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Divorce Finance Toolkit App post

‘Appy Days ahead?

I read with interest the news that the UK Government has committed £14M of funds towards the development of an App that will assist divorcing spouses and separating couples, especially in relation to child care after parting.

I’m all for new technology if it empowers people who would otherwise struggle to afford the fees of divorce lawyers.  And yet, I can’t help wondering why it will cost £14M to develop such an App.  Sure, the quality of the content has to be there and that won’t be cheap.  What’s more,  the App developers may be kept busy building in some useful tools and calculators and that will cost a few bob.  But £14M?  Really?

I suspect, as usual, the news may have been spun too much or has suffered from mis-reporting.  If this initiative is to have a £14M price tag, i expect that the British public will find themselves treated to a website of information, online tools, some half-decent signposting to other resources AND AN APP thrown in because that is the sort of sexy thing we all like on our iPhone and Android devices.  (And Blackberries… if they’re still making them).

If that is the case, then I wonder: why bother?  There are a number of perfectly good websites in existence offering quality information and some excellent financial tools: I have listed them here.  An app is fine but a fully functioning website is better.  A fully functioning website is delightful, but a properly funded family justice system is simply splendid.

Now I come to think of it, if you deduct the tens of millions saved from the planned withdrawal of legal aid from the majority of family law cases and the tens of millions already slashed from the court budgets, £14M  on an App starts to look like a PR stunt.   Of course I know these are times of austerity, so the UK Treasury has to be tighter than a shark’s arse in a power dive, but I had envisaged helpful Apps to be a contribution from the entrepreneurial private sector, not a replacement for core, State-funded services.

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Divorcefinancetoolkit

I’ve been practising family law for some time now and there is one aspect of the divorce process in the English jurisdiction that I have never understood.  This is the requirement for one spouse to blame the other spouse entirely for the breakdown of the marriage. There is the option to wait for a period of at least two years of separation and not plead fault but most people, once they accept that a marriage is over, want to sort out the divorce as quickly as possible.  It means that, even in the most amicable of divorces, one spouse must portray themselves as the Saint and one must be cast as the Sinner.

So, for example, the wife (the Petitioner) who lodges the divorce petition cannot, for instance, say about the Respondent husband :

The Petitioner likes the matrimonial home to be tidy.  Really tidy.  The Petitioner has always been like this since she was a little girl.  Unfortunately, the Respondent is a bit of a slob.  He leaves his underpants on the bedroom floor.  The Petitioner finds this really annoying and just cannot let it go without comment which often leads to arguments and bad feeling. Sometimes the kids will hear these arguments and both the Petitioner and Respondent will feel bad about this afterwards.  The Respondent will often point out to the Petitioner that leaving his underpants on the bedroom floor is hardly criminal  in the scheme of things.  The Respondent will say to the Petitioner: “I work hard, I don’t gamble, I don’t drink (much), I don’t have affairs, and I think the kids really love me.  Can’t you just learn to live with the fact that I leave my underpants on the bedroom floor?  Your obsessive neatness drives me nuts!”  Unfortunately, the Petitioner cannot live like this and she has gone to counselling and been told she has OCD issues but that is just the way it is.  The Petitioner knows deep down that the Respondent is actually quite nice, even though he is an awful slob, and is a good father but concludes it is probably a sad case of ‘six of one and half a dozen of the other’.”

Instead, the Wife must say something like this:

The Petitioner ensures at all times that the matrimonial home is a pleasant and welcoming environment.  She will go to great lenghts to ensure high levels of cleanliness and order throughout every part of the home. The Respondent deliberately leaves his underpants on the bedroom floor despite knowing full well the profoundly negative impact of such behaviour on the Petitioner including: emotional distress, lack of sleep,  mental anguish, and loss of libido.  These episodes occur nightly and when the Petitioner requests that the Respondent modify his behaviour by placing his underwear in the appropriate storage facility, she is met by the Respondent’s raised voice and his attempts to diminish the importance of his malfeasance which in itself is designed to undermine the Petitioner’s self-esteem and has caused her to require extensive counselling.  The children overhear the Respondent’s raised voice and the Petitioner is very worried about the effect this is having on the children.

The problems with requiring the alleging of fault in such uncompromising terms are, in my view, as follows:

  1. Family lawyers are often being bashed over the head for being adversarial and aggressive.  They do this, say their many critics, to inflate their fees by promoting bad feeling between the parties and thereby delaying settlement.  And yet, the law requires one spouse to start the divorce process by putting the boot into the other.  Is it any wonder that the other spouse responds in kind?
  2. When the spouses are required to start the process by thinking in terms of ‘fault’ it can make it difficult to encourage them to think more positively about their future roles and responsibilities in bringing up their children.  The battle lines have often been drawn at the divorce petition stage.  The children are going to suffer as a result.
  3. Once you get off to a bad start in the divorce petition, which often includes reference to financial mishandling or control, it is hard to get spouses to drop their mistrust and identify grounds for common interests and agreement on financial matters.  This greatly increases the costs of settling.
  4. The UK government has recently put its weight behind the promotion of mediation to resolve family disputes upon divorce and separation.  Please show me one mediator who starts off the mediation process by asking: “Right, just so I can get my bearings, which one of you is to blame for all of this?”  If the UK government want to shape public policy on the adoption of mediation and collaborative law, it needs to amend the divorce legislation pretty damn quick.
  5. On a broader level, it seems to me to deny to spouses the dignity they should be accorded by the law which is to accept in many cases that a marriage has come to an end and two sensible people, in possession of all their faculties recognise it is not the sole fault of one person.  Why should a couple who are capable of an amicable parting be required to regress to the adversarial behaviour and language of the school playground in the divorce petition?

I am aware that some of the defenders of fault-based divorce may fear that it will become too easy to divorce and that the institution of marriage will be somehow undermined if fault is removed.  My solution would be to keep fault-based divorce for those cases where it is felt appropriate to plead bad behaviour.  But, for those spouses who want an amicable process; for those lawyers who wish to promote non-adversarial models of dispute resolution; for those critics who think lawyers sow marital discord in order to line their own pockets, please give us the option to select a no-fault divorce.

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Divorce Finance Toolkit

Errr.... the legal landscape

I have looked into my legal crystal ball before, attempting to guess the direction of the legal services market.  Big changes are afoot and clients (should I say, consumers, now) may find themselves between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.  The Devil is the Government’s determination to ditch legal aid for most family law cases, and the Deep Blue Sea is the Legal Services Act 2009, which shakes up the traditional practices of law and will allow non-lawyers to offer legal services.

Like most people, my mood changes from day to day.  If I was feeling a little down I might say the twin impact of these changes could be likened to the Government picking up the legal services market by its heels, giving it a good old slap on the arse, throwing it onto the deck, sticking the boot in several times, standing back and then positively encouraging a couple of passing corporate spivs to bend down and pick its pockets.

If I was feeling more upbeat, I might look for the good things that can emerge in a period of transition, even if that transition is quite a violent one and initiated with malice aforethought by the present Government. So, with my positive hat on I note with interest a relatively new website called Intelligent Divorce.  The whole premise is to allow clients (consumers) direct access to quality legal advice so that a legal opinion upon the likely financial settlement can be obtained at an early stage and, hopefully, avoid the pain and costs of litigation.  I particularly like the fact that a couple can use the service jointly which will, of course, greatly increase the prospect of agreement and settlement.

Although the costs of the service may, at first blush, appear expensive to someone who has been running around getting free half-hour interviews with local solicitors, I would just repeat three words already used above: “quality legal advice”.  Such advice does not come cheaply but the clever use of technology, allowing the service users to populate the information forms used to obtain the advice, cuts down the costs sigificantly.  Compared to full-blown litigation, the quoted costs for Intelligent Divorce are something of a bargain.

As the legal services market continues to fragment, there will be opportunities for clients to effect some costs savings by shopping around, in the virtual, online world as well as the real one.  And perhaps combining the services of a number of different providers: for example,  an online divorce petition combined with elements of self-help and then some face-to-face legal advice if the going gets sticky.  There will be room for solutions like Intelligent Divorce.

Disclaimer: I know the founders of Intelligent Divorce on a professional level.  I therefore know them to be excellent family lawyers.  However, I have no personal financial interest in their offering and will not benefit in any way from readers of my blog using the services of Intelligent Divorce.

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divorce finance toolkit

The Court of the Kitchen Table

What happens when couples going through a divorce, having to sort out child support, the future of the matrimonial home, or even pension splitting upon divorce, have no access to a family lawyer?  I have talked before about what may happen when legal aid is withdrawn from family law.

My gut instinct tells me, and any other family lawyer you ask, that the withdrawal of legal aid will lead to more people trying to sort it out themselves – the DIY divorce route – or representing themselves in court (as litigants in person).  The court system is already  struggling with budget cuts and is ill-equipped to deal with an upsurge in self-reppers.

Gut instinct is fine but it’s always helpful to see some objective evidence and I therefore read, with keen interest, the results of a study sponsored by Simpson Millar Solicitors which can be found here.  The stand out headline is that 65% of women and 53% of men in Leeds and Manchester would try to get by on their own in a divorce situation.

I am very troubled by this stat.  God knows how two spouses, both unrepresented, can sort out complex issues around the kitchen table.  I can just imagine the conversations where words like ‘clean break’ will be bandied around without any understanding of the long-term consequences for both spouses and their children should they actually end up with a clean break.

The challenge for the legal profession is how to preserve access to justice and mitigate some of the worst effects of family breakdown: like the provision of expert legal advice. Some of us in the legal profession still give a damn about this even though it’s clear the Government doesn’t.  The majority of the retail operators about to move into the legal market (estimated value £25 billion) have not come from a background or training that still sees ‘the law’ and the profession of lawyer as offering society something more valuable than a ‘commodity’.  These retailers will cherry pick the best bits and won’t give a second thought for Kevin and Tracy sitting around the kitchen table in Manchester and Leeds.

 

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Completing Form E within divorce proceedings is difficult enough but one of the main mistakes is to underestimate the length of time it takes for pension providers to cough up the pension information.  But in the first place, it helps to submit the correct document: this is Form P (Pension Inquiry) to each pension fund holder. Using Form P is essential, otherwise the pension providers will not know the context of your request is a divorce and therefore will not give you the information needed for Form E.

Here is a short video on:

  • how to find the Form P for free on the internet;
  • the relationship between Form E and Form P;
  • how to complete Form P.

Form P is essentially used for the majority of private pension funds.  A different pension information request form is used if you are, for instance, in the armed services,  a police officer or a teacher.  As ever, I can always post on these exceptional circumstances if there is enough interest.

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Pension computer says 'No'

Almost invariably, when consulting a family divorce lawyer, you will be told that pension sharing may be an option in your financial settlement.  You will asked to obtain the capital value of your pension fund which may be a private pension, a company pension scheme or public sector pension.

What can be forgotten is that the capital value of a State Second Pension (S2P), also called an Additional State Pension should be obtained.  It has, in my experience, been overlooked by lawyers who should know better.  If a spouse has not contracted out of the old style SERPS scheme and put their NI contributions into a private, personal pension then the value of the State Second Pension may be very tidy indeed.  Especially someone who may have had a working life of 30 plus years on a full-time basis.  This fund can also be split or at least taken into account when dealing with other capital assets in a marriage.

Delay

Well, after the recent delays in obtaining pension capital values for public sector pensions, I am now receiving letters from the Pension Service telling me that computer upgrades are going to cause a delay in the production of the information needed for the State Second Pension valuation.

Unfortunately, the letters do not tell me or my clients how long we may have to wait.

If anyone from the Pensions Service happens to read this blog post please feel free to let me know if you have any idea how long the delay will be.  And don’t say it’s like a piece of string…

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Statement of truth for new Form E

There’s nothing like a rule change in the world of family law and divorce proceedings to get me excited. What divorce procedure rules could change this time, I ask myself?  Could it be the binning of the wilfully old-fashioned and plain stupid requirement for one spouse to put all the blame for the breakdown of the marriage on the other spouse before a divorce can be granted?  Sadly no.  This Government, like the others before it, has no backbone.

The tinkering is all about making the language of law a bit clearer.  One (apparently minor) change is a further assault upon the Latin words that lawyers (but mostly, clients) still love to use.  There shall be no more mention of the word AFFIDAVIT.  Absolutely verboten.  Forget you ever used it and call it a Statement instead.  This means that clients will no longer be SWORN to their affidavits but rather VERIFY their statements of truth.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m a modern kind of guy.  I can make my own sandwiches, iron my shirts and think it’s perfectly proper for grown men to cry (under certain, rigidly defined circumstances).  But what is wrong with Affidavit?  It rolls off the tongue nicely, especially after a few practice sessions; it sounds vaguely grand, dustily majestic and quite deserving of the gravitas associated with being SWORN to it.  But no, it has now gone the way of the Dodo.  My clients don’t want statements of truth, they want the full monty AFFIDAVIT.  It is a serious process and they want to be seen taking it seriously.  A statement of truth is the cheap, shiny toilet paper painfully encountered in your local park’s public loos.  An AFFIDAVIT is a plump roll of three-ply cushioned velvet found in the Ritz cloakrooms.

I feel much better now that I’ve got that off my chest.  When I calm down fully, I will deal with the changes brought about which have some relevance to the patient readers of this blog.

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Here is a video: setting out the forms referred to in my last post on this subject:  enforcement of maintenance by attachment of earnings.

 

 

 

 

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My magic postbag reveals an enquiry about severing a joint tenancy in divorce.  Sounds painful – what’s that about then?

Well, most couples who own property own it jointly in one of two ways.  They will own it as either:

  • beneficial joint tenants; or
  • tenants in common

Beneficial joint tenancy

This means that you own the property jointly and neither of you can point to a specific share in the property.  You will both need to consent to a sale or a re-mortgage.  Most importantly, you cannot leave instructions to a lawyer to pass on your interest in a beneficial joint tenancy under your Will.  This means that when you die, your interest in the property passes automatically to your fellow joint owner or owners.

Tenancy in common

You still own the property with your fellow owner but you will both have distinct shares.  This may be 50/50 or 70/30 and so on.  You can sell your share or charge it (raise a mortgage loan on it).  But, if you die, your interest will not pass automatically to your joint owner but will instead go to the person you have named as the beneficiary under your Will.  You can therefore see that it is vital that you have a Will in place if you have a tenancy in common.  If there is no Will, or the Will is deemed to be invalid, there will be an intestacy and your share may go to someone you’d rather not benefit.

Severing a beneficial joint tenancy

Don’t panic.  Severing a joint tenancy in divorce is straightforward.  Not a drop of blood in sight.  A severance means that you wish to change a beneficial joint tenancy into a tenancy in common.  So why would I want to do that, you ask?

Well, one example, familiar to my clients, is a situation where divorce proceedings are being pursued or are being contemplated. The spouses or partners are suddenly out of love and fighting for their share in the equity (the value of the property after taking off any mortgage charges and sale fees).  In those circumstances they are not best pleased to hear that, should they die before the completion of the divorce process, their share will automatically pass to the other, surviving, spouse.  To prevent this happening, your solicitor can prepare a Notice of Severance.  Once this document is signed and sent to your spouse it has the effect of ‘severing’ the beneficial joint tenancy and converting it into a tenancy in common.  Then, of course, you will be told to prepare a Will, pronto, to define where your ‘severed’ share in the property should go in the event of your death.

At the same time, whilst dealing with a new Will, it would be necessary to change the executor of your Will as your old Will may say it will be your (soon-to-be-ex) spouse.  The decree absolute in divorce would set aside your spouse as an executor anyway and this would leave your estate without an administrator if additional executors were not appointed.

If you have a solicitor acting for you then they would normally ask you to sign two copies of the Notice of Severance, and both would then be sent to your spouse (or their solicitors).  A request would be made for one of the forms to be signed and returned so that this version (bearing both spouses’ consent) can be registered at District Land Registry and the record of the property ownership will be amended.

Anyone contemplating preparing a Notice of Severance and sending it to their spouse or partner should think carefully and take advice.  Even if divorce is inevitable, there may be children of the marriage.  If you were to die before the divorce is finalised, would you really object to your spouse automatically being given your share of the beneficial joint tenancy which would then ensure there was a home for your children?

 

 

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First: a confession…

I used to be one of those lawyers who felt distinctly nervous at the thought of changes in legal services that could impact upon my livelihood.  But then, as a person entering the law as a second career shackled with monstrous debt from my legal courses and young, hungry children, I was always likely to be of a nervous disposition. But as time has gone on I have learned to embrace change.  In fact, I positively welcome it.  I like to see the positives in change rather than the threat.  There is no greater agent of change than technology. Technology can deliver services in ways we could not have imagined some 15 years ago.  Legal services are not immune.  And I am not referring to the now commonplace changes introduced by innovations such as:

  • email
  • Skype
  • ‘Always on’ and synchronised services like Dropbox or Googledocs unleashing the full potential of mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad.

Lawyers are beginning to utilise these technologies to help their clients.  That’s the way it should be.  For too long, lawyers have thought of reasons why their established patterns of working should not change even though client pressures were building to demand greater flexibility in the delivery of legal services.  After all, why should the provision of legal services not be client-led?

This blog is aimed at that section of the public making one of the painful transitions called separation, divorce or dissolution of their civil partnerships. I am communicating directly with people who may need to access advice on matters like divorce.  I am precisely NOT writing this blog for the benefit of my professional colleagues specialising in family law.  They are very welcome to read my posts and take issue if they like but they are not my intended audience.  This is the reason I am not banging on about the profound changes to be wrought by the Legal Services Act: the public don’t give a toss and why should they?

So what are the interesting strands, now emerging, that are likely to shape the future of family law services delivery?

Unbundling

This simply means that the public may want to select from a menu of legal services: picking and choosing those bits they cannot do themselves with any confidence.  But, being prepared to roll up their sleeves and have a go at the aspects that look less daunting and may owe more to procedure than legal interpretation.  This has been going on for some time but the pace appears to have accelerated.  People having to deal with divorce have always been able to deal with the proceedings themselves but the availability of online services has allowed for the elements of the proceedings that can be process-driven to be offered directly to the public.  The divorce process (but not, in all cases, the financial aspects) can be broken down and delivered online.  Mark Keenan’s Divorce-Online has been doing this for years.  There have been other entrants into the online divorce services market but Divorce-Online, being the original, still appears to be the best.

Community

Online forums attracted to discrete issues are creating their own ‘demand agendas’ that bypass traditional professional services or dictate the terms of engagement with them.  If you have a look at Wikivorce you will see a strong element of self-help driven on the forum pages.  The members posting on the user forums will often use the term STBX (soon-to-be-ex [partner]) when referring to the other spouse.  The other members will provide sympathy, support and some direct suggestions for how to tackle a problem with a STBX. It is clear that there are some comments posted by forum users with legal experience, possibly solicitors or legal executives, but they are not allowed to ‘own’ the pages, or even, as far as I can tell, use the forum pages to profile their legal firms.

Another good example of community action is  Suzy Miller’s Starting Over Show (SOS). An online environment that supports and encourages divorcing and separating couples to explore ‘better’ ways of resolving disputes  with an emphasis on mediation and the collaborative process.  An example of Suzy’s bottom-up approach is Divorce in a Box which provides vouchers to a range of services, both legal, and therapeutic.

I also like Only Dads and Only Mums.  These sites offer support for single dads and mums and signpost resources for people who might initially be shell-shocked at single parent status.

Connection

Look at MyOffspring.  This is a relatively new offering and I spoke about it on my companion blog, Larkinslaw,when I said:

“…  the MyOffspring team want to offer separating parents an online environment that provides a suite of  tools and resources that will allow them to communicate with each other and even their children using the now familiar tropes of social networking.  There will be the ability to use a schedule manager, join forum debates, access advice from a range of experts on family matters (both legal and therapeutic), and even upload materials for sharing with your ex-partner that can be timestamped and even geo-tagged.

The emergence of online offerings like MyOffspring throws up some interesting questions.

  • Will the ability to communicate with your ex-partner in a secure online environment in real-time improve the prospects for constructive dialogue and therefore improve the outcomes for children?
  • Will the ability to upload materials to a secure server reduce the room for conflict between those parents where the common cry of the parent who is not the primary carer of the children is that they are kept in the dark despite enjoying parental responsibility for their children?
  • Will the ability to geo-stamp certain entries, through a supporting App on a smartphone, do away once and for all with the destructive allegation and counter-allegation that one parent has failed to turn up at the agreed time and location to have or to allow contact with their child?  I have seen the courts struggle with these cases where a decision has to be made as to who is telling the truth about specific incidents.   The court’s decision, a finding of fact, can impact directly on the ultimate decision as to which parent should have care of the children or how much contact there should be for a so-called absent parent.
  • Does the concept of the ‘absent parent’ lose definition and meaning in a virtual world where the channels of communication are in real-time and ‘always on’?
  • Most intriguingly, will the English courts, like their North American counterparts, embrace the reality of such online tools and begin to incorporate into their orders, a direction that the parents before the court must subscribe to such an electronic service in the hope that communication will improve but that , if it does not, the un-cooperative and obstructive parent may be found out.

The potential for improving the frequency and I would hope, the quality, of the communications between parents in respect of their children is there.  The STBX will be the person at the other end of the interactive tools in this vision of the future rather than the subject of anger or despair in the forum discussions.  If I am right – that the tropes of social networking are becoming ubiquitous – then the particular patterns of engagement between consumers of such services, even hostile parents, could be constructively channelled for the benefit of their children.

Finally: a freebie

My day job is with Family Law Partners (FLP)  The MyOffspring team have kindly offered my firm 200 free subscriptions for their premium service for 12 months. You do not have to be a client of FLP to use the subscription.  It will be first come, first served.  I will post the online code for the offer as I soon as I receive it.


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