Promoting Peace during the Holidays

Stacy D. Phillips

There is almost nothing else that brings underlying family tensions to a head quite like the holidays. For separating, separated, divorcing, and divorced families, this time of year can be highly emotional and stressful. The primary reasons that personal relationships break down—mismatched value systems and power struggles over things big and small—are often on display at the Thanksgiving table or when planning Christmas/Hanukkah gifts for your children or in deciding which side of the family to visit at which time.

We can anticipate that, much like everything else 2020 has impacted, this year’s family in-person and virtual gatherings may be uniquely high on tension and disagreement. Many people are anxious about their health amid another rise in COVID-19 cases or uncertainties surrounding their personal financial situations in the current economy. Add in the political and social unrest in this country and you have a recipe for feeling like you have a lack of control over what is happening in your world.

Like addressing the emotional, psychological, and legal wars of separation and divorce, finding peace during the holidays often requires responding rather than reacting, positive thinking instead of negative strategies, and finding new peaceful solutions to ongoing differences. Despite the political, cultural, and public health uncertainties, there are many opportunities to making the 2020 holiday season a peaceful one.

Reach Out & Be Kind

At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, people were more likely to empathize with each other, make sacrifices, and reach out to each other with a heightened sense of humanity to say: “we are in this together.” Now that we are nearly nine months into the pandemic, many people, especially those that are separating and divorcing, are fighting over things that are not quite earth-shattering and hating each other with a vengeance.

This holiday season remember that people are struggling, whether impacted by COVID-19 or those who lost work. In addition to focusing on what you can do for others by making that extra donation to the food bank and expressing gratitude to doctors, nurses, first responders, and essential workers, call and check in on family and friends. They may be having a tougher time with loneliness than anyone realizes. When you look back on this time many years from now, you will want to remember the holidays as a positive time when you could focus on others and set aside the strife.

Cooperate to Make New (or Simplify Old) Traditions

If there was ever a year to be flexible and cooperate with your ex for the good of your children, 2020 is it. Many of us will experience frustration that, because of COVID-19, we cannot have the same large family gatherings or have our children easily split time between both parents.

Although nobody knows when the pandemic will end, we will all have to find patience and adapt to the current circumstances. That does not mean old traditions need to end and we should resign ourselves to being alone. Instead, there are new opportunities to see relatives from both your and your ex’s families via Zoom and find creative ways to share time with old friends and family members and carry out old traditions together virtually. Make time for your ex’s family and in-laws if you can, even if only online. When deciding who to have at your table (safely!) or which relatives to invite to Zoom, be as inclusive as possible.

Take Care of Yourself COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on us physically and psychologically. Not only has the disease directly impacted many of us, but we have all been hit with fatigue and stress. Many of us have been rightfully concerned about others and may be caring for someone else during this time, but do not forget that your physical and mental health matters too. Find time to engage in more of what you love about the holidays. Continue to get regular and proper exercise to vent frustration, tune up your mind and body, and give yourself more energy to face challenges. When you have taken care and control of yourself, it is that much easier to let the happiness and positive energy from the holidays happen.

Mediation for Family Law Disputes—Is It a Cure-All, a Band-Aid Precursor to Litigation, or Something in Between?

Alan R. Feigenbaum

If during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic you, and/or your spouse, have made the decision to part ways, then there’s a good chance you have considered or read about mediation as a potential way forward. Mediation, including online mediation, is seemingly all the buzz right now. It has become an integral part of the judicial systems in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Think before you act. All else being equal—if you were asked whether you prefer to “mediate” or “litigate,” you probably would choose the former. What you should consider, carefully, is whether or not your family dynamic and your relationship with your soon-to-be ex-spouse is suitable for mediation.

What are the factors to consider when you make your decision? What due diligence should you undertake before saying “yes” or “no” to mediation? Cost is an obvious factor, but let’s dig deeper. Start by asking a simple question: how did your spouse treat you during the marriage—emotionally, financially, as a parent, as a partner? If the answer to all of these categories is resoundingly awful, then think twice about mediation. It may be emotionally taxing to dredge up what has played out during your marriage when you make this calculus, but the alternative is to dive right into the process, cold. Continue reading

Perhaps Your Biggest Asset Following Divorce: The Bank Account of Emotional Capital

Alan R. Feigenbaum

A necessary part of every divorce action is financial disclosure in the form of a “Statement of Net Worth,” in which a client details their assets, liabilities, and monthly expenses. When clients send the form back, we attorneys are laser-focused on whether each and every asset and liability has been disclosed: bank accounts, business interests, real estate, whole life insurance, loans, mortgages, etc.

What you will not find on any Statement of Net Worth is what I have come to call the Bank Account of Emotional Capital. I’m sure you’re wondering how we go about defining this mysterious, intangible asset. Very simply: what you have in this invisible but quite essential account represents your ability to transition to the next chapter of life—after divorce.

Each divorce case is unique. Everyone’s familial circumstances are unique. There will always be divorce cases that do not lend themselves to a resolution prior to trial. That said, in many divorce cases, the time will come when the attorney can see an “Exit” door for their client, meaning a path to resolving the dispute, well before trial is on the horizon. When that happens, the opportunity to make a sizeable deposit to a client’s Bank Account of Emotional Capital is there for the taking. Continue reading

Coronavirus Reality Checks: Surviving Divorce or Separation during the Pandemic

Marilyn B. Chinitz

Amid these unusual times, everybody has on their minds the ripple effects of COVID-19 because we know it has infected everything. Divorcing individuals are not immune. Those contemplating and those in the middle of divorce need to know that COVID-19 will impact their lives in previously unimaginable ways. It will affect your marital estate, investment portfolio, real estate, retirement assets, business assets, and your most important asset—your children.

Underlying conflicts often emerge when couples are together in close proximity of each other for long periods of time. The abrupt and drastic lifestyle change of staying home may have caused more harm than good for couples already dealing with conflict in their marriage. Social distancing, working from home, having limited mobility, and caring for children full time without traditional support systems have become the norm, and it seems that it’s going to be for the foreseeable future. While quarantine is hard on everybody, it’s even harder on those whose marriage have already cracked. It’s not COVID-19 that’s ruining your marriage, but it can cause a divorce to happen a lot sooner.

In my recent webinar, Lunch & Learn: Successfully Navigating Divorce and Separation Amid COVID-19, I was joined by the dynamic family therapist Dr. Kathryn Smerling as we highlighted potential solutions and strategies for unprecedented financial issues, custody and visitation, and family mental health during these challenging times.

If you’re considering divorce, you must examine your options and have reality checks:

Reality Check #1 ‒ Assemble Your Team

While everybody is at home there is an opportunity to contact different attorneys, speak to them, and do your research. Given that a lot of people are working from home and practicing social distancing, you have more time to do your research online, including looking into potential divorce attorneys, therapists, financial experts, and financial advisors.

Whoever ends up on your team, it takes a village to successfully navigate your way through a divorce. You must work collaboratively with your team to decide which battles are worth fighting and what is best to let go of.

Reality Check #2 – Obtain Financial Records & Know Your Financial Picture

A significant part of divorce hinges on dividing assets. Because most of us are home more often than ever now, your spouse is likely at home working as well. Chances are the mail that was going to the office is coming to the home. That mail could include brokerage account statements, financial statements, and other financial documents that are now being sent to your home.

This is an opportunity.

Don’t view it as being a snoop. Instead, look at it as becoming educated on your own financial situation. This is an appropriate time to learn your income from all sources, what debts you have, and get familiar with your expenses. Look for bank statements, canceled checks, credit card statements, tax returns, and life insurance policies. Remember that you’re free to open the mail when it’s addressed to you. And in some cases, go into your spouse’s home office, and even before uttering any word about “divorce,” say you’re concerned because there’s a pandemic going on and want to know what we have.

Reality Check #3 – Get Acquainted with a Forensic Accountant & a Financial Wealth Manager

Couples who are contemplating a divorce or are in a middle of one, have a lot of questions about the COVID-19 economic crisis’ impact on support requirements, property division, and the valuation of assets. Virtually every individual worldwide who has money invested in the markets has now seen their accounts fluctuate dramatically from the February 2020 high (on Valentine’s Day, believe it or not).

Uncertainty will be ongoing, causing values to seesaw for a very significant time and making it difficult for attorneys to predict exactly what’s going to happen. There’s no question that negotiating your financial settlement during this turmoil is going to get more difficult and complex. For business owners, timing may be important in asking for appraisals while those assets have lower values, but they will also have resources available such as the Paycheck Protection Program and Federal Reserve lending programs.

Markets have historically bounced back from deep declines, so we need to brace ourselves for a significant period of low valuations before the markets fully recover. However, like everything else, this is an opportunity for rebalancing and tax planning opportunities. Find the best financial experts you can if you want to maximize the amount you will walk away with in a divorce.

Reality Check #4 – Expect Modifications Aplenty Going Forward

In the post-COVID world, I anticipate there will be more custody and support modifications. There will likely be quite a few cases where a modification of custody will be justified when a parent has intentionally withheld a child from their ex-spouse. In pending cases, where an ex-spouse may have lost income, there will be support modifications. It’s important to realize that merely losing your job doesn’t mean you’ll be entitled to a downward modification of support and relief from your obligations. If you have other assets sitting somewhere, you’ll be required to use those them to support your children. Many valuations will likely need be redone as well.

And as courts begin to emerge with large backlogs, there are opportunities to work collaboratively with other attorneys. With difficulties getting judges on the phone, instead attempt to first work out the issues that come up with other attorneys. Given the backlog, judges won’t want to hear mundane issues—only important things impacting peoples’ lives.

I invite you to watch and share the recording from the recent webinar for further details on these vital topics and concerns, and to hear Dr. Smerling’s perspectives on handling pandemic anxieties and difficult situations involving children during these treacherous times. Contact me if you have questions about navigating the challenges of separation or divorce amid COVID-19.

Please click here to listen to the recording of our Lunch & Learn webinar.

Amid the Pandemic: Families Coming Together … and Coming Apart

Marilyn B. Chinitz

In times of crisis, families typically come together. People decide to avoid unnecessary battles. Arguments are fewer. But that is not the case for unhappy and divorcing couples, many of whom now are experiencing extraordinarily challenging times. Family tensions are exacerbated as COVID-19 continues to impact lives in previously unimaginable ways. Some form of social distancing, working from home, limited mobility, and caring for children full-time without traditional support systems, are all now the norm and will be for the foreseeable future.

Concerns for Our Children.

Children of all ages are experiencing tremendous anxiety from the significant changes in their daily lives—the isolation, the new cleaning/sanitizing routines, and fears created by the pandemic. Limited access to parks, playgrounds, and friends coupled with distance learning, media consumption, and time-filling crafts and games can be sustained for a few weeks, but not for months on end. In divorced or separated families, many children are not spending time with their non-custodial parent because it would present too much of a risk for contracting the virus. Children are understandably confused, upset, depressed, and unfamiliar with how to process their feelings.

Parents’ Challenges.

Parents are juggling and multitasking like never before. They are expected to work from home while at the same time providing full-time care for their children, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and supervising online studies and extracurricular lessons. Some parents are doing this alone, without help from anyone—no tutor, spouse, or domestic helper. Simply put: parents are stressed and overwhelmed. They, too, are socially isolated and cannot depend on their normal diversions. Activities they once took for granted—dinner with friends, in-person meetings with a therapist, workouts in the gym, or myriad other traditional methods of dealing with stress—are now out of reach. Additionally, isolation presents parents with some of the unhealthiest of options for dealing with stress: binge eating and alcohol consumption. Moreover, many non-custodial parents find themselves in the untenable position of missing their children as a result of the coronavirus prohibiting travel and visits.

Divorcing Couples.

Those in the middle of divorce litigation are in uncharted waters. Their dispute resolution forum is not available to them. The courts are, for the most part, closed or only hearing cases involving an emergency, such as danger to a child. While some judges are conducting conference calls/Zoom sessions with attorneys, the fact of the matter is that the family courts are not available and will not be for the near future.

One of the most concerning aspects in all of this is the decrease in the value of marital assets—in some instances having decreased by as much as 50‒70 percent. Ongoing negotiations about the division of assets will need to be re-examined. Updated appraisals will be required, including revised business valuations and/or re-calculations of the transfer amounts from one spouse to the other.

And it does not stop there. Historic levels of unemployment, now a reality, are impacting the ability to pay support for the benefit of the children as well as spouses. Unexpected unemployment or the shuttering of businesses are examples of substantial changes in circumstances that will likely prompt countless applications to the court for downward modification of support obligations.

Considering Divorce.

If a marriage was falling apart and on the edge before this pandemic hit home, undoubtedly things will get worse with spouses together in a “lockdown” situation. We could be hopeful that cooler, wiser heads will prevail and that couples having problems can put their emotions and fears aside and either present a united front against these very challenging times or work out their custody and financial issues amicably. But this is unlikely to be the case. Although new divorce proceedings are generally not being instituted because the courts are focusing on emergency issues in the cases already proceeding, people are still at war with one another. Even in jurisdictions where filings are being accepted, do not expect to get any relief from the court soon. We are receiving multiple calls from prospective clients who want to understand what the next best steps are to terminate their marriage and divide assets during an unpredictable, unsettling economy.

Moving Ahead.

Many lawyers are now working with their colleagues to negotiate settlements and resolve issues in the interest of moving cases along, even though the courts are not available. More than ever before, it is incumbent upon the attorneys to assert leadership—and to step in since the judges cannot—to try to work with their adversaries to take a position that is fair and reasonable to both sides and build consensus. Otherwise, everybody loses.

For more on this important topic, please join Marilyn for her May 27, 2020, webinar:

Lunch & Learn: Successfully Navigating Divorce and Separation Amid COVID-19

It’s All About Control

Stacy D. Phillips

As a family lawyer specializing in high net worth and high profile cases for more than 35 years, you can imagine that I have seen it all. Representing many celebrities—often involving complex, high conflict matters—I have observed that whatever the salacious headlines, particular facts, and circumstances of each case, there is one important commonality: control.

It is a given that every case I handle will have its share of “issues,” many of which go beyond the division of assets. Frequently, some urgent situation or chronic problem creates a dispute involving the need/desire/obsession of one party to dominate the other. Neither gender has exclusivity when it comes to pursuing, possessing, and asserting control, whether during the marriage, the divorce, or its aftermath. The reality is: Control is prevalent in any relationship. And, when couples are jockeying for it, a legal case becomes a contest. All too often, contests escalate to wars because, by nature, human beings are competitive. Continue reading

Protecting an Inheritance from the Ravages of a Divorce War

Stacy D. Phillips

It is not uncommon for divorce to bring out the very worst in people, especially when a soon-to-be ex-spouse is used to being the one in control of the relationship. The contentious tug of war can even result in threats to an inheritance that you know was always intended just for you but unfortunately was not kept or segregated as it should have been.

While most people are unlikely to experience a Succession-like drama over control of a multibillion-dollar media conglomerate, you should be keenly aware that money from an inheritance received before or during a marriage can, in fact, be one of the most high-stakes exceptions in a marital estate.

Things get complicated when inherited funds are commingled with marital property or when inherited property has your soon-to-be ex-spouse’s name on title documents. And when things get complicated in divorce, they can trigger an extremely costly legal battle with the ultimate outcome decided by a judge. Continue reading

Until Death Do Us Part

Jacqueline Combs

At the altar, you make hopeful and sincere vows to love and cherish each other until death do you part. Your goals for your long and successful marriage include many milestones: opening your first joint savings account, buying your first home, having a child, getting a dog for your child, having another child…another dog…travel and adventure…planning for a comfortable retirement. Then, out of nowhere, you get an unexpected and devastating phone call. Your spouse of 15 years has dropped dead of a heart attack. An emotionally jolting, dark cloud descends.

As you start to pick up the pieces of your life and shield your children from the unknown, the financial setback of your loss begins to set in. You remember your spouse had a life insurance policy, but can’t remember the name of insurance company or where the policy is located. While your life turns upside down both emotionally and financially, you turn the house upside down to find the vital information you need to move on. Where is the list of user names and passwords for your bank accounts and investments? What is the name of the financial planner we saw? Are the pink slips for the cars and deed to the house in the safe deposit box? Where are the keys to the safe deposit box? If only you had sat down together to get organized.

It makes you think: what vows do you promise to keep if death does part you and your spouse?

Imagine if your bank froze your assets because the only person with the combination to the vault had died. Incredibly, in a widely reported case earlier this year, the wife of the CEO and co-founder of a Canadian crypto-currency exchange (along with the company’s investors) found herself in exactly that position. This CEO, who died unexpectedly while traveling in India in December 2018, was the sole keeper of the password to accounts valued at $190 million in U.S. dollars. Forced to file for creditor protection with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, his widow said his death left the company unable to access the bulk of its cryptocurrency funds.

While your individual portfolio might not include cryptocurrency investments, this is a cautionary tale for every married couple. Complete transparency during the marriage is the key to not leaving your family in a lurch. As unpleasant as it may be to think about, and as difficult as it may seem to find an extra hour to put together, organizing your family’s financial life benefits you now and in the future. It is a way for you to minimize the financial agony your spouse and children may face after your death. It may also prompt important financial discussions to have now with your partner, as uncomfortable or unromantic as they may seem at first. At the very least, this process will give you a clear picture of your financial wellbeing.

There are dozens of workbooks and resources for organizing available in print and online. No matter which one you select, this process will educate both you and your spouse about each other’s finances and records. Start by compiling a complete list of passwords. Take some extra time while you’re focused to identify all your assets and liabilities (those in your name, your spouse’s name, jointly held), and note when and how these assets were acquired. List your family’s insurance coverage (medical, dental, property, auto, life, umbrella) and take steps to fill in any coverage gaps you may find. Talk about making an estate plan if you haven’t already, or updating the one you have—including medical directives for each of you.

While all of this may take you away from Sunday football or Tuesday night Real Housewives, consider the long-term benefits that your short-term sacrifice will have for those you love and cherish.

Two Legal Eagles Discuss Representing Professional Athletes

Stacy D. Phillips

For the past two years, I have enjoyed sharing with you my perspectives on many aspects of family law as they relate to high-net-worth individuals. In this advisory, I want to give you a bird’s-eye view into a conversation I had recently with nationally renowned sports law attorney Jay K. Reisinger, partner at Farrell & Reisinger LLC in Pittsburgh, PA. Jay’s practice focuses primarily on sports law, white collar criminal defense, and complex litigation. It turns out that our areas of legal specialty intersect frequently, as divorce and custody issues present thorny challenges when professional athletes are our clients.

Stacy D. Phillips Jay, how are professional athletes different from C-suite executives in the work you do?

Jay K. Reisinger First and foremost, pro athletes (whether in baseball, hockey, basketball, or football) have exceedingly short earning spans. Unlike top executives whose careers can move upward and outward for many lucrative years, the majority of players make significant dollars for just six to eight years. Not surprisingly, the average pro football player’s career lasts no more than two years. Continue reading

Should You Rush to the Finish Line?

Stacy D. Phillips and Michelle Piscopo

With news that the alimony deduction will expire at the end of this year, many clients are asking if they should rush to finalize their divorce. The answer to that question is, it depends.

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (the “TCJA”) made sweeping changes to the tax code and one of the most unexpected was the elimination of the alimony deduction. The alimony deduction had been part of the Internal Revenue Code for the last 75 years and allowed the higher income spouse to shift part of the tax liability on his/her income to the lower income spouse. This shifting of tax responsibility resulted in more after-tax income to allocate between the two households.

Under the TCJA, for any divorce or separation agreements or court orders entered into after December 31, 2018, the party paying alimony will no longer receive a deduction and the party receiving alimony will no longer have to report it as income. For divorce or separation agreements or court orders that are modified after December 31, 2018, the alimony deduction will not be allowed unless the modification expressly states that the TCJA does not apply. There is concern that, without the alimony tax deduction, there will be less incentive for the higher income spouse to pay alimony at a rate that will enable the lower income spouse to support his/her own household.

If you are the party receiving alimony, you might initially think it’s a good idea to wait to finalize your divorce because you won’t have to pay taxes on the alimony payments. Think again. If the tax liability remains with the party earning the income, his or her net income will be lower which translates to a lower alimony payment. While you will avoid tax liability for the payments, the reality is that the amount of alimony you receive will likely be lower than the amount you would have netted if you received the larger payment and paid the taxes on it.

Parties that are in a position to resolve their divorce cases before the end of the year should certainly try to do so in order to take advantage of the alimony deduction. However, if you are not in a position to finalize your divorce, but you have a temporary support order in place, don’t panic. You still have the option of opting out of the TCJA provision when the final order is entered.