Litigation vs. Negotiation – Which Path Is the Right One for You?

Chris RobertsChris Roberts, Principal

Most of us have seen one of those dramatic courtroom movies that glamourize the court process – perhaps Tom Cruise’s fiery cross-examination of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, or Gregory Peck’s moving closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird

But litigation, the contested court process by which parties resolve their differences, is nothing like the process we see in our favorite legal thrillers. It is a long, slow, and expensive process. Many people consider it the most painful, difficult process of their lives.

What does the process entail?

Unless the parties can resolve the disputed issues in advance of trial, litigation usually culminates in a bench trial, where a single judge considers the evidence and arguments presented, and issues a ruling. 

The process typically begins with a scheduling hearing, where the case is scheduled in calendar-like fashion, including deadlines for the completion of the discovery process, perhaps a date by which the parties must participate in mediation or another alternative dispute resolution process, and a trial date.

Depending on the jurisdiction, the process can take a year or longer. And it is invasive. Discovery alone can include dozens of document requests, written questions that must be answered under oath, and potentially depositions of the parties, which in Maryland can last as long as seven hours straight.

At trial, each party presents his or her evidence, including witness testimony and the introduction of documents. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge renders a ruling and, ultimately, a divorce decree.

So why would anyone subject themselves to this?

You might be thinking, “This process sounds terrible, why would anyone subject themselves to this?”

For one, it guarantees an end to the process. If your spouse or co-parent is unwilling to engage in an alternative process to resolve your issues, litigation might be your only option. The court process may be slow, but it moves predictably and inexorably to a final result, after which you can go on with your life.

In some cases, there are issues on which the parties truly cannot reach agreement. In the child custody realm, this could include child support, a parent’s relocation, mental health or substance abuse issues, or physical or psychological abuse of a child. In a financial context, there may be a dispute about alimony, a party’s actual income, the value of a party’s business, or whether a party’s trust interest or inheritance should be considered in the resolution of financial issues.

What are the alternatives?

Parties are always free to resolve their issues without resorting to a contested court process.

There are a number of alternative dispute resolution tools. Some of the more common approaches include:

  • A traditional negotiation involving attorneys, where parties develop settlement offers with the assistance of their counsel, who then negotiate on behalf of their clients to resolve the issues
  • Mediation, a voluntary process where the parties meet with each other and a neutral, third-party mediator, often with counsel present or advising them
  • Arbitration, in which a third-party decision-maker considers a presentation of evidence and argument from each party and renders a binding decision

All of these approaches are generally less expensive and quicker than the litigation process. And this is not an exhaustive list of the out-of-court approaches available to people to resolve their divorce or child custody issues.

Which process is right for me?

In almost all divorces, parties are well served in the early stages to consider an out-of-court process.

Which process will work best for you depends on a multitude of factors, including the dynamic between you and your spouse or co-parent, the substantive issues in the case, the financial issues and wherewithal of one or both parties, any external time pressures that might be involved, and the professionals assisting the parties.

Do I have to pick just one process?

No. Typically, it makes sense to stick to one out-of-court process at a time, and hopefully your first attempt at alternative dispute resolution does the trick. But if not, you can always move to another process, including litigation.

It is important to understand that you can continue in a non-litigation process at the same time a litigation is pending. In fact, courts encourage these continued efforts to resolve the issues out-of-court, even as the court process unfolds. Think of negotiation and litigation as running on parallel tracks. They are separate and distinct processes, but they are connected, and one process often can impact another, ideally in a way that benefits your position and hastens resolution.

Preparing to Appear Before a Court When You Are Remote

Liz EstephanLiz Estephan, Attorney

Appearing before a judge during COVID-19 when courts are taking certain precautions to avoid in-person hearings can be a source of additional stress and apprehension.

As a client or self-represented litigant, how do you prepare when you’re going to appear in court via telephone or video? The same way you would as if you were appearing in-person.

You should discuss with your attorney the specific hearing that you are attending remotely to determine your role and how much speaking you will do. For example, your attorney will do the majority of speaking during a scheduling hearing in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. However, if you are attending an uncontested divorce hearing and you are the plaintiff, you will be required to answer certain questions.

Other items to consider include:

  • If you have questions, ask your attorney in advance because you are not going to be able to pick-up on bodily cues or whisper questions to your attorney during the hearing.
  • It’s very important that if you are going to appear via video with a judge or magistrate, dress professionally. Keep in mind that you may still need to stand when the judge enters and departs the courtroom, even remotely, this means wearing at a minimum, professional clothing.
  • If an attorney represents you, you should not chime into the conversation with counsel, the judge, or magistrate unprompted. Allow your attorney to answer questions on your behalf, as you would if you were physically in court.
  • If your attorney, the judge or magistrate asks you a specific question, you are free to respond.
  • Whether you are attending a hearing by telephone or video, make sure to be in a quiet place. If you are appearing by video, make sure there is nothing inappropriate or distracting in your background.

Remember, you should prepare to appear in court by telephone or video as you would if you were appearing in-person. A more informal environment does not mean your dress or decorum should be informal as well.

How to Manage Stress During Your Divorce

AvatarDonna E. Van Scoy, Principal

Few events in life pack a bigger emotional gut punch than separation or divorce.

Before, during, and after the legal process, you should expect to experience denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before you can move on to acceptance. These are normal emotions, and can be true even if both parties agree to the divorce. The grief surrounding a divorce and separation will be different for each person – some experience the full emotional spectrum while others only a piece of it. It is imperative during this time to educate yourself and practice self-care. It will be key to allowing you to successfully move forward with your life. 

Here are five things to remember and consider as you contemplate, begin, and complete your divorce:

1. Accept the Stress. Be honest with yourself. If you are dealing with a life event, such as divorce, stress is part of the process. An important first step is to acknowledge the stress.

2. Seek the Advice of Professionals. Securing an attorney will assist you in understanding the process and the law. Educating yourself about the process and the law will help to reduce your stress. It is important to be comfortable with your attorney. Be sure to be completely honest with your attorney. The attorney can only advise you based on the information you provide. 

An attorney is not a therapist. While they understand what you are dealing with emotionally, their job is to represent you legally. While not everyone needs a therapist during a life event, it is wise to do a check-in with a therapist to determine, with their help, whether a therapist should play a role in your stress management. Having someone to share your truths, concerns, and fears with that is not a friend or family member is often beneficial. Your attorney can help you locate a suitable therapist in your price range. 

3. Identify and Use Support. In addition to the professionals, identify a friend and family member who can and will listen to your day to day struggles. Be careful to avoid sharing the details of your divorce with everyone. Do not discuss your divorce with your children, even if they are grown. 

Speak to your therapist, family, friends, or do a computer search to find a local support group. It can be very helpful to share your story with others in the same situation. It is also useful to listen to others going through a separation and divorce.

4. Exercise Self-care. Each person has their own favorite activities or hobbies. It is important to allow time for yourself. Exercise, sleep, and eating well will be important. Go to the spa, go to the gym, or get a massage. Take a break to go fishing, golfing, or antiquing. Read a book, watch a movie or take photographs. Or try yoga. 

There are several ways to practice self-care. Caring for yourself will be critical. Set aside regular time and use it to relax in whatever way works for you.

5. There Will be Bad Days and Good Days. During this process you will experience both bad days and good days. In the beginning, the bad days will outnumber the good days. Some periods of time will be worse than others. Like the stress itself, acknowledge and accept the bad days. Using the steps above will lead to the good days starting to outnumber the bad days.

The separation process will come to an end. A resolution will occur. You will be divorced.  Most importantly, you will move forward.  

Facebook and Divorce: Can You Delete Your Account?

AvatarCasey Florance, Principal

Social media accounts, including Facebook, have become an almost universal way for people to stay connected with friends and family, to share updates about their lives, and to catch up on news and events.

According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, around seven in 10 – or 69% – of adults in the United States use Facebook. Platforms like Facebook can help foster a sense of community and social engagement – especially during stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But people also have a tendency to overshare, or to share an inaccurate version of themselves or their lives – only putting their BEST foot forward online. 

If you are considering separation or divorce, it is important to understand what your obligations are regarding any online content you have generated on Facebook, and how those obligations might impact you during the divorce process. Your online footprint (as well as your spouse’s) can be a helpful tool in your divorce case, or it could be used against you. Either way, you will want to have developed a clear strategy with your attorney regarding your Facebook content.

Here are a few simple rules that I would want any potential client to keep in mind:  

Rule #1: Do not hit delete. Your Facebook page, and any content, posts, messages, or anything else you have posted or shared on Facebook, may all be relevant and discoverable information during your divorce process (meaning, the other side may request this information through discovery and if so, you have an obligation to provide it). In Maryland, a party to litigation has an obligation to preserve relevant evidence, not just once litigation has begun but as soon as it seems that litigation might occur. To steer clear of possible credibility issues later in your case – or worse, sanctions for destroying relevant evidence – the best practice is to keep all social media information in tact from the moment you begin considering divorce. This does not mean you have to continue posting or creating new content, but if you do so, then you should save that as well. 

Rule #2: Never put anything in writing you wouldn’t want a Judge to read one day. This includes any posting on social media (whether made “publicly” or “privately”), as well as “private” or “direct” communications with third parties through the messenger features of any social media platform. 

Rule #3: Preserve everything that may be relevant to your divorce.  Although this seems synonymous with the rule about not affirmatively deleting anything, the obligation to preserve relevant evidence actually extends beyond what you yourself control.  You also have an obligation to let employers, friends, family members, business partners, or anyone else who may have documents in their possession that are relevant to your divorce that they have an obligation to preserve and maintain those documents. Similar to your own obligation, this also includes online data, such as social media posts and messages.

Rule #4: Talk to your attorney before you take any action.  The obligation to preserve relevant information does not necessarily mean that such information must remain “public” on your Facebook page.  Under certain circumstances, you may even be able to delete information off of Facebook, or even your entire account, so long as you maintain copies of everything that was once available.

Earlier this year, Facebook announced a new feature that enables “bulk” deleting of posts from a user’s page, making it easier than ever for people to run afoul of preservation requirements. It is always advisable to discuss with your attorney before you take any action, particularly since the sanctions for destroying relevant evidence can be severe. Working closely with your attorney to understand what your obligations are while also developing a strategy to address your concerns, will put you in the best position to be successful in your divorce matter.  

Welcome to Your Source for Divorce Law

The Divorce/Family Law Group at Lerch, Early & Brewer is proud to present our new Divorce Law Source blog.

In an age where Google searches and web browsing are the go-to for most people to find information about everything, we are thrilled to provide an easily accessible one-stop shop for all things family law and divorce.

Featuring content authored by each of our accomplished and skilled family law attorneys, we encourage you to use this forum to find the answers to commonly asked legal and practical questions our clients confront pre- and post-divorce, review explanations and analyses of pertinent legal concepts and principles, and receive updates on new practices, rules, laws, and the family court system in Maryland and D.C. We will be featuring new posts and content each week. We look forward to welcoming many regular followers and invite you to recommend desired topics for future posts. Please subscribe to the blog on the right-hand side of this page.

Lerch Early’s family law attorneys represent clients in every facet of family law including divorce, custody, child support, alimony, property division, modifications of custody, child support, and alimony, prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, litigation, divorce and custody settlement agreements and alternative dispute resolution, guardianship, and adoption. For more information, please check out our website.

We hope to see you soon on our blog!

In Health,

Heather Collier and Erik Arena
Co-chairs, Divorce/Family Law Group