and her attorney.  Each proposal failed, and rather than bringing us closer to resolution,  brought counter-proposals, each one more bombastic than the previous.

Often in mediation, we find ourselves drifting into some kind of parallel universe, where fatigue and emotion distort reality, and time stands still.  We were rapidly approaching this abyss in our mediation, when my client put the account statements and spreadsheets aside.  He began not only to reflect on his years caught in a loveless marriage, but also he give himself permission to dream about how he wanted to live his life after the divorce.

Looking through this wider lens, my client saw more than a settlement rooted in the numbers.

The deal on the table was ridiculous; it awarded more in assets and support to the wife than she could ever hope to receive in court.  I reminded my client our trial date was a mere two months away, that we could invest minimal time in preparing, and obtain a better result for him by going to trial.

He signed the deal, accepting a property division that could best be described as “lopsided.”

The take-away from my little homily is this: divorce is more than a business deal.  It is the confluence of dry reason and boiling emotion. Knowing this helps me represent my clients, even when I’m not the smartest guy in the room.

When a client entrusts their divorce to me, I take a distinctly human-centered approach – -understanding that both reason and emotion must be given their due.   Every divorce comes with a back-story that  sometimes drives, or even distorts, decisions on the issues.  Sometimes I work with clients to put the back-story in perspective as a vestige of the past so we can concentrate on the issues.  Other times, I have my clients recall the back-story when they need to remember the things that matter most in life.

Abe and me… Legal fees through the ages

Legal fees should always translate to great legal value. "Clients who believe they are going to get everything they want out of lawyer 'on the cheap' are the ones who end up spending more when they end up in a fee dispute with their 1st lawyer and have to hire a second."

Legal fees should always translate to great legal value. “Clients who believe they are going to get everything they want out of lawyer ‘on the cheap’ are the ones who end up spending more when they end up in a fee dispute with their 1st lawyer and have to hire a second.”

A small-town lawyer once said, “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.”  Yes, even back in the day, lawyers had to justify their fees to clients.  This particular lawyer got a better gig, he became President of the United States.

No doubt, if Abe Lincoln were in practice today, he’d still be sharing his now famous observation with clients.  As long as there are lawyers, there will be clients, and friction over legal fees.

Here’s what I think.

In modern family law, a lawyer is many things: advocate, counselor, broker, collaborator, and a general concierge through the confusing and often frightening ordeal that is a divorce or custody case.  Given the abundance of online forms and oversaturation of lawyers, there is a downward pressure on fees family lawyers can expect to receive.

I’ve always said that, at Schreier & Housewirth, we don’t compete on price; we compete on value; that is, giving clients the benefit of our experience, expertise, and reputation at a reasonable cost.   If a client hires a lawyer based on cost alone, this suggests to me that either he or she is not that invested in the outcome of his or her family law dispute, or is looking to get something for nothing.   Can you guess which is right?

Believe me, if you’re in family court and your case is contested, you care deeply about the outcome.  Clients who believe they are going to get everything they want out of a lawyer “on the cheap” are the ones who end up spending more when they end up in a fee dispute with their first lawyer and have to hire a second lawyer.  As legendary retailer Stanley Marcus once said, “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.”

So, what is a retainer fee and why are you asked to pay one in divorce and custody cases?  Simply put, a retainer is an advance payment for legal fees and costs to be incurred in your case.  At Schreier & Housewirth, we bill against your retainer payment as we represent you in your case.  We try to quote a fair retainer based on the nature of your case and the anticipated level of conflict.

Time is money in the legal business.  The cost of any case depends on the level of resistance from your adversary.

When thinking about retainer fees, consider this example… You take your car to the shop for a repair.  The shop calls and your car is ready.  The mechanic tells you what you owe, but you can’t pay.  Fine, no worries, the mechanic will keep your car until you do pay.  Otherwise, he will assert a mechanic’s lien and sell your car in payment of his fees.

A lawyer, on the other hand, has no collateral.  If work performed on your case exceeds your retainer payment, the lawyer must count on the client to honor his or her commitment to pay.  Yikes!    I’m going to suggest that most family law attorneys recover 60 to 70 percent of their billings.

There must be a better way.

At Schreier & Housewirth, we encourage an honest, up-front, conversation about legal fees in your divorce or custody case.  Clear communication, creates realistic expectations, which yields loyal and satisfied clients.  That’s how we built this law practice.