How to Pick a Divorce Lawyer

Do you LOVE your divorce lawyer? Be honest – because most people really don’t. But think about it: Your divorce lawyer is someone with whom you are going to be spending a LOT of time over the next few months to a year (or more, if there’s a lot of contention between you and the Mr. or Mrs.). And this person will, by the time it’s all said and done, know all of the most intimate details of your life – personal, romantic, financial, maybe even religious, if there are kids involved. This is the person who will help you figure out what you’re entitled to – and what your spouse is. This is the person who will help shape your relationship with your KIDS, by advocating for you, drafting motions and pleadings, negotiating with Hubby or Wifey. So take your time, ask questions, do your homework, sit down with an attorney that you’re considering hiring, and grill them. Get to know him or her. Interview him or her thoroughly – because after all, no matter what your job is, I can guarantee you’ll never hire for a position more important than your divorce attorney. (Shameless plug: FREE CONSULTATIONS! If you’re considering a split, give me a call. Come in and meet me. Put me on the spot. Because I want to be the divorce lawyer YOU LOVE.)

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2013 Holidays and the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines (OLD AND NEW)

Confused about holiday parenting time? Here’s a breakdown of Thanksgiving and winter break under both the OLD and NEW Parenting Time Guidelines. This guide uses Carmel Clay Schools winter break (Dec. 20 – Jan. 6), so if your school follows a different schedule, adjust accordingly. Happy holidays!

Do the Guidelines apply in my case?

The Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines outline the “default” parenting time schedule for parents who are raising their children separately, either because of divorce or because they were never married in the first place.  The Guidelines are often used by judges and lawyers as a starting point for an order, or to fill in parenting time provisions where parents don’t have an agreement.  ALWAYS check your particular court order or court-approve agreement to determine if the PTG apply to your case.  If your Order or Agreement provides something different than what the Guidelines say, always follow your agreement.

Which Guidelines apply – the Old Guidelines or the New Guidelines?

There are two different versions of the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines – the “old” version and the “new” version.  The old PTG were in effect until March 1 of 2013, when the new ones took over.  Therefore, if your order or agreement was entered prior to March 1, 2013, then you will follow the old PTG (unless your agreement or order states that you follow whatever PTG are in effect at any given time).  If your order or agreement was entered March 1, 2013 or later, then you would fall under the new PTG.

Holidays and the OLD Parenting Time Guidelines

From the OLD PTG: 

Christmas Vacation. One-half of the period which will begin at 8:00 P.M. on the evening the child is released from school and continues to December 30 at 7:00 P.M. If the parents cannot agree on the division of this period, the custodial parent shall have the first half in even-numbered years. In those years when Christmas does not fall in a parent’s week, that parent shall have the child from Noon to 9:00 P.M. on Christmas Day. The winter vacation period shall apply to pre-school children and shall be determined by the vacation period of the public grade school in the custodial parent’s school district.  In years ending with an even number, the non-custodial parent shall exercise the following parenting time: [1] New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. (The date of the new year will determine odd or even year). From December 30th at 7:00 P.M to 7:00 P.M. of the evening before school resumes. [4] Thanksgiving. From 6:00 P.M. on Wednesday until 7:00 P.M. on Sunday.

So what does it mean?

THANKSGIVING: Custodial parent gets Thanksgiving Break in 2013. 

WINTER BREAK:  The kids are with non-custodial parent from December 20 at 8:00 pm, until December 25 at noon. Then custodial parent has the children from noon on Christmas Day until 7:00 pm December 30. The kids are back with non-custodial parent from 7:00 pm December 30 until the night before school resumes, January 5 at 7:00 pm.

Holidays and the NEW Parenting Time Guidelines

From the NEW PTG: 

The Christmas vacation shall be defined as beginning on the last day of school and ending the last day before school begins again. Absent agreement of the parties, the first half of the period will begin two hours after the child is released from school. The second half of the period will end at 6:00 p.m. on the day before school begins again.  Each party will receive one half (1/2) of the total days of the Christmas vacation, on an alternating basis as follows: 

  1. In even numbered years, the custodial parent shall have the first one half (1/2) of the Christmas vacation and non-custodial parent shall have the second one half (1/2) of the Christmas vacation.  
  2. In odd numbered years, the non-custodial parent shall have the first one half (1/2) of the Christmas vacation and custodial parent shall have the second one half (1/2) of the Christmas vacation.  
  3. In those years when Christmas does not fall in a parent’s week, that parent shall have the child from Noon to 9:00 P.M. on Christmas Day.  
  4. No exchanges under this portion of the rule shall occur after 9:00 p.m. and before 8:00 a.m., absent agreement of the parties. 
  5. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day shall not be considered separate holidays under the Parenting Time Guidelines.  Thanksgiving. From 6:00 P.M. on Wednesday until 7:00 P.M. on Sunday, shall be exercised by the noncustodial parent in even numbered years and the custodial parent in odd numbered years.

So what does it mean?

THANKSGIVING:  Custodial parent gets the 2013 Thanksgiving Break. 

WINTER BREAK:  The kids are with the non-custodial parent from December 20 through December 28, except that the custodial parent gets the children on Christmas Day from noon to 9:00 pm. Custodial parent gets the children December 28 through when the children go back to school. 

To Sum it Up:

Holidays can be a busy, stressful, emotional time under the best of circumstances.  Adding a confusing parenting time situation with an ex who, shall we say, lacks the Christmas spirit, can be an outright mess.  While you can’t control what Scrooge does, you ARE in charge of your own behavior, so remember to put your kids’ needs first this holiday season.  Be as flexible, reasonable, and respectful as you can with your children’s other parent – it’s the best gift you can give your kids, and it’ll keep you from getting a lump of coal in your stocking.  If the other parent refuses to follow the court order or court-approved agreement about parenting time or anything else this holiday season, keep your cool and call your lawyer.  He or she can talk you through what your options are – it may be possible to schedule make-up parenting time or even file a contempt action against the other parent and pursue sanctions, possibly including attorney’s fees.

Hang in there, and remember the reason for the season – whatever that means to you.  Have a very happy, safe, and peaceful holiday season!

Grandparents’ Visitation Rights in Indiana

Grandparents’ rights is something of a hot topic in Indiana right now.  We do have a statute (I.C. 31-17-5) governing grandparents’ visitation rights, but it’s quite old and, many would argue, out of date.  The statute provides for grandparents to seek visitation in three circumstances: where the child’s parents are deceased, the child’s parents are divorced, or the child was born out of wedlock.  If, therefore, the two parents are married, or if the single parent is allowing the grandparents ANY contact with the child at all (however minimal), the grandparents will not have grounds to petition the court for visitation.

The statute has remained unchanged while the courts have issued a number of opinions over the years that limit the rights of grandparents.  Meanwhile, members of the Indiana General Assembly have been working on bills that would potentially expand grandparents’ rights.

A US Supreme Court case, Troxel v. Granville (2000) served to significantly limit the rights of grandparents.  Prior to the case, in some jurisdictions anyone could petition for visitation of a child, and the court was free to grant the petition as long as the best interests of the child would be served by such an order.  But in Troxel, the Court hammered on the presumption that fit parents act in the best interest of their children – so as long as the parents are fit, the State should not challenge the parents’ decisions regarding the children.  The Troxel decision has had a huge effect on visitation rights everywhere – including right here in our backyard.  Decisions issued by Indiana courts post-Troxel have “taken the teeth” out of our visitation statute, making it much harder for grandparents to win visitation rights in court.

As I mentioned, the General Assembly has introduced a number of bills that would expand grandparents’ rights – expanding grandparents’ rights to great-grandparents, for example, or attempting to give grandparents rights where the parents are still married to one another.  But none of these bills has been signed into law.  And there is significant opposition to any expansion of grandparents’ rights – from attorneys, some lawmakers, and advocacy groups who are concerned that expanding GP rights might be harmful to children, since simply becoming a grandparent does not change a person into a “cookie-baking, kind-hearted individual”, since some GPs may not be good role models, and since interference with the parenting decisions of Mom and Dad (or Mom, or Dad, or Mom and Mom, or Dad and Dad…) could be confusing and harmful to the child.  In addition, since fit parents have a constitutionally-protected right to raise their children as they see fit, any new legislation will have to treat carefully to avoid being struck down by the courts on constitutional grounds.

Post-Troxel, there are a number of issues left to be resolved by the lower courts.  What must a grandparent prove to rebut the presumption that a parent’s decision to limit or deny GP visitation is in the child’s best interest?  And by what standard must the argument be proved – the lower “preponderance” standard, or the more rigorous “clear and convincing evidence” standard, or something else?  And what procedural thresholds must be cleared before litigation is an option?  After all, litigation is almost never good for families – it is stressful, expensive, and can create a lot of bitterness that makes functioning together for the good of the child very difficult down the line.

If you are facing a grandparents’ rights issue in your family, don’t navigate it alone.  These issues are, as I described above, very complex, thorny, and difficult emotionally and legally.  Consult with a family law attorney in your neck of the woods for a thorough review of your rights, options, and chances of success going forward.

Best of luck, and thank you for stopping by.

Kate Flood

Flood Family Law, LLC

Indianapolis divorce attorney

 

Changes to the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines

The Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines – anyone who’s been divorced, who’s in the middle of a divorce or separation, or who has had a child with an unmarried partner is all too familiar with the schedules, rules, and expectations set forth by the IPTG.

But did you know that the PTG underwent some significant changes earlier this year?  Effective March 1, the revised PTG are in effect.  You can find them here: http://www.in.gov/judiciary/files/order-rules-2013-0107-parenting.pdf.

1. Applicability: The new PTG apply ONLY to parenting time orders issued AFTER March 1, 2013.  So if your order, agreement, or decree became effective before that date, you are generally still under the old PTG.  The new PTG won’t apply retroactively unless there is language in your order, agreement or decree that says it will.

2. Annual Schedule: The new PTG is written to encourage parents to come up with a year-round schedule that works for both parents and the child(ren) to reduce the chance for conflict throughout the year.

3. Findings: When the court decides to give a noncustodial parent MORE than PTG parenting time, the judge can do so, and does not need to enter a written explanation.  But if the judge decides to give a noncustodial parent LESS than PTG parenting time, he/she must provide written findings of fact to support his decision.

4. Email: Parents are now expected to provide each other with an accurate email address, in addition to telephone number and address, to allow them to keep in contact with one another.

5. Communication with the Child: The new PTG emphasizes the importance of the child being in communication with one parent during the other parent’s parenting time.  Each parent is expected to facilitate communication between the child and the other parent.

6. Punctual exchanges: The importance of punctuality in parenting time exchanges is emphasized; a new feature of the new PTG is that delays trigger make-up parenting time to occur at the convenience of the parent not responsible for the delay.  See Section I(B)(2).

7. Opportunities for Additional Parenting Time: Formerly referred to as the “right of first refusal,” the “opportunity for additional parenting time” language in this section brings in a principle established in a 2006 Indiana Supreme Court case, Shelton v. Shelton.  The opportunity for additional parenting time is NOT triggered when a responsible household family member – meaning “an adult person residing in the household, who is related to the child by blood, marriage, or adoption” – is caring for the child.

8. Medical Instructions: Per Section I(D)(4), medical instructions relating to the child must be followed by the non-custodial parent.

9. Young Children: For infants and very young children, the new PTG adds language recommending overnight visits with the non-custodial parent only when he or she has previously exercised “regular care responsibilities.”  See Section II(B).

10. Summer Parenting Time: The date for the non-custodial parent to notify the other parent of his/her selections for summer parenting time has not changed – it’s still April 1.  But now the notice should be given both verbally AND in writing.  In addition, any employer-imposed restrictions on parenting time should be taken into consideration by both parties when establishing the summer parenting time schedule.  See Section II(D)(3).  And there is also new language for children enrolled in “balanced calendar” or year-round schools, requiring parents to equally divide spring and fall breaks.

11. Regular Parenting Time vs. Holiday Parenting Time: The interplay between regular alternating weekends and holidat parenting time has been clarified: holiday parenting time takes precedence over alternating weekends, of course (that’s not a change), but the “tempo” of alternating weekends doesn’t change.  This means parents don’t “flip” weekends just because a holiday got in the way.  The upshot is, either parent may end up with 3 weekends in a row due to a holiday.  No make-up time is given for that time, because the calendar should balance itself back out over the next few holidays.

12. New Year’s Eve/Day No Longer “Holidays”: New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day have been removed from the list of holidays.  To make winter break parenting time simpler, they are now just part of the regular winter break allocation.  See Section II(F)(2)(B).

13. Birthdays are Trumped by Holidays: Children’s birthdays and parents’ birthdays still count as “special days,” but if there is a conflict between a birthday and a holiday, other special day, or winter break, the birthday does not take precedence.  See Section II(F)(2)(A)(5).

14. Winter Break: There are slight revisions to the exact time winter break starts and ends, but the general concept is still that one parent gets the first half of winter break and the other gets the second half.  In addition, whichever parent would otherwise not have Christmas Day with the child will have the child from noon to 9pm on that day.  See Section II(F)(2)(B).

15. MLK Day and Presidents’ Day Weekends Added: MLK Jr. Weekend and Presidents’ Day Weekend are now considered holidays, if they are observed by the child’s school.  If they are, then the holiday goes from Friday at 6pm until Monday at 7pm.  See Section II(F)(2)(C).

16. Fall Break Added as a Holiday Weekend: See Section II(F)(2)(C) – Fall Break is now an alternating holiday weekend, beginning 2 hours after the child gets out of school, and going until 7pm the evening before the child goes back to school.

17. Holiday Schedule Expressly Alternates: The new PTG clarifies that the holiday schedule alternates between custodial and non-custodial parents each year.  See Section II(F)(2)(C).  (Previously, the PTG only allocated certain holidays to the noncustodial parent in certain years, leaving it unclear whether the custodial parent got those holidays in the noncustodial parent’s “off” years or whether the regular parenting time schedule was to be maintained.)

18. Parallel Parenting: This is a brand-new section added to the PTG this year.  Parallel parenting is only for cases of extreme conflict between the parents – like cases where there has been serious domestic abuse between the parents, for example.  It is designed to minimize the need for parents to communicate with one another, and communication is encouraged to be in writing only, except in true emergencies.  Basically, when Parent A has the child, Parent A parents as he or she sees fit during his/her parenting time.  And when Parent B has the child, Parent B parents as he or she sees fit.  They do not coordinate or interfere with one another’s parenting.  Situations where Parallel Parenting is appropriate are very few and far between, and if the court allows a family to engage in Parallel Parenting, the court will require a mandatory review every 180 days to determine whether it would be appropriate to transition to another parenting plan.

I hope this has been helpful in navigating the complex world of custody and parenting time.  Remember, unless the court has ordered you to follow them, the PTG are just guidelines meant to help parents and/or the court come up with a parenting plan that works for that family.  And unless your court order says otherwise, you’re always free to deviate from the Guidelines by agreement with the other party (but if you do, make sure you get it in writing so there are no questions later).

Hat tip to Michael Kohlhaas for his July 17 article in the Indiana Lawyer.

Best regards,

Kate Flood

Indianapolis divorce and custody lawyer

“Signing away” your rights to a child

There seems to be an idea floating around out there that if a parent desires neither to pay child support nor to have a relationship with his or her child, he or she can simply “sign away” his or her rights to the child – wash his or her hands of the child entirely and be done with any rights and/or responsibilities he or she would otherwise have as a parent.

Not so fast.

In a recent decision by the Indiana Court of Appeals, the Court was not amused by such kind of arrangements.  “The concept of parents negotiating away parenting time as a means to eliminate the obligation to pay child support is repugnant and contrary to public policy.”  The Court went on to add that “It is incomprehensible to this Court to imagine that either parent would ever stipulate to give up parenting time in lieu of not paying support.  Just as allowing an agreement to contract away a child’s right to support must be held void, an agreement to contract away a child’s right to parenting time, where the presumption that such parenting time is in the child’s best interest has not been defeated, must also be held void as a matter of public policy.  Every child deserves better than to be treated as nothing more than a bargaining chip.”

If you find yourself in a situation where “signing away” rights to a child – either yours or the other parent’s – seems like a good option, you will discover that the Courts are not going to be friendly to that point of view.  There are many tools that we CAN use to come up with a parenting time arrangement and child support obligation that may be satisfactory to you, while also passing muster with the Court, but I would recommend in situations like these that you hire a competent family law practitioner to guide you on this path.

Best of luck,

 

Kate Flood

Indianapolis divorce lawyer

A Brief Primer on Spousal Maintenance in Indiana

Okay, so you want to file for divorce in Indiana.  You’ve gone online to figure out your estimated child support (https://mycourts.in.gov/csc/parents/), you have dutifully completed your required financial disclosure (http://www.indy.gov/eGov/County/Clerk/Forms/Documents/Marion%20County_Finanacial_Declaration_Form.pdf), and you have checked out the self-service legal center to get the forms you think you will need (http://www.in.gov/judiciary/selfservice/2350.htm), and you have watched the video about representing yourself in court (http://www.in.gov/judiciary/selfservice/2361.htm).  And if you’re really smart, you’ve called a lawyer or two for a consultation just to make sure you’ve covered your bases and you know what you’re getting into.  But have you done your spousal maintenance homework?

Spousal maintenance, aka alimony, aka spousal support, is alive and kicking in Indiana – and in some cases, you could be on the hook forever.  So it’s important to do your homework before you file for divorce, so there are no crazy surprises when your divorce is finalized.  This is particularly true because, unlike child support, spousal maintenance obligations can be extremely difficult (and expensive) to modify – if they can even be modified at all.  And unlike child support (or your marriage!), they can last forever.  (For a lively discussion of this point, check out this article: http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/daily-ticker/end-permanent-alimony-forever-opponents-122909755.html).

Let’s take a closer look at spousal maintenance in Indiana:

What is spousal maintenance?

Spousal maintenance is an obligation to pay a certain amount of money to your ex, or soon to be ex, that is usually paid monthly, weekly, or every pay period, and is typically (but not always) for a defined period of time.  And the person receiving the money is entitled to use it however he or she sees fit – whether he or she needs it or not.  There’s generally no obligation for the recipient to account for how the money is spent, so you very well might end up footing the bill for your ex to wine and dine his or her next Romeo or Juliet.  Something to think about.

When can spousal maintenance be ordered?

Spousal maintenance is governed by Indiana Code Section 31-15-7.  Under that statute, maintenance can be ordered during a period of legal separation, during the pendency of a divorce (the time period between filing the petition for dissolution and when the divorce is actually finalized), or at the final dissolution.  

The judge has the authority to order spousal maintenance in three circumstances:

1. If your spouse is disabled (physically or mentally) and, consequently her ability to support herself is materially affected.  This is called disability maintenance.  Note that your spouse doesn’t have to be completely unable to work – if she can only work part-time, or is otherwise unable to earn what she would be able to make if she were not disabled, the judge can order spousal maintenance.  Most of the time, it’s harder to convince the judge to order spousal maintenance for mental impairments than it is for physical ones, and generally the person seeking the maintenance will have to show some strong proof that she needs it.  But if the judge does award maintenance in this situation, the maintenance can be for any length of time the judge sees fit, for a temporary period of time or for forever.  In some cases, you could still be paying maintenance even if your ex remarries.

2. If your spouse has custody of a child who is disabled, and because of having to care for the child, your ex’s ability to support herself is materially affected.  This is called caregiver maintenance, and like disability maintenance, it can be temporary or permanent.

3. If the court determines that, because of her education level, her job history, or some other reason, your spouse needs a little extra help getting back on her feet, the judge can order rehabilitative maintenance.  This form of maintenance can be for no more than three years, and is most often awarded where one party has been the homemaker while the other party was the breadwinner and, because she has been out of the workforce for a significant period of time during the marriage, she needs additional training, education, or simply more time to find a job to support herself.  Sometimes this can be tied to a specific thing – like, you could be required to pay for your spouse to finish her college degree, or take a certification course.  Sometimes it’s just a weekly, monthly, or other periodic payment to help her get back on her feet.  This is the only kind of court-ordered maintenance that is specifically limited in the statute to a certain period of time – no more than three years.

Even if the judge does not order spousal maintenance, spousal maintenance can still be imposed by agreement.  This means that you and your spouse can negotiate over, and eventually agree upon, a spousal maintenance obligation, during the settlement process.  If you agree to pay spousal maintenance and the judge approves your agreement, that obligation is enforced the same way a court order is enforced – through the contempt process.

Can spousal maintenance be modified or terminated?

Maybe.  If the maintenance was imposed by court order, for one of the three reasons above, then it can be modified or revoked if a substantial change in circumstances has made the obligation unreasonable.  So if your ex-Mrs. marries some rich guy, or your business goes under and you go from six figures to food stamps, you may be able to get the order modified.  It’s a difficult process, however, and the burden of proof will be on you to prove that things have changed and now the obligation is unreasonable.

If it was imposed by agreement rather than by court order, though, you will face a number of hurdles if you try to modify your obligation.  The court only has the authority to modify the obligation if the court would have had the authority to impose it in the first place – so if you are considering agreeing to pay maintenance because your spouse is disabled, caring for a disabled child, or needs temporary assistance getting back on her feet, you’d better make sure that’s spelled out in your settlement agreement.  Otherwise the court will not be able to modify the maintenance obligation at all.  Also, if it appears that the payments were really part of the property settlement (like you agreed to pay her maintenance for 10 years in exchange for her keeping her hands off your pension), you will not be able to modify that maintenance.  

To put a finer point on this: There was a recent Indiana case where Husband had agreed, over 10 years ago, to pay spousal maintenance to his wife until death.  At the time, he was making six figures, and she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and was unable to work.  Husband faithfully paid the maintenance for over a decade, rain or shine, even though both he and Wife eventually remarried other partners.  When Husband was forced to take an early retirement for medical reasons, his income was reduced to a fraction of what it once was.  He petitioned the court to modify the maintenance.  The problem: Nothing in the record indicated that he’d agreed to pay the maintenance on the basis of Wife’s medical condition.  I’ll spare you all of the nitty-gritty, but the upshot was that the court did not allow Husband to modify the maintenance, even though Wife’s financial situation was significantly better than his own, so he is still on the hook for $500 a month.  Meanwhile, he has had to drain his savings, has gotten behind on his bills, and is truly in dire financial straits.  Moral of the story: No matter how guilty you feel about the divorce, no matter how much you still feel responsible to take care of your soon-to-be ex, talk to a lawyer before you agree to pay spousal maintenance – or before you head into that final hearing, especially if your spouse is disabled or has a disabled child.  There is a time and a place for spousal maintenance, but make sure you completely understand what you’re getting into before you’re saddled with an obligation you may be paying for the rest of your life.

As always, if you have a question, feel free to leave it here, send an email to me at kflood@floodfamilylaw.com, or call me for a free consultation at 317-460-8969.  Thanks for reading!

Indiana Divorce 101

Whenever I get a phone call from someone looking for a divorce lawyer, I almost always walk them through “Divorce 101” – a basic primer on the nuts and bolts of divorce in Indiana.  (Shameless plug: Free same-day consultations – call us!  317-460-8969.)  There are some basic facts and key terminology that you need to know if you are thinking about getting a divorce in Indiana.

Basically, the process looks like this:

1. Consult with an attorney.  I highly recommend you speak with a lawyer before doing anything else, even if you will be filing your divorce yourself.  Divorce is a big deal, and it’s not something to rush into headlong without some foresight, planning, and a bit of expert advice.

2. Filing.  If you decide to hire a lawyer, she will prepare a number of documents for you, which will be filed with the court to get the process going.  These documents include her Appearance, a Summons, and a Petition for Dissolution.  

  • Appearance: The document by which the attorney informs the court, and your spouse, that she is formally representing you.  Once the Appearance is filed, the court will communicate directly with your lawyer.  Also, if your spouse has a lawyer too, he or she will no longer be permitted to speak with you directly – he or she will have to go through your lawyer instead (to protect you from getting talked into things, or simply harassed by your spouse’s attorney).
  • Summons: The document which formally informs your spouse that he or she is being sued for divorce.  The Summons will provide all of the important information about what the lawsuit is over, who the parties are, what court the suit is in, what could happen if your spouse doesn’t show up for a hearing, etc.
  • Petition: This is the document that actually asks the court to do something – in a divorce case, you are asking the court to dissolve your marriage, which is why the formal name for divorce is dissolution.  In some states, the Petition has to state that your spouse did something wrong in order for the court to let you get divorced.  But in Indiana, we are a “no fault divorce” state, which just means that all you have to tell the court is that the marriage didn’t work out and can’t be saved.  The legalese term for this is irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.  The Petition will also tell the court whether you and your spouse have children, and if so, where they are living and how old they are.  And it will tell the court whether the wife is currently pregnant (if so, typically the court will not permit the divorce to be finalized until after the baby is born, for reasons that mostly have to do with paternity), and whether either spouse is currently deployed on a military tour of duty.  The Petition will typically request a provisional hearing as well – but more on this later.

Typically, the date that these documents are filed with the court is your date of separation, but sometimes the date of separation can be an earlier date if, for example, the two of you have been living apart for a few months.  The date of separation is very important, because in Indiana, if you have been married for more than a few years, generally all of your assets and debts will be “commingled” with your spouse’s – meaning that all that you own, and all that you owe, goes into one big pot called the marital estate, which will be divided when your divorce is finalized.  The reason the date of separation matters is because everything after the date of separation is not commingled – it’s separate.  So if you win the lottery, or if the Mrs. goes out and racks up $20k in credit cards, you’re in luck as long as it happened after the date of separation.  If it happened before, you’ll be splitting your millions – or her debt.

3. Service.  After the court has received your documents, your spouse will be served with an official copy of the Appearance, the Summons, and the Petition, as well as with an Order to Appear, if your lawyer asked for a provisional hearing.  The most common way to serve a party in a divorce case is by certified mail, because it’s cheap and low-drama.  But, if necessary (or if you just really want to), you could also send the sheriff to your spouse’s home or work, or have a private process server track him or her down at the bar or (my personal favorite) at their girlfriend or boyfriend’s house.  Or if things are truly amicable with you and your spouse, you can just hand them their papers and ask them to sign something that says they got them.

4. Provisional Hearing.  This is a hearing where the court will issue temporary orders (also referred to as “provisional orders” or “preliminary orders“) about things that need to be dealt with right away, like temporary custody and parenting time of the kids, temporary child support or spousal maintenance (kind of like alimony), temporary possession of the marital residence (your house) and the cars, etc.  This hearing is usually critical when kids are involved, but because financial and other matters can be addressed too, it’s pretty common to have one even if you don’t have any kids.  However, this hearing is by request only, so if your lawyer didn’t ask for one in the Petition, a provisional hearing will only be scheduled if your lawyer or your spouse asks for one.  The orders the court issues will remain in place during the pendency of the dissolution, meaning the time period between filing and finalizing.  If you and your spouse are able to come to an agreement about preliminary matters, however, the hearing can be vacated (cancelled), and your agreement can be submitted to the court instead.  As long as the agreement looks alright to the judge, he or she will approve it, and it becomes an order of the court, which can be enforced the same way as other court orders.

5. Negotiations.  After the provisional hearing or agreement, it’s time to get to work.  This is the part of the process that usually takes the most time (and money).  If you and/or your spouse really dig your heels in and refuse to give one another a single inch, then your lawyers might walk away with a bigger share of your net worth than either of you do.  So it’s important to be as flexible and reasonable as possible, and to talk to your lawyer about what’s really important to you.  If you really, really want the house, then consider being prepared to part with a chunk of your 401(k), etc.  Don’t be so attached to a set of silverware you got from Bed Bath & Beyond 8 years ago that you rack up another $2,000 in lawyer fees while your attorney tries to negotiate for that item on your behalf.  Keep a sense of perspective, and keep your priorities in mind.  Maybe it’s alright that Wifey gets the whole DVD collection if she keeps her mitts off of your IRA.  Maybe you can live with Hubby taking the Ford, if he takes the credit card debt too.  Try to keep in mind what you are likely to be entitled to in court (usually roughly 50% of the net value of the marital estate), and talk to your lawyer about how to best structure the splitting of assets and debts so that you get what you really want, you can afford the debts you take on, and money isn’t wasted on carrying costs, taxes, fees, etc.  The other main bone of contention, besides the money and the “stuff”, is almost always the kids.  Custody battles can be loooooooong, and very expensive.  I will do a separate post about these sometime soon, but again, keep in mind your true objectives: most of my clients really do want what’s best for the kids, and a good lawyer will help you keep that in mind (and try to keep your emotions somewhat in check) during this process.  Repeat after me: The children are not pawns or bargaining chips.  Offering up Junior to get a bigger hunk of that 401(k) is not going to earn you any points.

If, during this stage, you and your spouse come to an agreement about some or all of the divorce-related issues, then your lawyer will draft up a marital settlement agreement, which is a contract between the two of you that sets the rules for the rest of your lives, post-divorce.  Everything goes into this contract: the house, the cars, the accounts, the life insurance, the kids, the child support.  Often, my settlement agreements end up being 20+ pages long, but that’s because I can’t think of anything more important than making sure to be as clear and thorough as possible when dividing up all of your earthly possessions and debts, and determining what will happen with the kids.  Make sure that you ask your lawyer about anything that doesn’t sound right, or anything you don’t fully understand, because this agreement, once it is signed by each of you and approved by the court, is very hard to change.  Children’s issues (support, custody, visitation) can be modified under certain circumstances as a matter of law, but that usually involves going back to court and requires, usually, a substantial change of circumstances.  Other things, like if you agreed to pay spousal maintenance until forever, will be almost impossible to change.  So be thorough, be thoughtful, be patient, and get this document as close to perfect as you can.  Trust me, it’s worth the money you will spend on lawyer fees at this stage, because if you don’t get it right, you are going to have to either live with it, or lawyer up again later to try to undo it.  And that’s not a good situation.  

If you and your spouse have come to an agreement on everything, then you’ll both sign the document and your lawyer will file it with the court.  As long as all of the provisions about the kids are in the children’s best interest, and as long as the agreement is otherwise sound, the judge will approve it and you’re done!  You can skip steps 6 and 7 because you are a negotiating genius.  Congratulations, you are divorced.

6. Mediation (sometimes).  If you and your spouse were not able to come to an agreement about anything, or even if you agreed on some things but not others, then you may be ordered to mediation.  To put it very simply, mediation involves sitting in a room with your lawyer and some snacks, waiting for what seems like eternities, receiving an offer of settlement from your spouse and responding to it with a counter offer, and then more waiting.  But mediation can be a very positive thing if the parties are both negotiating in good faith, the mediator is skillful in helping point out areas of possible agreement, and everyone remains as patient as possible.  It is a lot cheaper to spend eight hours mediating your divorce than to spend eight hours litigating it, especially considering attorney prep time, etc.  And people are more likely to follow their agreement than a court order, because they have invested in the process.  If you’re able to reach an agreement, the mediator and the lawyer(s) will draft up a mediated settlement agreement which you will both sign.  This will be filed with the court, and as with a marital settlement agreement, becomes a court order upon the judge’s approval.  If that happens, you’re done!  Cross the finish line, pass go, collect $200, you are DONE.  But if not, then proceed to the final step.

7. Final hearing (rarely).  A final hearing is an outcome that I personally prefer to avoid when possible, because no matter how much time the court sets aside for you, and no matter how great a job your lawyer does, you are still letting a relative stranger in a flowy black dress bang the gavel and make critical decisions about your stuff and your kids.  But if you do have to go to a final hearing, make tripple sure that you have a good lawyer who fully understands what you want, what you don’t want, what you’re going to say at trial, and what your spouse is going to say (especially about you) at trial.  Preparation is critical. Your lawyer should prep you on the questions that she is likely to ask you, and that your spouse or his/her lawyer will likely ask on cross-examination.  Trial is very stressful, so do what you need to do to remain calm and keep a level head.  The good news is that once the hearing is over, most of the time you will be divorced, even if the judge takes a couple of days or weeks to issue an order about how to divide the things and what to do with the kids.  So, even if you and your spouse cannot agree on what color the sky is, much less whether the little ones should go to Montessori school and who gets which debts, the good thing is, he or she cannot force you to remain married to him or her.  

I hope this helps you get a feel for the divorce process in Indiana.  If you have any questions about this stuff, or if you’re ready to go ahead and start the process, give me a call.  See if I’m the right person to represent you in this process.  

Thanks for checking in,

Kate Flood

Indianapolis Divorce Lawyer