Choosing a Lawyer
Domestic Violence Expertise: Make sure you hire a lawyer who has experience dealing with abusive, affluent Respondents who tend to be more litigious. Look for an attorney who is familiar with all forms of domestic violence, particularly emotional and financial abuse. Are they familiar with borderline, bi-polar, antisocial or Narcissistic personality disorders if any of these apply to your partner? Your partner’s psychological dysfunction and tendency to blame others is about to get magnified and transferred from the home into the courtroom. An attorney who has some experience dealing with your partner’s particular personality type will be much better prepared for the legal battle ahead.Ask questions and interview several to find the right fit. Now is not the time to deny or cover up the abuse. If you are going to get: a) skilled representation; b) as fair a settlement as possible; c) maintain custody of your children, it is in your best interest to be as candid as possible.
You may choose to interview a number of attorneys because finding the right fit will be crucial to your case. Your partner may also interview a broad range of attorneys as an unethical tactic to narrow your choices, since even if there is only one free initial consultation with an attorney, it disqualifies that attorney from representing the opposing side.
Team Approach: Ask the lawyers you interview if they work with a team that includes:
Psychologist willing to appear in court
A forensic accountant can often track down assets and accounts that your partner may be attempting to hide.
A psychologist or expert witness can interview you to validate your claims of abuse. They can help determine the extent to which you have been affected by the abuse and may help validate your fitness as a parent. They can help you prepare for court appearances.
Legal advocates can appear with you in court for moral support and help you prepare pleadings to file for a restraining order. They can offer support and guidance in legal matters throughout the dissolution.
A divorce coach can help you navigate the legal system and prepare you for what to expect in terms of mediation and child custody evaluation.
Ask for an estimate of how much the entire dissolution will cost and what the attorney requires for a retainer. If you do not have access to funds to cover the fees upfront, will they allow you to pay in installments or when the financial settlement is complete?
New forms FL-159 and FL-319 make it easier to request that attorney fees be paid by the higher earner. If your husband is the higher earner, this ruling can help discourage your abuser from taking you back to court repeatedly to “punish” you by draining your financial (and emotional) resources.
Be careful of this policy being used against you if you are the higher income earner and your spouse tries to hide assets and make himself look like the victim--another reason to hire a very skilled attorney and forensic accountant. (Reference California Family Code 2030 – 2032).
Protection of You and Your Children
Do the attorneys you are interviewing have suggestions for keeping you safe, maintaining custody of your children, protecting yourself against character assassination (your partner will likely try to prove that you are unstable/mentally incompetent/crazy)?Does s/he have strategies to counter your partner’s possible attempts to prove that you are the abuser and unfit to parent your children? Will you be accused of “failure to protect” for not reporting the abuse and will this jeopardize custody of your child? Or will the abuse you do report “not rise to the level” where CPS will take action while still inflaming your partner and inciting his revenge? How will your lawyer counter these problems and what is his/her past history of success in doing so?
Documenting the Abuse
Start keeping a journal (make sure it is hidden or stored at a trusted friend’s) in which you document incidents of abuse with dates.
If there are physical injuries, take pictures and include your face to avoid accusations that they were taken from the internet. Your lawyer will want to see these.
Proof of Character
Show them your diplomas, work history, record of accomplishments, school volunteer activities, and other proof that you are a competent adult and caring, responsible parent. Help your attorneys understand your character and parenting style in order to better defend these qualities, because they will be subjected to close scrutiny--and possible attack.
The Divorce Process: Three Tracks
Be prepared for your divorce to travel three separate tracks:
Talk to a legal advocate or lawyer about what to expect in the court mediation/child custody evaluation portion of the divorce. The decision about which home the child will spend most time in may be made after an hour and a half of observation by a child custody evaluator. You may feel frazzled and worn down. Your abuser will be on his best behavior. So will your children. This can make it very hard to get an accurate portrayal of your partner’s character and his relationship with you and the children. A divorce consultant can help with guidance about what to expect and how to prepare for this important meeting.
You may want to discuss with your lawyer the option of hiring a private judge to expedite the financial settlement portion of your dissolution through JAMS (Judicial Arbitration Mediation Services). The alternative is the Settlement Officer Conference (SOC) through a very busy court system which may be less efficient.
You can use “shuttle diplomacy” to avoid being in the same conference room with your partner at JAMS for the financial settlement, at the SOC, and at court during the family/child custody mediation negotiations.
To protect yourself and your children, you can apply for a temporary restraining order with the help of your lawyer or a legal advocate. It can often be renewed for the duration of your divorce. If you or your abuser demands a trial, you may have to take the stand and answer questions in front of your partner which can be extremely stressful. A divorce coach, trained therapist, or legal advocate can help you prepare.
If you get a temporary restraining order that covers you and your children, make sure the local police station has a copy, along with your work place and your children’s school.
Include a picture of your partner so staff can identify him and alert you/the police if he shows up at your work or school. Carry a copy with you at all times.
Family Law Philosophy
The underlying philosophy of the family court system in California is to re-unite families: to have ongoing and frequent contact between children and both parents. Yet sometimes it is not in the best interests of the child to have any-- even limited--contact with an abusive parent. Post-separation contact has the potential to give the abuser more opportunities to undermine the child’s relationship with the non-abusive parent. Make sure your lawyer is aware of these issues and helps you to plan and strategize accordingly.
If you feel your judge is biased against you for some reason or not well-versed in domestic violence, one time only and before the hearing, you can request a new judge—a bit of a gamble, but an option to exercise if you feel it is warranted.