The Baroness - Consulting & Mediation, LLC

March 26, 2009

No way out — or is there?

No situation is hopeless. Granted it’s easier when you are being beaten. People who are in psychologically, emotionally, or financially controlling or abusive situations know what I mean. I often hear this: “At least, if I was getting beatings, I would I have bruises to show for”.  And yes, that is a truly sad statement, but it is profoundly true. The law can help a physically abused spouse and grant her or him and the children legal protection (PFA) and there are many shelters available for temporary shelter and transition, while prosecuting and punishing the aggressor. Sounds easy. I assure you, it’s not meant that way. But in comparison to the other types of abuse that make a spouse feel hopeless, imprisoned and desperate, it is.

These situations don’t need to be hopeless, though. They just involve a little more intelligent planning. They might also take longer to escape, but they are by no means hopeless. Find somebody who you can trust. If you don’t have access to family or friends to fall back on for whatever reason, find a professional.

Some will work on a contingency fee, if you (truly) can’t afford to pay a retainer.

Regardless, you need to make a detailed plan and follow it to the “T”. If you don’t have a job, line up something, anything. Go online for obtaining various certificates, fall back on old job training, skills or degrees, find companies online that will allow you to work for them online, or set up your own service through Skype  (www.skype.com). Sign up with a volunteer organization that will get you out of the house or the usual circle of friends, controlled by your “controller” and also possibly get you some skills for future job search.

Line up child support for the day you vacate the premises with your children. You can’t file for support as long as you live at the same address, but you can, once you have an independent address. You can also prepare yourself for all the questions and answers you will be asked by DRS (see sample form, no longer used by DRS because all data is directly entered by the intake officer during the initial interview, but it helps to get prepared for that interview  go to: www.TheBaroness.biz   click on the button “Forms”, scroll to the one named “Support Intake”). If necessary secretly collect income information for several months, get copies of savings account statements, copies of retirement, life insurance, 401K, and alike statements for about 6 months, just collect copies of anything and everything that could proof income and assets of the other party. Don’t worry about trying to understand any of these forms, especially if that’s not your forte, just get and collect them. They will be handy to have later on, when you won’t have access to anything anymore.

Start building your own credit, even if it’s just with a Boscov’s credit card for starters. Put away whatever spare money you can muster up and keep it in a safe place. The goal is to be able to support yourself, and your children, for about three months. Make provisions for your pets.

Secure jewelry, pictures, important documents, anything that can’t possibly be replaced, do it slowly but definitely.

Secure medical or psychological records showing treatment for addiction or sexually transmitted diseases or other serious, questionable ailments, employment records showing warnings and dismissals with cause, criminal allegations, and whatever else you could find and keep it for future reference, or … leverage.

You must run a full credit report to look for “secret” credit cards or other obligations to better be aware of what you’re up against financially. www.FreeCreditReports.com. This also gives you a good idea what your own almighty FICO score is.

With a few exceptions this all applies to whether you are legally married or common law married, or just in a longstanding, intertwined relationship with children and/or mutual property or other financial concerns involved.

Get a mail box and start changing your mailing address whenever possible. Use a Post Office box or get one at a UPS store. Those are actually considered physical addresses and can be used when PO boxes are not permitted as mailing address. Another benefit of a UPS mail box over a PO box is that you will probably have 24/7 access to your mail.

Find a competent divorce counselor or mediator who can prepare you and get you on the right track. Consider hiring a qualified private investigator for leverage. Don’t involve your children under any circumstances. They will go with you when it’s time. Most often they are aware that something isn’t right.

Plan, don’t jump. You don’t want to get hurt any more than you already are. Freedom and peace are waiting on the other side. Good luck.

Just as an FYI: 1 in 4 women is in an abusive relationship, 1 in 9 men is in an abusive relationship; 3 out of 4 people know someone who is or was in an abusive relationship;

33 million Americans admit being in an abusive situation.

So, you are not alone. But you need to take action. Follow the new National Slogan Yourself  –  Yes, You Can!

Posted in: articles
April 15, 2008

Child Support and Modification

These dreaded words  –  Child Support –  will inevitably pop up when a family calls it quits. We all know of the never ending dispute:   paying too much and receiving too little, but we always forget about the purpose of this legal and financial matter. Child support is supposed to leave the children from a broken home somewhat in the lifestyle they were accustomed to  –  in both homes. Of course, when you divide anything by half and then also subtract available funds for double housing, double utility, double so many other things, the standard of living can rarely be maintained as is. But the system has found a way to assure that a minimum requirement is met.

Agreements can be made privately and included in a divorce decree, just privately after separation or divorce and just written down in an agreement, or going through official channels and using the all mighty DRS, short for Domestic Relations Section, located on the second floor at the Courthouse Annex in Wilkes-Barre for Luzerne County.

The biological parent, who is the primary caregiver, may file for child support as soon as both parents no longer live in the same home, not until then. The paperwork for the initial filing is simple and will be done together with an intake officer at DRS, provided the public instead of private channels are chosen.

The children will be entitled to a minimum of support which will be derived from a standard, published chart and which combines both parents’ net income and then finds the matching amount of children. It stops at six children, anything over will be negotiated. The chart also stops at $15,000 combined monthly net income, anything over that will also be negotiated.

Things are simple when both parents are gainfully employed and have regular paystubs and W-2 forms to show. It’s simple math from there. It gets complicated when one or both of the parents are self-employed, not employed, under-employed, on commission, or working “under the table”.

The support officer assigned to the case will do his best to assess an “Earning Capacity” for the party without a regular paystub based on all the information available to him at that time and then do the math.

Once an initial support order is issued, the parent who needs to pay will receive a court  order to pay a certain amount by a certain date each month, and the parent receiving the support on behalf of the children will receive a PA State issued debit card with a local bank. It is advisable to open a checking account with that bank at a branch near home or work, so that there are no fees for withdrawals. Both parties may sign up for online access so they both can manage their end of the payment process online.

After the initial support order has been issued and signed by a Judge, both parties have the right to contest the amount by filing for so-called Modification. It’s a fairly simple process and forms are available at the court house. It can be done without an attorney filing it or being present for the hearing (Modification Hearing before a Support Hearing Officer), and it certainly should be done without an attorney, if one can’t afford one or doesn’t want to pay for a pricy attorney, but the support being paid or received is off too much, for whatever reason.

Either party may file for modification every six (6) months for numerous reasons, which show a substantial actual or perceived change in income, such as increase in work hours or overtime, change of job, loss of job, significant change in health affecting income, child care and health care issues, a move affecting housing cost and school cost, loss of a free child care provider, career change and continued education cost, etc. It’s for the hearing officer after listening to both parties’ presentations (with or without attorneys) to make a decision as to what figure the child support obligations should be changed to.

Either party now has the choice to accept the new ruling, contest it and request a hearing in front of a Support Master, a court employee who is an attorney and handles a lot of work a Judge ordinarily would have. The filing for a so-called complex hearing costs a filing fee and generally (but not always) requires an attorney. The support master’s findings may be appealed to a Judge, but most those appeals are thrown out. The third possibility would be to wait another six (6) months and file again on the Modification hearing level with better data in hand. In most cases it is much more economical to go that route taking the attorney’s fees into consideration, which could run into the thousands. It’s rare that the amount of extra or reduced support achieved as the result of a hearing, will cover the cost of the attorney, who helped increase or reduce the child support during the first or even second year  (Simple math example: you gained $5o per month in support payments, but you owe $2,000 to the attorney for preparing and representing you in a modification hearing, so not until 3 years and 4 months later will you have an actual net gain from this attempt and your children see an actual increase in funds available to them.). And there is no guarantee that this changed support order will last, since it can technically be modified every six months given changing circumstances. Unfortunately so many disgruntled parents spend much more on their attorneys then they do supporting their own children.

Years ago a party obligated to pay support would quit a good paying job, become officially unemployed for a while, or make an uneconomical career change, in order to be assessed a minimal obligation, but this strategy does not work so well anymore, since the courts have adopted the theory of income potential, i.e. “earning capacity”.  If it looks that you’re not constructively contributing to the financial welfare of your children you will be assessed an amount that you are expected to contribute, and you better figure out where you get this money. On the other side, formerly stay home moms are also expected to re-enter the workforce and given a certain time to do so in order to find a job and daycare.

It’s important that both parents understand that this money called ‘child support’ is exactly that. Punishing the parent receiving this money on behalf of the children by not paying for lengthy periods of time, by paying late all the time or by cheating on the income assessment will backfire for both parties. If the party receiving the payments late can’t pay utility bills, credit card bills and the mortgage or rent on time, it will affect that person’s credit score and now make life much more expensive for the whole family. By the same token, paying late or not at all will affect the payor’s credit score as well.  DRS reports delinquency and this type of delinquency carries a heavy weight, besides being frowned upon by mortgage lenders, future employers, etc. Furthermore, DRS also has the power to have a driver’s license suspended. And lastly, and the one most in the public’s eyes these days, DRS can file for contempt. Contempt is the authority’s last resort and may result in incarceration of the person neglecting to pay for his or her children, a downward spiral which should be avoided under all circumstances.

Unfortunately, there have been numerous parents incarcerated in recent years who got trapped by the system. Parents, who voluntarily had alternate arrangements made with the other party, but the other party never clarified that with the court and had the support obligation adjusted. Parents, who actually had been physically and financially been  taking care of their children and in essence had become the primary care givers, but who never had the support order modified to show that change in circumstances. Tragically, before a support order can be switched from one parent to the other, the law requires that the corresponding custody order be changed first to reflect the changing circumstances, an often lengthy and unfortunately perceived as expensive proposition.

The best defense to unfair financial treatment of either parent and therefore also for the children is simply to file for modification right away. Instead of arming yourself with an expensive attorney and running to court every time, you may want to consider locating a competent mediator in the area who can address more than just the financial issues and help find a mutually agreeable solution which can keep the children’s best interest at heart and also make both parties understand their obligations better and most of all the short and long term impact their actions may have on the whole family, living together in one location or not.

Posted in: articles
December 3, 2007

Mediation – a Novel Approach to Divorce, Custody & Support

If you haven’t been through it yourself, you certainly know of somebody who has been  –  an awful divorce. The nightmare of two people, who at some point decided not wanting to share space and time anymore and then went down a spiral of no return. Not only did emotions run array, but finances and credit history got destroyed in the process as well. Incidentally, there are always two winners, too  –  their respective attorneys.

People make the devastating mistake to consult an attorney in the early stage of a divorce, a stage when they are not emotionally ready to make any rational decisions, perfect prey for savvy attorneys with their own financial agenda. Of course, there are a few noble attorneys interested in preserving a family’s sanity and financial wellness, but they are hard to find. Unfortunately too many couples still get married without a pre-nup.

Generally, after consulting an attorney, especially in the initial stage of rage or outrage, there is often no way to return, review, forgive, regroup, or whatever it may take. The attorney will have made a laundry list of motions to file, things to do, demands to make,  that will infuriate the other party to shop for a “meaner”, more expensive attorney, to “get back” at him or her, to protect assets, at least one is let to believe that certain assets need protecting, when existing laws already do that, but you don’t hear that during the initial visit. All you hear during that first, fatal visit is “this is my retainer” and “this is “our” plan of attack”.

Before embarking on this lengthy, life altering trip it is important to understand that there are four distinct phases of divorce  –  Emotional, Social, Financial, and Legal. So often during those early phases of divorce consideration couples should have a chance to return to married life, after cooling down, reconsidering, forgiving, and/or consulting with an educated, experienced counselor. Revisit your marriage vows. Think of your children and their upbringing. Make allowances for indiscretions, not condoning them, of course, but dealing with them, set new or adjusted ground rules. As bizarre as this may sound, a little indiscretion can go a long way for an alpha male or a female you needs a little pizzazz and admiration in her life.

If one or both indeed chose to proceed with a divorce, the legal phase should be the last stage in the proceedings and should be the one, the only stage in which to consult with an attorney. Even then the internet has made it easier to prepare the necessary legal papers by yourself as your own attorney, known as ‘Pro Se’ filings.

There are many alternatives, many professionals, who are trained to seek amicable, intelligent, constructive solutions, to help you through phase one to three. They are therapists and counselors, priests and other clergy, advocates and mediators, financial consultants, etc. Again, keep in mind, there are good ones and bad ones in those professions as well. Ask around, request a free initial consult to get a feel, if you could work with a respective individual or ask for references.

Not until Phase Four do you really need an attorney. If both of you paid attention to your “alternative sources” you can actually get away with using only ONE attorney, i.e. splitting the cost. This one attorney can file your papers with the local courthouse. Or you file ‘Pro Se’. Done and over.

Please don’t think that I think it’s that easy. It’s not. But if you keep in mind, that your children are more important to you than revenge, if you think maintaining a certain  acquired life style for you and your children or just for you (and your estranged) better half,  is more important than “getting even”, then you will chose to go the intelligent route.

A mediated divorce with a qualified, experienced mediator will on average cost about 80 – 90% less of what a traditional divorce would have cost the same couple with two attorneys. More importantly, it will leave the divorcing couple in much better shape, emotionally and financially. It will also be far less traumatic for children, regardless of their age. And lastly, due to the existing legal bureaucracy and back logs it will also be much faster. This technique has been used successfully for decades in Europe and for a while now in California, and is popping up in other states, largely due to advances in internet commerce and social media.

Posted in: articles
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