Divorce and Family Law
At the Law Office of J. Blake Norman, we believe that when parties fight, no one wins. As a result, we focus our clients on conflict free methods of resolving family law disputes, including collaborative law and mediation. Our attorney will guide our clients through the divorce process with a caring and compassionate approach. We will make sure that our clients know all of their options and all likely outcomes to their marital disputes. And if it becomes necessary, we will pursue litigation with aggressive strategies proven to maximize our chances at success.
We can help at every stage of the divorce process. Our goals, like our clients, are for an efficient resolution of marital issues. We will not mislead our clients with promises of any unrealistic outcomes, but instead prepare our clients for the most probable outcome of their issues. We can help prepare separation agreements, pre and post nuptial agreements, simple divorces, custody disputes, child support, post separation support, alimony, and equitable distribution. We offer flat rate and hourly rate plans and give our clients a choice on how much they want to be involved in the process.
The Divorce Process
What follows is a simplified explanation of the law of divorce and separation. It is not legal advice, but instead should be used for informational purposes only. You should consult with an attorney before acting in a proceeding.
Perhaps the most important issue that may arise upon the dissolution of a relationship is child custody. Custody issues tend to be heated and very contentious. It is always a good idea to have an attorney if there is a disagreement as to custody.
In a custody dispute, the Court must make a determination of what custody or visitation is in the best interests of your child. The Court is not concerned with you or the other parties’ interests, but instead what is best for your child. To make an effective presentation before a Court, you must present yourself as a conscientious parent concerned only with what’s best for you child. If you appear overly aggressive or contentious, your chances of success will fall drastically. Instead, it is important to be assertive, but show the Court that you are willing to cooperate with the opposing party in a calm, civil manner.
In some cases, your opposing party may pose a physical or psychological threat to the opposing party. In these matters, it is important that you have an attorney in the matter as soon as possible. If you don’t act quickly, it may hurt the credibility of your claim. In these matters, it is important to push for an immediate emergency hearing to ensure that your child is not harmed.
North Carolina has a system of mandatory mediation for child custody disputes. Mediation is a low cost alternative to litigation in which a disinterested third party tries to assist you and the opposing party try to settle the matter. Attorneys will not be present at mediation. It is a good idea, though, in advance of mediation to consult with an attorney to determine what your rights are with regard to custody to reduce your chances of regrets after a mediation.
If the Case is not settled at mediation, then the matter will go forward to litigation. You should never try to litigate a custody matter without counsel on your side. The Court system and rules are complex and hard to understand on your own. If you try to do it on your own, you may not be able to present your case effectively. In any custody matter, the decision is in the discretion of the judge. It is important, then to make sure that your voice is heard in an effective manner every time you are in front of the judge.
After a custody order has been entered, either party may make a motion to modify custody on a showing of changed circumstances affecting the best interests of the child. As a result, it is important to abide by the orders of the Court and be cooperative with the opposing party to ensure the maximum chance of success.
In every custody case, you should consider doing the following to maximize your chances of success:
1) Comply with every court order, every time.
2) Keep a journal logging every visitation or change in custody. This journal should not include your feelings about the other side, but instead simply list every exchange of custody. If there is a trial, this will be essential to help you show the Court that you have been in full compliance. Include events that occur in the child’s life and whether the opposing party is in attendance as well as any and all contact with the opposing counsel and the substance of said contact.
3) If you are the parent with custody, send the opposing party an e-mail or letter each week giving them an update about any events in your child’s life. In addition, note performance at school or any other issues that arise. This is important to show that you are trying to cooperate with them.
4) If you are the parent that does not have custody, sent the opposing party an e-mail or letter requesting information about your child. Make sure you ask specific questions. This is important to show that you have a continued interest in the well being of your child and may assist you if you wish to have more or longer visitation.
5) Do not talk about the case with your child.
6) Do not disparage the opposing party in front of the child.
If you would like to have other assistance with maximizing your chances of success in a custody dispute, please call our office for a consultation.
Establishment of Child Support Orders
Child Support in North Carolina is largely based on the N.C. Child Support Guidelines. The Guidelines set forth a clear, simple manner to determine an amount based on the incomes of both parties and the expenses for taking care of the child (work related child care, health insurance, and other extraordinary expenses). These numbers are entered into a worksheet, which produces a child support amount. It is a good idea to talk to an attorney when seeking a child support amount to make sure that the appropriate amounts are entered into the worksheets. If the wrong amount is entered as an Order, then it is very difficult to change. It is important to be aware of your rights and make sure you have all documentation necessary to support your allegations.
In some cases, either party may ask to deviate from the Guidelines. If the Guidelines do not meet or exceed the needs of the child considering the relative ability of the parents to provide support, then the Court may vary from the Guidelines. Typically, this occurs in cases where one party’s income will vary month to month or there are other extraordinary circumstances, such as income from other sources or children with special needs. If you are seeking to deviate from the guidelines.
If an action for child support is filed against you and you have any question as to whether you are the father of the child, make sure you request a paternity test as soon as the motion or complaint for child support is filed against you. If you do not, you will waive the ability to do so in the future.
If there is a child support order in place, the recipient may enforce it by requesting that the Court hold the payor in contempt. If the payor is found in contempt, he/she may be jailed, lose their drivers’ license, or pay attorney’s fees.
If you are the recipient of a child support award, it is important to act quickly to enforce your order. Before filing in Court, though, you should contact the payor to ensure that there is not some misunderstanding before you engage in the unnecessary expense of hiring an attorney. In addition, you should consider having the Department of Social Services enforce your Order on your behalf. The cost for this service is as little as $25. Social Services may not be as tenacious with enforcing your child support order, but they have additional powers in collection, including freezing accounts, garnishing wages, and taking tax returns.
If you are Ordered to pay Child Support, make sure you do the following:
1) Pay the child support
2) If you are unable to pay due to unforeseen circumstances, pay all that you can. It is important to show that you are making the effort to avoid contempt charges.
3) If you lose your job, make a good faith effort to find a new job and document all your attempts. You should be applying and interviewing for at least 2 jobs per week. You should sign up with the Employment Security Commission. Keep a journal to ensure that you can state what efforts you have made to find a job.
Marital property is divided through a process called Equitable Distribution. This is a three step process. The Court may become involved and assist with all issues that the parties can’t agree to.
1) Determine what property is Marital (or otherwise divisible)
Marital property is any property, including real estate, personal property, retirement accounts, securities, and debts, that was acquired during marriage. Physical or real property held prior to marriage will probably be considered separate. In most cases, accounts or debts will be considered marital to the extent that they were incurred during marriage. Once all property is classified, it is valued.
2) Valuation of Property
Once classified, all property must be valued. This means that you must determine the actual value of all property and debts as of the date of separation. If the parties cannot agree on an amount, you should have an appraiser value any and all property of significant value. If you have any retirement accounts, you should have an accountant value the account, even if you know how much is in the account. A $50,000 IRA is likely worth far more than $50,000, as it will gain interest over its lifetime. You should make sure that you consult with an attorney before you agree to any valuation scheme to make sure you are maximizing that you receive a fair and equitable share of the marital property.
3) Division of Property
Once valued, everything is put into a spreadsheet and divided. There is a presumption that each party will take 50% of the marital property. The Court may look at several factors to determine whether either party should receive more than half of the property. It is important to consult with an attorney to determine whether any of these factors are present and to make sure that you assert that you are entitled to an unequal share of the marital property.
The Court will Order you to participate in mediation or a judicial settlement conference in any action for Equitable Distribution. This is an attempt to settle all matters without having to have a hearing. It is incredibly important to be prepared before you attempt negotiation. You must have a clear idea of the value of all property and be prepared to propose a division of property.
Alimony/ Post-Separation Support
Alimony or spousal support is an amount that would be awarded to a supported spouse upon the dissolution of the marriage. The goal of an alimony award is to leave the supported spouse in the same standard of living that they are accustomed to. There does not have to be any adultery or other fault ground, only a clear indication that one spouse makes more money than the other. Fault grounds, although unnecessary, may be alleged to augment or avoid alimony.
This is an unpredictable area of law. You should consult with an attorney before seeking alimony, but make sure that there is a good chance of recovery, otherwise, you may spend more money trying to get it than you stand to gain. People who were married for short periods of time or where there is not much disparity of income probably should not apply. It is important to understand all possible outcomes before filing an action. If you should choose to proceed with an alimony action, you must proceed aggressively, but do not appear to be spiteful.
If your ex-spouse is seeking alimony from you, it is important to appear to desire to be supportive, but make your financial limitations clear. In many cases, a supporting spouse may agree to give away much more alimony than they would otherwise have to due to a feeling of guilt. Make sure you talk to an attorney before reviewing any proposed settlements. It is very difficult to modify and alimony settlement, so make sure you get it right the first time.
Alternatives to Litigation
1) Separation Agreements
In situations where parties agree to the marital issues, they should sign a separation agreement to commemorate the actual agreement of the parties. You will not be able to enforce any oral agreements, so make sure it’s in writing.
There are separation agreement forms available online through various sources. You should avoid using these forms as they may not consider all the issues that you must decide upon separation. In addition, many of these forms will not take into consideration current North Carolina law, which may mean that one part or all of the agreement may be voidable. If you choose to use one of these agreements to save money, you should minimally take the finalized form to an attorney to ensure that it will accomplish what you want.
If there are contested issues, you should consider mediation before filing an action. A mediation is a meeting with a third party trained in dispute resolution. The mediator will hear both sides of the case and assist the parties by suggesting settlement options or encouraging them to propose settlement options. You will not be forced to settle anything. However, if you can settle any or part of the case at mediation, it will save you a lot of money in the long run. In most cases, the Court will Order that you participate in Mediation anyway. If you mediate the action, you might avoid the possible expense to filing an action.
3) Collaborative Approaches
Collaborative law is a relatively new approach to family law. Both parties have to agree to a collaborative approach. The parties sign agreements with their attorneys that they will make good faith efforts to settle all issues and be open and forthright with each other. The parties must agree that if they cannot settle, then they must find new counsel to represent them at trial. The parties then meet with each other with their attorneys and provide full disclosure of all property and income. Through a series of settlement conferences, the parties work through any and all issues to work out realistic objective outcomes. The attorneys will help foster openness between the parties and encourage them to talk constructively about the pending issues. This avoids the costs of discovering information from the opposing party and the uncertainty of having a judge decide these issues