Wednesday, February 20, 2013

lawyers, mediations and modifications, oh my!

Many of us in the step parent community find ourselves in legal situations that we are unable to get our arms around. Maybe you're like me and Mama Ex is trying to cut you and your husband out of the kids' lives altogether. Perhaps it's much simpler and your parenting decree doesn't spell out a holiday that you believe it should. Maybe it's super complicated and you're trying to get full custody of the kids.

These scenarios all have one thing in common.

You need a lawyer, yo.

Calm down. Seriously, breathe. I know what you're going through. When I married Hubs, I thought all the courtroom drama had happened long before I came into the picture. I just assumed everyone would behave and follow the decree and we'd all be good. But that's not how life works. Situations change. Thoughts change. Incomes change. People change. Big (and sometimes small) changes within a blended family can have monumental implications, none of which you should be expected to handle on your own. That's what attorney's are for.

Hubs and I hired an attorney to help us forge through the dramatic and difficult task of aquiring a 50/50 custody split. The story of why we are requesting this change isn't important, but what we learned in the process is. And so, without further ado, here are 7 things you can learn from me when hiring an attorney and heading to trial.

I won't even bill you hours.

What To Expect When You're Expecting an Easy Court Resolution

(a.k.a. Ruby Thought She Knew Everything and Quickly Found Out Otherwise)

1) Study Up, Buttercup.  

Don't Google "Custody Lawyer" and hire the first person you see. On the flip side, don't retain someone because your neighbor's doctor's cousin is supposed to be amazing. This is a big deal. You are trusting this person to represent you in a court room. 

Many attorneys offer a free consultation so they can hear your case and decide if they can help you. Think of the consultation like an interview. You are the boss man and they are vying for the job. Ask tough questions and be prepared. Make them show you why they're best for the job.

More important than your questions are their answers. When Hubs asked our attorney what his biggest concern was on our case, he answered proudly, "Well, we are just really busy right now. It's great, because that means we are getting referrals from happy clients."

All I heard was "referrals" and "happy clients." YAY! This lawyer is good! Later on, we found out he wasn't joking about being busy. Our case has now been passed back and forth between three lawyers in the office because they are so overwhelmed.

Remember, attorney's know how to spin a potential negative into a totally awesome positive. Be ready to read between the lines.

2) Your Attorney's Timeline is Horse Patoot.  

No one - and I mean no one - wants to hear, "This process could potentially take 3 years." I mean, you'd run out of the office, dragging other potential clients with you screaming "DON'T GO IN THERE!! THESE ATTORNEY'S ARE INSANE!!!!"

The hard truth is, no one knows. Some cases get worked out in mediation in the span of two months. Sometimes, parties will do whatever they can to drag the process out. (Especially if the result is likely to reduce their parenting time or lower their incoming child support.) There is no attorney in the world that can provide an accurate timeline. You can still ask the question - but his guess is as good as yours.

PS- the same goes for "How much will all of this cost?" No one knows. Save up your dollars though, because I can promise you it won't be cheap.

3) Your Urgency Isn't Their Urgency.

Repeat the following mantra to yourself. "The Law is Like Molasses." Don't believe me? Um...Kris Humphries and Kim Kardashian are still married. 'Nuff said.

You know that judge you so desperately want to get in front of? She doesn't want to see your husband or Mama Ex. She wants the two parties to sit their stubborn asses down and come to a resolution. Generally, you can count on a mediation being a required prequel to a trial. But don't look at mediation as a punishment. It's a chance to resolve the issues outside of court and move on with your life. Trying to settle outside of court is always going to come first. You can fight it all you want, but it won't change anything.

4) People cheat the system - and sometimes it works.  

Hubs and I learned this one the hard way. On the morning of our first (yes, we've had several) mediation, Mama Ex's attorney suddenly couldn't make it and asked for a reschedule. We complied and the mediation was set for several weeks later. Eventually, Hubs came to an agreement with Mama Ex after 10 long and very expensive hours. Mama Ex promised to sign the new parenting agreement and show up in court to finalize everything. The court date arrived - and Mama Ex backed out. She decided she wanted to go to trial after all.

She was just buying herself time.

Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater.
I figured the judge would come down hard on Mama Ex for wasting our time (and money) in a mediation she never intended to take seriously. I was wrong. The judge basically said, "Mama Ex, please don't do it again," and that was that.

Judges have to hear about people behaving badly all the time. They really aren't interested in your sob story about the other team being unfair. There is a chance cheaters will get away with cheating. The real bitch is, you have no choice but to smile and just hope someday karma will show up ready to do some damage.

 5) Steps don't get to play.  

The court process is like a cray cray expensive game of chess between two people who don't even want to play. Unfortunately, as a step, you don't even get invited to the table. I always assumed that because I was married to Hubs, I would be present in the mediations. After all, my time and energy go into these kids just as much as Mama Ex's do. This mediation will affect my life. Don't I get a say?

The answer is no. Unless the other party (in this case Mama Ex) agrees to let you in the room, you have no choice but to sit outside and wait it out. You can still consult with your husband before he makes any decisions, but the chances you will be in the room are slim. 

The court room is different. You can be present, but don't think you get to sit up there with Hubs and coo "You Are Not Alone" into his ear. He's on his own.

By the way - show up for the mediation, every lawyer meeting and every single court date. Not for Mama Ex and not for the judge, but for your husband. He needs your support.

6) Times will get tough.

Prepping for trial or a mediation is stressful. You and your husband are on the same side, but the coming weeks and months will test and try your relationship in ways you never could have imagined. Resolve to have weekly sit-down's with each other to share your feelings. 

As a step parent, it is very easy to feel like your opinion doesn't matter because you are not a biological parent. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Changing parenting time, reduced or increased child support and modifications to decrees affect you directly. Share your opinions and concerns with your husband or partner. 

Your step kids will also feel the effects of this difficult process. There is a fine line between keeping them informed ("mommy and daddy both have hired a lawyer to help with some problems") and telling them too much ("your stupid mother is gold digging gutter trash"). If you're unsure what to say, consider sending the children to counseling, where they can share their feelings with an unbiased third party.

7) Compromise is a four letter word. 

I know you think you're on the side of right. Ironically, so does the other party. The sooner you realize that neither of you will get exactly what you want, the faster this whole process will go. Like our mothers constantly told us, life isn't fair. A compromise means both people walk away without their ideal scenario. In the end, what is best for the kids is for both parents (and subsequent step parents) to do the right thing. And if one party isn't holding up their end of that bargain, don't stoop to their level. Keep doing what is right and in the end it will pay off.

What is your advice to stepmoms about to embark on a courtroom journey? Give us the good stuff, we all gotta learn!


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