The Unsettling ‘Settlement’: A Domestic Abuse Victim’s Shock at Encountering the Legal System
Post 1 of a three-part series by ‘Still Reforming’
As Christians, we are familiar with the concept of the “letter of the law” versus the “spirit of the law.” Generally speaking, no matter where you live the law is greatly more concerned with the letter than the spirit. Lawyers, judges, and professionals in the legal arena all tend to focus more on what the law actually says than what it may be intended or designed to achieve.
That fact doesn’t help targets of abuse, who live in stifling environments of lies, manipulation, and great deception — to both the target and onlookers. So when it comes to “the Court,” unless there is clear-cut evidence of physical harm or potential thereof to the target or others, the details of covert abuse are likely not going to be of interest to the Court unless the abuser has broken a specific law. And even if the abuser has broken a specific law, that may not be seen as significant by the Court which is hearing the divorce application, unless the abuser has been prosecuted and found guilty by a criminal court.
This was probably the biggest and most disheartening revelation to me over the past year, during which time I retained attorneys while divorcing my now ex-husband (‘ex’ thanks be to God). Divorce, by the way, is formally referred to as “dissolution of marriage” in the legal system.
This article is based on my experiences in one state in the USA. Readers need to bear in mind that divorce law differs from state to state in the USA, and that other countries’ laws do not necessarily resemble what takes place in the USA. [Note from Barb: If you are from another country you may wish to read this article on Wikipedia Divorce Law By Country as part of your information gathering, but bear in mind that Wikipedia is not guaranteed to be always accurate.]
When I entered the fray of the legal arena, I was under the impression that these men to whom I was paying thousands of hard-earned dollars to advocate for me, our child, and our situation, actually cared about all of it. I was sorely mistaken. Not only did I learn the expensive way that they considered themselves more as advisors than advocates, I also learned that I was mistaken in thinking that the standards of yesteryear (in which I was raised) were the same standards today — at least with respect to justice. That was gross naivete on my part.
I don’t bash myself about for that mistake, but I write it here to perhaps jog in readers’ own minds how they might expect the legal system to be based on standards as they knew or would like them to be and how these expectations may very well differ from reality.
In my case, my husband left us (unexpectedly, which was true to his character, being a covert narcissist) and immediately cut me (and thus our child) from access to his pay though we had been dependent on it for more than a decade. I had been a stay-at-home mom and homeschooling parent for as long, and therefore I presumed that I would be legally reimbursed for routine expenditures for our child and for me even after he left. My attorneys even accepted monthly billing statements from me with an understanding that they would all be submitted for reimbursement to him, but that never happened.
The culture in which I was raised about 50 years ago would not have tolerated that. Therefore, I lived those six months before our first settlement meeting less frugally than I might have otherwise. I didn’t go out and buy a Ferrari, but I also didn’t think twice about the grocery bill or occasional fast food purchase.
By the time we got to a settlement meeting, which was the first attempt he made toward talking about anything related to his desertion (a word no longer heard in court) and filing for divorce, I was beginning to get a clue how the legal system may not be interested in all of the facts. It still hadn’t sunk in, however, because in my heart of hearts, I don’t think I could accept the fact that no one today raises an eyebrow when a husband cuts financial support for his wife and child in one day, having supported them for a decade, and he cannot be legally obligated to reimburse any of their everyday living expenses after he has left them. My head still spins at that.
Within six weeks of his abandonment (another word the court no longer uses), I was allowed by my attorney to put an alarm system in place because my husband would only come home when he knew we’d be away. The second evening of his disappearance, when our child and I were at church, he snuck home with a friend who stood guard outside while my husband secreted out the contents of our safe, our tax records, his gun collection, and some personal effects. Our child and I returned home from church to see my husband’s truck piled up with stuff and another man in a truck waiting outside.
That night, my husband left a note for our child saying he didn’t know when I would let him see her, suggesting that I was somehow keeping him from her. I saved that particular note thinking it might be of some value in court, but nothing in what he did was against the law. Details like that are so insignificant to the courts in covert abuse cases like mine that they only ended up costing me money to tell the attorneys, who were all too happy to spend time hearing or reading about it from me, but neither acting on it nor telling me what wouldn’t be useful in court.
In the state in which I live, the first and most desirable way to reach an agreement with a soon-to-be-ex about all of the details (child support, education, marital assets, etc) is in a settlement meeting. This is when both parties sit with their attorneys and deal directly with one another without having to hire a mediator. It’s more desirable to settle this way because it’s more expedient, you don’t have to pay a mediator’s fees, and it keeps court costs down.
That said, in my experience there is no such thing as “settlement” with an abuser. As it turned out, my husband’s attorney drove the settlement meeting. We discussed only two issues (child’s education and selling the marital home), neither of which we agreed upon. I hardly got two words in before my husband’s attorney started shaking his head violently back and forth, reminding me of those bobbing head dolls, and practically spitting out how my view was absolutely intolerable. (I said that I wasn’t yet settled on the local public school and was still leaning toward homeschool to meet our child’s special needs. I had actually taken our child to several private Christian schools over the months of our abandonment, as well as a special needs school where she was evaluated and accepted. My husband and his attorney would hear none of it.)
His attorney had spoken adamantly and with great passion while we were in the settlement meeting, whereas my attorney was more genteel and reasoned. That didn’t bode well for my side. His bulldog attorney just chased us out of settlement and into mediation.
No matter how many times I asked my attorneys to seek reimbursement for things like mediation, since I wasn’t the party who drove us out of settlement and into mediation, it never happened.
So my suggestion is, if you can, look for and retain a bulldog. It’s worth the investment of time and money, even if you have to pay for several consultations to land just the right lawyer. Having trust in the professional you retain could well make a big difference in your case, even if that just means one less stressor added to your plate during what is already a difficult time.
The wheels of the system of justice can move very slowly, especially when dealing with an abuser. I personally believe that my abuser had no motivation for making it move any more quickly. After all, he had us right where he wanted us – not knowing when he’d just show up at a window or door in the dark.
All of that time usually adds up to increased stress and heightened emotion for the target of abuse, causing distraction and lack of focus on things such as finances. I was so concerned with getting counseling for our child and for me (which was more money down the drain that was not reimubursed and generally without gain) and our future (Where would we live? Would she attend school?) that those finances were draining away without as much attention as I wish now I had given them. I spent time – much time – on them, but the billing structure designed into attorneys’ services doesn’t come with coupons and savings incentives.
Because law firms typically bill after the work is done, the client has virtually no control over how high the bill can go month to month. Time spent behind the scenes preparing for court, filing legal documents, reading and responding to motions, phone calls with the other party’s attorney, etc. can all add up quickly, especially if you have settlement or mediation meetings as well as courtroom time.
In my case, it wavered between $200 an hour for my attorney up to $400 for the head of the law firm, who felt that my case was complicated enough that he should be involved.
So for the $30,000 my attorneys billed me for over the six-month period from when my husband left in October 2014 until we made it to the final hearing before the judge in May 2015, my husband reimbursed me for our child a grand total of $150. That was a very bad return on my investment, and I made sure my attorneys heard about it. I wrote a final letter disputing their final bill ($3,000 US), which they dropped after I sent them a very long and detailed list of grievances.
Since this is a business relationship, you have every right to ask up front what this will cost – even if just a ballpark figure. That way, you can decide whether or not it is worth retaining this attorney or firm or not. Also, as you work through the days, weeks, and likely months (if not years) of your case, you can keep tabs on how close you are to meeting that figure they set. However, abusers have a knack of dragging out the legal case with innumerable red herrings and side-tracks and delays, so the attorney’s initial estimate of your costs may not be anything close to what the final cost is.
Before the case is concluded, you can also try asking them to bill you for the services they have rendered you thus far. An interim bill will give you some idea of what their charges mean in actual practice. And if you have kept a record of the phone call duration times and of each consultation you have had with them, you may be able to assess whether they are billing you only and truly for what they have done for you.
In some cases, attorneys have been known to set a fee for the entire case, although I have heard of cases that even once that was done – the attorneys informed their client that additional fees would have to be added due to the ongoing nature of the case (which is more likely than not when dealing with an abusive, self-centered egomaniac). I’ve also heard clients lamenting how their attorneys hired with a flat fee didn’t work as diligently due to lack of financial incentive.
The point of all that detail is that until you know how your attorney is going to handle things, it’s cost-efficient for you to try to discern or flesh out up front exactly what your attorney intends to seek for your benefit and how he or she proposes to go about it. I wish I had asked more questions up front before retaining the law firm that I did.
Next up: “Unholy Mediation” (shudder)
Posts in this series
Part 1: Is this post.