Monday, April 4, 2011

The Intersection of Social Networking Websites and Family Law

As I was firing up my internet at the office today, one of the highlighted articles on addressed the impact of Facebook in divorce cases.  Of course, as a family law practitioner, the article peaked my interest.  I am seeing more and more potential divorce cases that are the result of social networking sites.  Wives who are unhappy that their husbands have private sites and will not allow them access or accept their friend requests, spouses who become suspicious because their spouse has changed their status from married to single, or a spouse who reconnects with an old high school flame which leads to an extramarital affair.  The possibilities are almost endless. And unfortunately, the impact of these social networking sites is not just limited to initial divorce cases.
Like it or not, social networking websites are a gold mine for family law attorneys.  Just in my practice, I have seen posts from MySpace and Facebook come into evidence on issues of child support, parenting time and custody.  For instance, consider this scenario: mother alleges she is unable to work and earn any income, but on her Facebook page posted about housekeeping and daycare services she is providing to friends and family.  Father's attorney could mother's posts to not only discredit mother on the stand but also to impute potential income in the calculation of the child support obligation.  Consider the father who is seeking more parenting time who posts to his MySpace page about how much he is enjoying his day off, hanging out drinking and partying, followed by "off to pick up my kids."  A savvy opposing counsel can introduce father's posts as evidence that the father's parenting time should be supervised or otherwise restricted if father is drinking and driving with the children in the car.

When custody and/or parenting time are at issue, court-appointed evaluators may be interested in viewing the posts of not only the parents but also the children.  Often the children's posts will provide insight into what is going on in their lives, and can provide a glimpse of how the children view themselves and their parents. 

We are only just beginning to see the impact that social networking sites are having on family law. As family law practitioners, we must be aware of the hazards and dangers to our clients in using these websites, and we need to advise our clients accordingly.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Advocating for Children: the Role of the Guardian Ad Litem

In cases involving custody and parenting time, the Court will often appoint a Guardian ad litem (GAL) for the minor children.  What is a GAL?  Blacks Law dictionary defines a GAL as a "guardian appointed to prosecute or defend a suit on behalf of a party incapacitated by infancy or otherwise."  Indiana statutes give courts the authority to appoint GALs in paternity, dissolution and guardianship cases to represent the interests of the minor children that are the all too often the subject at issue in those cases. 

Generally speaking, the GAL's role is two-fold: first, to be a voice for the minor child, and second, to investigate the case and make recommendations regarding the child's best interests.  Through interviews with the child, the GAL can learn what the child knows about the ongoing litigation, what the child has observed of the parties' behavior, and what the child wishes with regard to custody or parenting time, and the GAL can communicate what he or she has learned by submitting a written report to the court and through testimony at a hearing.  This role is critical in that it prevents children from experiencing the trauma of testifying or being interviewed by a judge. Moreover, the GAL is uniquely situated to interact with all of the parties and gather facts that might not otherwise come into evidence, and in my experience, judges are extremely appreciative of the information provided by the GAL.

GALs are generally volunteers who give their time to advocate for children in our courts.  In Marion County, there are two organization charged with recruiting, training, and providing volunteer GALs for family law cases: Kids' Voice of Indiana and Child Advocates.  Both organizations are non-profits and their employees work diligently to serve the needs of children involved in litigation in this county. Volunteering as a GAL is a rewarding experience, and as a family law attorney, I found that volunteering gave me a new perspective on how I handle my cases.  It is all too easy to wrapped up in litigation, in winning and losing, but GALs make sure that children don't get lost in the mix.  If you are looking for a charitable cause or need something to do with your time, I encourage you to volunteer as a GAL and help give kids a voice.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why Family Law?

People often ask me, "Why did you practice family law?"  I struggle with how to respond to that question because the answer is not a simple one.  Initially I got into family law because I was unhappy practicing  in-house for a local company.  After two years in-house, I realized that what was missing was the human element - a client I could see, meet with, and ultimately, help.  It was that realization that sent me searching for something more, and I found it in family law.

Having been a family law practitioner for several years, I now realize that there are many reasons that I practice family law.  I still like helping people, especially in times of crisis or transition, but I also find that it is rewarding to see someone grow stronger and more confident right before your eyes.    At many initial consultations, clients are upset, emotionally bruised, and filled with angst over not only the decision to get divorced but also their future.  But as we work together on their case, I get to witness their healing, and see them gain a certain inner-strength.  Knowing that I may be a part of that process of personal growth is rewarding.

Also, practicing family law allows me to advocate for children.  All too often in family law cases, parents get caught up in their own issues - they want to "win" their case.  Often, my role is to get my client or the opposing party to focus on the children - to put aside their individual agendas and their differences to make the choices that are best for their family.   Litigation by its very nature pits the parties against one another, and is not conducive to post-hearing or post-trial co-parenting. For this simple reason, I try to remind my clients again and again that even though a marriage may be ending, when the parties share children, they will always be connected.

Last, being an family law attorney allows me to be a creative problem-solver.  Family law cases are fact-sensitive, and every case is different, which offers me the opportunity to use my creativity to try to come up with a parenting time plan, custody arrangement, or even a property division that works for that case.  It's a fun and interesting challenge to work with clients to come up with an individual set of rules or guidelines that fits that client's family.

My job challenges me everyday, and sometimes it is emotionally exhausting, but I wouldn't want to do anything else.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Carrying the Weight of Others' Problems

I had the privilege of speaking at a Continuing Legal Education Seminar this past Friday.  Another attorney speaking at the seminar reminded me about the burdens that we family law attorneys take on.  Every day we go to the office, meet with clients, and argue legal points of law, and our jobs can become a little routine.  All too many times, we focus on our jobs and lose sight of the fact that what we do significantly affects not only our clients' lives but also the lives of their children and other family members.  Family law attorneys routinely have to counsel domestic abuse victims or we get involved in a custody battle for which the outcome will affect where our client's children will live and go to school.  Dealing with these types of cases often comes with a great deal of stress and anxiety.

I don't know a single family law attorney that has not laid awake at night agonizing over a client's problems, or who hasn't worried that he or she will discover on the evening news that a client was killed as a result of domestic violence.  Is it any wonder that attorneys have such a high rate of alcoholism and divorce themselves?  What we do is important, but it is also extremely stressful and can affect our lives and our health, which is why it is so critical that we each have a support group, if you will, of colleagues who understand the burden of carrying the weight of our clients' family law problems.  So, reach out -- ask a colleague to lunch, swap war stories.   It helps to unburden and to know that you are not alone.  It's a fundamental concept of physics that every weight feels lighter when the load is shared.