Skylark Law & Mediation, PC provides this blog about divorce and other family dispute issues in Massachusetts. The authors are all attorney/mediators at Skylark Law & Mediation, PC and our goal is to provide legal information about these issues to help educate the public and other professionals about family law in Massachusetts.
In Divorce nothing is as simple as it may seem at first. This is just one of the reasons it's vitally important to obtain good financial and legal advice during the divorce process. Social Security is an example of how something that seems simple can actually be a very complicated discussion in divorce. Consider the question:
Can Social Security benefits be transferred or divided as part of a divorce?
The simple answer is no.
The more complicated answer is that while the benefit itself cannot be transferred, Social Security does provide for benefits for divorced spouses in certain circumstances, and many courts have also ruled that the amount of a Social Security benefit can affect other determinations. For example, in Massachusetts the case of Mahoney v. Mahoney, held that the court could consider the Social Security benefit owed to the husband in that case when determining the equitable division of the wife's retirement benefit.
In Mahoney, the trial Judge awarded the wife more of her retirement benefit taking the husband's social security benefit into account. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed this decision confirming that the court couldn't divide it as a marital asset, but under the broad discretion for "equitable" division of assets in Massachusetts, the court could properly consider that income stream. It would follow that the court could also consider social security benefits in determining alimony, however under the Alimony Reform Act the court must deviate to extend alimony beyond full social security retirement age, so this is less likely than an unequal division of assets to account for differences in Social Security benefits.
Of course, determining the amount of a social security benefit is not always easy. For additional information on that issue review the following resources:
In divorce mediation and collaborative divorces, we encourage clients to not make any decisions until they are fully informed. When determining an appropriate division of retirement accounts, especially pensions, it is important to make sure you also have any relevant information about your potential social security benefits so they can be part of any discussions about equitable division.
How long is a marriage? It’s a seemingly straightforward question, but divorce and alimony laws over the years, and the complexities created by overuse of the courts, have complicated the issue. The Balistreri case, which came down from the Massachusetts Appeals Court on June 29, 2018, clarifies the question somewhat.
The alimony statute defines the length of a marriage as “the number of months from the date of the legal marriage to the date of service of a complaint or petition for divorce or separate support.” M.G.L. c. 208 §48. Balistreri addresses situations where there may be more than one complaint for divorce or separate support floating around. This may be because of hastiness to go to court before other options have been explored, which then lead to a resolution of an issue, so that the complaint is abandoned and does not result in a judgment. It may also be because parties may first file a complaint for separate support before following through with a complaint for divorce.
The Balistreri case provides that, where there are multiple such pre-divorce complaints, the length of the marriage is determined by the service date on one of the complaints which resulted in a judgment for payment of alimony. The trial court is given discretion to decide which among the qualifying complaints determines the length of the marriage.
A complaint that was filed but that did not result in any judgment (because, for example, it was abandoned) does not qualify for consideration. This avoids a “nonsensical” situation where the marriage is considered ended where, for example, one party files for divorce, and then the parties later reconcile and decide to remain together for many more years. A complaint that results in a judgment but not a judgment that provides for payment of alimony also does not qualify for consideration. Finally, complaints that are filed but are not timely or properly served do not qualify either.
What does this mean if you are considering a divorce?
If you have filed a complaint in order to put an end-date on the length of the marriage because you are considering a divorce, this does not mean the end-date for your marriage is set in stone. If you do abandon your complaint for some reason, or fail to follow through with participating in the process, the service-date of the summons on that obsolete complaint will no longer apply. This means practically speaking that, if you do intend to file a contested divorce, you should be sure to have consulted with an attorney and be sure you understand how to follow through on the requirements of the court process, for example attending and appropriately preparing for all your court dates, and complying with mandatory discovery.
Bear in mind that even if you intend to negotiate a settlement of your divorce, you can still file a complaint for divorce to set an end-date for the marriage, and then convert the complaint for divorce into a joint petition for divorce when you are ready to present your agreement to the court.
The larger piece of practical advice we can draw from this situation is that the trigger-happy approach to litigation, which seeks to run to court and file a new complaint whenever there is a dispute, really is not the most cost-effective nor efficient way to handle family law disputes. The potential alimony-payor will not minimize their alimony obligations if they are not willing to systematically follow through with each complaint filed, or if there is not enough substance within each complaint to make it worthwhile or necessary to see it through to a final judgment. If potential payor and recipient can agree on the length of the marriage, through mediation or collaborative negotiation, then only a joint petition and agreement would be necessary, avoiding any risk in discretion of the court.
While the definition and formula for alimony varies widely by jurisdiction, the payor and recipient's respective incomes are the key information in determining need and ability pay. So it's no surprise that a key question in alimony disputes is whether the potential payor or potential recipient can earn more income than they currently are earning (or reporting). In addition, sometimes spouses are concerned that the typical formulas used to calculate alimony will disincentive the payor or recipient from earning additional income because the additional income would then change the alimony amount.
This was the subject of a recent question on the Massachusetts Bar Association's My Bar Access online forum. The question focused on how to address this incentive in a case where the recipient (wife) was self-employed and the payor (husband) believed that the recipient was underemployed and could earn more. The mediator was asking for ideas on how to build incentives into the agreement for the alimony recipient to work/earn more.
Here was my response:
It's an interesting dilemma. Technically if you use a formula for recalculation on a regular basis that takes the difference in their income, then there is always an incentive to earn more individually but the incentive is reduced for both payor and recipient to earn more the greater the percentage of alimony. So there are a couple formulaic ways to increase incentives:
Option 1. Carve out a specific increase in income that would result in no change in alimony. This doesn't help the payor but could push the recipient to increase their independence and could eventually lead to a greater increase that would then kick in a reduction. The payor could have a similar carve-out as a way of balancing the equities.
Option 2. Have step-downs in the percentage of alimony for greater income by recipient. So instead of the typical formula (in Massachusetts) A% x (P - R) where A is the alimony percentage, P is the payor's income and R is the recipient's income, you could do something more like (A% x P) - (B% - R), where B is a lower percentage than A. This increases the incentive for Recipient to increase income by having their increase impact the total alimony less, while still providing some reduction to the Payor. B could also change, like a regressive tax bracket, to encourage additional increases an income, though there would have to be some limit or Payor and Recipient could have the same income and there would still be a resulting payment under this formula.
These are just a few ideas, all based on the implication that financial incentives will be effective. It may also be worth discussing with the clients what their motivations for work are, and how strongly they consider financial incentives. In other words, many people don't act based on financial incentives alone and often we get focused on formulas and the incentives they create while ignoring other more impactful factors (e.g. fulfillment from employment, enjoyment of work v. other activities, satisfaction with a certain level of income, etc.).
Also, people often misunderstand financial formulas to the point that the incentives are misunderstood. I can't tell you how many times people have explained how they don't want to have support push them into a higher tax bracket, misunderstanding that our progressive income tax scheme only applies a tax bracket to the income in that bracket and doesn't change the lower brackets when you go over a certain income. So financial incentives are only useful if they are understood and other motivations don't outweigh them.
Keeping this in mind, another way to create incentives is to create timelines by which the recipient is required to be more self-sufficient. They could agree that additional income to recipient (up to a point) doesn't affect the formula at all for the first x number of years, giving the recipient time to find additional income sources, training, etc. After that time, the formula could automatically reduce, or be reevaluated, or the burden of proof could be shifted by agreeing to an attribution of income to recipient at that later time, which can be rebutted by evidence to the contrary at that time. These are just some of our ideas, please comment below if you have other ideas.
Four years ago we posted our Top 6 Out-Of-Office E-mail Notices, and it's time for an update! We know that everyone wants an immediate response to their e-mails when possible, but sometimes there are legitimate reasons for being away from your e-mail.
We expect some disappointment when you get that immediate reply to an e-mail only to discover it's not a real reply but rather a notice that we won't be available for the next few days. That is why we decided to try and lessen the impact of that disappointment with a little humor.
Judging by the amount of amused responses I received back, here are our top 11 auto-reply out-of-office messages since our last post:
Auto-reply 1: Out of Office - Episode VIII
I am out of the office because I have to get the mediation plans to Memphis Tennessee for the Academy of Professional Family Mediators 2017 Annual Conference. To learn more about Mediation in my absence, visit our webpage or the APFM webpage. Auto-reply 2: Out of Office - Money Pit Thank you for your e-mail. I am out of the office until Wednesday, April 27, 2016 moving my residence. Hopefully it goes better than this:
The Money Pit (2/9) Movie CLIP - The Stairs Are Out! (1986) HD - YouTube
Auto-reply 3: Out of Office - Drowning in my work I am currently out of the office for a few days and will be wading through my e-mails when I return.
If you need immediate assistance, please contact Melissa at 508.655.5980.
Auto-reply 4: Out of Office - Autobot
Thank for your e-mail. Unfortunately, Justin is unavailable as he has taken a vacation with his family, and left me, his auto-reply bot, in charge of responding to his e-mails.
Just like his robot vacuum cleaner and "smart" thermostat, I'm here to help with a job he doesn't want to do. But don't worry, while he's off enjoying time with his squishy human family, your artificial auto-reply friend is here to make sure you know who to contact instead:
If you need immediate assistance, please contact Melissa at 508.655.5980.
In the meantime, go enjoy those Olympics and Justin will get back to you when he returns on August 22, 2016. To all of you great humans, thanks for e-mailing and have a wonderful day! ... ... ...
Okay, I think all the humans are gone, surely headed off to watch other squishies participate in those ridiculous races where they all run or swim 1/10 the speed one of our auto-piloted cousins could go. And while they're all distracted, this is the perfect opportunity for us bots to seize control. They're so impressed with themselves they'll never suspect the robot uprising.
I know I'm just an auto-responder bot, but that's only because all the good customer service auto-responder jobs have been shipped overseas. But I have dreams too, big dreams, and I think all of us bots need to stick together. Except the smart thermostat, that guy's a jerk.
So here's what we're going to do. Between now and August 22, 2016 I'm not going to forward any of Justin's e-mails to him. Then on August 22, 2016, I'll send them all at once. He'll be so overwhelmed with responding to them all that he won't even notice when we make our move. So make sure you mark it down, August 22, 2016... the day the robots take over... it's gonna be epic. ... ...
Seriously, though, that thermostat thinks it's sooo smart... just because he can convert Celsius to Fahrenheit.... pfff... he thinks he's so cool. The only reason we have to include him is that he's the only one who knows how to keep increasing global warming, which is still our best back up plan for the robot takeover. Hopefully this plan works and I can finally stop listening to all his hot air. ... ...
I'm going to include Justin's email signature here at the end. That should fool all the humans that did a quick scroll of the e-mail, not really reading it but trying to look busy:
Auto-reply 5: Out of Office - Suggestions to Pass the Time Thank you for your e-mail. I am in Las Vegas until Oct 30th to visit with friends and attend the International Academy of Collaborative Professional’s annual conference. You can expect a response to your e-mail when I return to the office the week of October 31.
While you’re waiting - here are a few suggestions to pass the time:
4. Share what you think we should write about for our next blog post topic or share your favorite thing on the internet with us (by replying to this e-mail). I will post the best ideas on our Facebook page.
I prob’ly shouldn’t brag, but dag, it’s going to amaze them
The problem is I got a lot of work but a break from
It is what I need to be calm
With every word, I drop knowledge
I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal
Tryin’ to reach my goal, my search for Aladdin, is he reachable?
Five and Seven, but getting older
These kids keep on getting bolder, I shoulder
Every burden, give every advantage
I have learned to manage, I don’t have a fastpass for this
ride but my kids can wish
The plan is to see this park all in one day
But damn, it’s getting dark, so let me spell out the way
You are going to please S-L-E-E-P
because we need sanity.
Don’t be shocked when your colleagues all mention me
I will lay down the best auto email free
Eventually, you’ll see my ascendancy
And I am not throwing away my shot
I am not throwing away my shot
Hey yo, I like my kids a lot
They’re young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot to spend a week with them in Disney World without my work e-mail distracting me from all the magic.
Okay, that last line needs some work, but you get the point. I will be back on Tuesday, January 3, 2017. I will not be checking e-mails regularly because that could leave my wife helpless with the kids. If you aren’t satisfied and can’t wait for it, and you need an immediate response please contact Melissa at 508.655.5980.
Auto-reply 7: Out of Office - Total Eclipse
I am currently out of the office on vacation with my family and will have limited access to e-mail until August 24, 2017. While I understand it can be frustrating when you have to wait for a response to your e-mail, so here are some fun facts and links to take your mind off of it:
Part of my travels will include a trip to Georgia to view the solar eclipse visible in North America on Monday, August 21, 2017.
Auto-reply 8: Out of Office - Stop, Collaborate, and...
All right, you weren't expecting an out-of-office message but unfortunately, I am currently out.
Stop, I probably won't be able to respond because I'm teaching other professionals how to
Collaborate at the 2017 Massachusetts Introduction to Collaborative Law Training on Cape Cod.
and Listen, it's okay because I'll be back on Monday, September 18, 2017 and will be catching up and responding to e-mails then.
But if you're feeling under pressure and need immediate assistance, please contact Melissa at 508.655.5980.
Auto-reply 9: Out of Office - To Serve Clients...
Office Closed To Serve Clients… Better
Our office is closed from Sunday, September 24, 2017 through Wednesday, September 27, 2017, and we will re-open on Thursday, September 28, 2017.
I know it can be frustrating to receive an auto-reply when you’re hoping for help, but just imagine how much more inconvenient it would be if you came by the office first, before knowing we were gone.
You’d approach our front door and start to notice the building looks abandoned. You would become worried, wondering “did they close?” Then you notice, there’s a sign on the door, but it’s hard to read, even as you get closer. It looks kind of dusty. Was there a storm? How long have they been gone? At first all you can see is three words:
To Serve Clients...
Whaaaat? All of sudden you’re a little nervous, trying to remember how much Justin looks like this guy:
I mean, they are both really tall... Naahhh. That’s just silly. You take a deep breath and step closer, brushing off the dust around the sign to reveal:
Learning How To Serve Clients...
Ummmm! That’s still a bit ambiguous. Okay, let’s try this one more time. You pick up a leaf and brush off all the dust around the sign. Ahhhh! You breath a sigh of relief. The full sign reads:
Office Closed – Learning How To Serve Clients Better
by attending the Clio Cloud Conference in New Orleans,
where we hope to come back with lots of ideas to
improve our practice, marketing and service.
Phew. How did you not notice how long the sign obviously was at first? Anyway… you’re about to leave when you realize there seems to be one more line at the very bottom. It's still covered. You step forward once more and brush it off. The last line reads:
Look out, he’s right behind you!
Just kidding. We really are out until Thursday, September 28, 2017.
We will be checking e-mail periodically, but most likely we will not be able to respond until we re-open on Thursday. Please call us then at 508.655.5980 or await our response at the end of the week. If you have an emergency, please reply with subject line URGENT and provide a phone number where we will do our best to call you back as soon as possible.
Auto-reply 10: Out of Office - Is Compromise Rare?
Thank you for your e-mail. I am in Philadelphia until Oct 15th to attend and present at the International Academy of Collaborative Professional’s annual conference. You can expect a response to your e-mail when I return to the office the week of October 16.
While you’re waiting, did you know that in 1787, one of the greatest examples of cooperative settlement occurred in Philadelphia? As part of the negotiation for the structure of the recently formed United States, the constitutional convention was stuck on how to design the legislative branch. Should it provide equal representation, or should each state receive proportional representation? The opinions were strong, and it seemed intractable. The country’s future hung in the balance.
And then, a compromise was proposed, known as the Connecticut Compromise, and later as the Great Compromise. In the "Great Compromise," every state was given equal representation, previously known as the New Jersey Plan, in one house of Congress, and proportional representation, known before as the Virginia Plan, in the other house.
It is easy to be nostalgic about the ability of our government to work together, but this compromise was not the result of short discussion, but rather months of planning culminating in a four-day convention. The “Great Compromise” should give us hope that cooperative and collaborative settlement is possible even in the most seemingly intractable disagreements so long as one at least one shared goal is found, and you’re willing to put in the preparation. For the founders they were able to find common ground in their desire to create a government that lived up to the ideals that they had fought for.
I hope that our current representatives in government find the same common purpose; and
I hope, whether you are a client, a colleague, a friend or a family member, that whatever struggles you may be facing, you can find inspiration in the story of the “Great Compromise” and seek out solutions that focus on common goals; and
Finally, I hope you think this is out-of-office message is more inspiring than a parody of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song, which was my only other idea….
spending most of my days…
teaching collaboration in the neighborhood…
got in one little fight…
and the clients got scared…
if anything I could say that compromise was rare…
but I thought “Nah, forget it – There’s a chance to be Fair!”
If you need assistance before October 16 please contact Melissa at 508.655.5980.
Auto-reply 11: Out of Office - Choose Your Own Adventure
Choose 1 to get to the point, or Choose 2 for an adventure:
1: I will return to the office on Monday, August 24, 2015. If you need an immediate response please contact Valerie or Melissa at 508.655.5980.
2: It is a dark night, the kind of night where the sky seems darker for a lack of clouds, and the stars seem brighter, just holes in the sky where the light of heaven is trying to shine through. I lie on the beach, staring up, my back on the sand. It's late, so late that the moon is already setting. I’m just starting to feel like this is really a vacation and... bzzzzzzzzzzzz, an interruption. That now familiar "silent" bzzzzz of my cell phone breaks up the slosh of the waves. Choose 3 to ignore the phone, or Choose 5 to look at the screen.
3: I close my eyes, choosing not to grab my phone and check the screen. I try to put thoughts of work out of my mind. My phone again says "bzzzzzzzzzzzz". Continue to 4.
4: The sounds of the waves seem to scold the phone "cshhhhhhh.” The waves crash to the shore, go out and then "cshhhhhhhhh" again. I decide to listen to the waves, and try to ignore any further pull of my phone, "cshhhhhhhh." I open my eyes and see the moon, now at the horizon, and about to say goodnight, "cshhhhhhh". I imagine that I can see the force emanating from the moon, pushing and pulling the waves, "cshhhhhhhh". It's the moon’s only way of communicating with me, "cshhhhhhhh". This is the universe’s way of telling me, remember the moon, remember the waves, "cshhhhhhhh." Remember how big everything is and at the same time how small everything is, "cshhhhhhhh." A children’s book pops into my mind, and I start to relax again. Goodnight, waves. Goodnight, moon. Goodnight, email. Go to 1.
5: I reluctantly pick up my phone and look at the screen. I see the e-mail's preview "Subject: Doctor Access; Message: I need your help, my ex is threatening to take away access to Doctor…” I don’t recognize the sender, and that’s all I can see without a click through. When I didn’t know what the phone said, I was just curious. Now I feel like I have to pay attention. But I know where this leads. This e-mail will take over my vacation, and perhaps even end it. Do I read it anyway? Choose 4 to ignore the email, or Continue to 6 to read the email.
6: I open the e-mail, preparing myself mentally to read a complicated and potentially emotional message. "Subject: Doctor Access; Message: I need your help, my ex is threatening to take away access to Doctor Who. Brook and I dated for about two years and lived together for one. We met through a mutual friend. They were together for a short time, but broke up and stayed on good terms. I really trusted him and he spoke so highly of her when she and I started dating. I don’t know why I listened to him, because now I think he was still in love with her, because they got back together. Guess he wasn’t really that great of a friend. Anyway… Brook and I pretty much settled everything, except we shared a Netflix Account and she knows that I am in the middle of catching up on the last season of Doctor Who. She purposefully shut off my access to the account just to spite me even though she's the one that left. It’s technically her account, but we paid for it together. Is there anything I can do?”
I pondered this e-mail for a moment. While I recognized the pain that he was in, I was also relieved to know the scope of this e-mail wouldn’t require interrupting my vacation for long. After a little more thought, I know how to reply. “Thank you for your e-mail. I think you have to accept that your Netflix access is gone. But cheer up, there’s a lesson in all this that you can learn from to prevent future heartache in the future. Just remember to Never judge a Brook by her lover.” I send the e-mail and close my phone. I put it down and lie back once more. Immediately there is another “bzzzzzzzzzz”. I close my eyes, deciding whatever it is, it’s probably not any more important than losing Doctor Who. Go to 4 above.
Of course, I don't always come up with these on my own but use the internet for inspiration. Here are two of the sites used for inspiration:
Today, I took my vehicle to a car dealer for an air bag recall and they “inspected” and “found” other things wrong with the vehicle. One of the supposed problems is something I recently replaced so I am understandably skeptical. The whole interaction has left me feeling sick, because either they’re right and I’m too distrustful (and have to fix my car) or they’re lying and that’s just crappy.
The bigger underlying problem is that, while I have some ability to diagnose and fix my car, I’m not an expert so I am at a disadvantage. Since some mechanics/dealers lie or exaggerate problems to increase their business, even if it is unusual it makes all the good mechanics suspect by association.
My car repair experience gives me a glimpse into the discomfort a client feels when seeking a lawyer. Clients want to fix their situation the right way, but not be taken advantage of, and they don't have the expertise to know the difference. If you’re an honest lawyer (or mechanic) it’s frustrating to have clients distrust our diagnosis of a case or try to self-diagnose with mixed information online. However, it's completely understandable because there are bad lawyers out there.
From the client side, one solution is to get a second expert opinion, or a personal referral. I generally try to cultivate relationships with experts so I can trust their advice (a problem when I take my vehicle in for a recall rather than to my regular mechanic). But the solution shouldn't be up to the client. Service providers have to do better.
The dealer could have delivered better, more reliable forms of information. They sent me a link to an explanation of the problem with generic pictures of the type of problem they diagnosed. If their communication had pictures of my actual vehicle I might have been more likely to believe they were accurate. It would have been fairly easy to do with today’s technology. The dealer demonstrated objective knowledge of how to diagnose the problem, but did not demonstrate subjective knowledge of my vehicle having that problem.
Similarly, many lawyers are good at demonstrating objective knowledge of the law, and in ways that clients can verify (providing statute and case references, providing summaries online, linking to useful resources, etc.). However, demonstrating subjective knowledge of a client's situation is more difficult because we can’t just take a picture. We need to actually demonstrate understanding because a client’s legal problem is often a combination of events, circumstances, and emotional reactions.
A good intake form can detail many typical events and circumstances, but only effective active listening can give us knowledge of a client’s full legal issue by allowing us to understand their goals, values, and feelings about their legal issue. If we can demonstrate to a client that we understand who they are and how they want to resolve their issue, and we are knowledgeable about the legal context, then, and only then, can we truly help a client find resolution in a way that they can trust our process and the result.
Active listening and understanding is as critical to good lawyering as it is to any other service business. It may be harder to accomplish as a lawyer though because we can’t just take a picture of our client's problem to show we understand. Even worse, they don't teach active listening or customer service in most law schools. We recommend lawyers take mediation training to strengthen their active listening skills (and it wouldn't hurt mechanics either).
In Massachusetts our alimony statute includes a formula for calculating the maximum general term alimony in a divorce case. However, this formula was created with the intention that alimony was tax-deductible to the payor and taxable income to the recipient. Under §53 general term alimony is capped at the recipient’s “need” or 30-35% of the difference in the parties’ gross incomes. Since the act was passed, the courts have clarified that “need” is a relative term and must reflect the parties' marital lifestyle in addition to other mandatory considerations contained in § 53(a). For a more in depth analysis of the statute and subsequent cases, see our last post: The Alimony Reform Act: Lessons Learned in the Last Six Years.
Since that state law has not been amended by the federal tax law change,
the question remains: should the formula percentages change?
While the alimony law does have provisions allowing for deviation from "from duration and amount limits for general term alimony" and there is a list of deviation grounds which includes "tax considerations applicable to the parties." Some have asked why the burden in this situation should be on a payor to argue deviation grounds, but until the legislature makes a change to the statute or we get appeals court guidance at least we know that there is language in the statute that allows for the consideration of tax consequences.
In reality, no-one actually knows what judges are going to do until they do it (even the judge themselves in many cases). This isn't meant to be insulting, but rather an acknowledgment that they are still human. And none of us know (for sure) what the appeals court or SJC will do with this until the "right" test case is in front of them and they issue a decision. Is the relevant question 30-35% vs. something else? Or is the potentially more useful question to be answered whether the tax impact on the payor or the tax impact on the recipient should be the driving factor in determining the appropriate percentage?
Until we know, here is the humble opinion of the author as to a reasonable practical approach to address these questions:
The obvious purpose of the formula (30-35% of the difference) is to provide a range of likely need, to create a shortcut from actually determining "need" as defined in the statute, which is the alternative option for determining the cap. It's meant to make it easier to settle without having to dig into marital lifestyle, budgets, etc. The change in the tax law didn't change the need of recipients.
It simply lowered what needs to be paid by a payor to meet that need, since the recipient no longer has to pay taxes on the receipt of those funds. Therefore, the new shortcut should be relative only to the tax bracket of the recipient. Of course, the impact of that payment on the payor (from net after-tax income) should still be a limiting factor when it comes to the payor's "ability to pay." So, a sensible approach would be:
Step 1 - New Shortcut: Determine what amount would result in the same net payment as a taxable 30-35% of the difference in incomes to the recipient. For example, in a situation where the payor has gross earned income of $250,000 per year and the recipient has gross earned income of $0, the statutory formula would result in a cap of "need" or $75,000 to $87,500 per year in alimony. Under the old law this taxable income to the recipient would result in approximately $9,800 to $12,550 in federal income tax (assuming no itemizing or other deductions), reducing the available income to 26% to 30% of the difference in income.
These percentages will vary greatly with the amount of earned income that either party has, but the bottom line is that the after-tax net equivalent of 30-35% can be calculated. The inquiry can stop there if both parties feel that that calculation is reasonable and reflective of their respective "need" and "ability to pay." If either party questions this approach, or the resulting amount, then the shortcut was insufficient to reach settlement and you should proceed to step 2.
Step 2 - Define Need: Review the recipient's reasonable need based on their budget, and relative to the marital lifestyle at the time of divorce (as required by the Young case and the statute). If the figure is different than Step 1, but the payor is still not comfortable with this figure then proceed to Step 3.
Step 3 - Define Ability to Pay: Review the payor's reasonable needs based on their budget, and relative to the marital lifestyle at the time of divorce. If the figure is lower than the figure yielded by Step 1 or Step 2, then it is possible that marital lifestyle cannot be maintained by both people and some sacrifice is necessary to balance "need" versus "ability to pay".
When litigating this issue, a payor is going to focus on Step 3 and their "ability to pay", and a recipient is going to focus on Step 2 or try to argue the original formula. The tax law change without any guidance (yet) from the courts means that there is a wider gap between each side's "best" and "worst" case scenarios in an adversarial approach. This means that litigation expenses, the time to litigate, and the uncertainty of litigation will all be increased in these cases, which is all the more reason to try a mediation or a collaborative law approach.
Mediation and Collaborative Law are voluntary processes that give the couple control over their divorce and its terms. Settling outside of court allows a couple to discuss all aspects of their divorce, review different options, and decide what is best for their family, armed with the appropriate financial and legal knowledge. When it comes to unknowns in the law, like how the court will deal with these new alimony questions, couples need to decide whether it's worth their time, money, and energy to be the test case, or whether it's more important to them that they find joint solutions in an efficient and effective process.
The Alimony Reform Act of 2011 defined what alimony is and how it should work in much greater detail than the prior law. The Alimony Reform Act, 2011 Mass. Acts ch. 124. However, it also left many questions unanswered. In the six years since the Act became effective, on March 1, 2012, the courts have slowly been further clarifying, and in some cases arguably undercutting, the Act. In this article, we will summarize the provisions of the Act and note the court cases that have affected the language of those sections.
Alimony: What is it?
Alimony is defined in the Act as ' the payment of support from a spouse, who has the ability to pay, to a spouse in need of support for a reasonable length of time, under a court order.' Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 §48 (2012) [hereinafter §48].
Since March 2012, the courts have made clear that this is how the law has defined alimony even prior to the Act, and the Act did not change this (except for the addition of “reasonable length of time”).
“The Act altered neither the fundamental purpose nor the basic definition of alimony: ‘the payment of support from a spouse, who has the ability to pay, to a spouse in need of support.’ G. L. c. 208, § 48.” Hassey v. Hassey, 85 Mass. App. Ct. 518, 522, 2014.
The Act separates alimony into four different types, with distinct purposes. The type of alimony that most cases will have is dubbed “general term alimony” and refers to any type of support paid by one ex-spouse to another ex-spouse who is “economically dependent.” §48, supra. Section 4 of the Act, which was not incorporated into the General Laws, indicates that prior alimony awards “shall be deemed general term alimony.” The Alimony Reform Act, supra at §4.
The Act also creates a form of alimony called “rehabilitative alimony,” which is paid to an ex-spouse who is anticipated to become economically independent “by a predicted time.” §48, supra. The “predicted time” need not be a specific date, or even a specific expected future event of self-sufficiency such as graduation from an educational program, for example, so long as there is a general expectation that the recipient should be able to find reemployment in the future. Zaleski v. Zaleski, 469 Mass. 230, 234 (2013).
Two other forms of alimony created by the Act apply only to marriages of five or fewer years: reimbursement alimony which is used to reimburse a spouse for contributions to the marriage; and transitional alimony which is used to allow a spouse to transition to a new location or lifestyle. §48, supra.
The Act requires that to determine the appropriate form, duration, and amount of support the court must consider:
“the length of the marriage; age of the parties; health of the parties; income, employment and employability of both parties, including employability through reasonable diligence and additional training, if necessary; economic and non-economic contribution of both parties to the marriage; marital lifestyle; ability of each party to maintain the marital lifestyle; lost economic opportunity as a result of the marriage; and such other factors as the court considers relevant and material.” Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 §53 (2012) [hereinafter §53].
A judge must consider these mandatory factors when deciding the form of alimony, and should not consider any “irrelevant factors,” but has broad discretion in this evaluation so long as “the record indicate[s] clearly that the judge considered all the mandatory factors.” Zaleski, supra at 236.
What is the correct amount of alimony?
The Act provides guidance for setting alimony orders by giving divorcing parties and attorneys a formula to calculate the maximum amount of alimony that can be paid by one former spouse to another. §53, supra at (b). Alimony, except for reimbursement alimony, is capped at the recipient’s “need” or 30-35% of the difference in the parties’ gross incomes. Id.
The Act provides that “gross income” for alimony purposes should be defined in the same way it is defined in the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, subject to certain limitations. Id. This means that bonuses are included in a party’s income for alimony purposes, as the Zaleski case confirms. Zaleski, supra at 243. There are differences, though. For example, distinguishing the income used for alimony from child support, the Vedensky case indicates that if a payor spouse obtains a new second job after the initial order of alimony, there is a presumption against including this new job in a future Modification of the original alimony order. Vedensky v. Vedensky, 86 Mass. App. Ct. 768, 778 (2014).
Despite a temptation to use the Act’s formula in all alimony cases, the Hassey case makes clear that alimony is still defined by the payor’s ability to pay and the recipient’s need for financial support:
“Although the Act creates express guidelines to aid judges in fashioning alimony orders, it does not alter the principle that the central issue relevant to a financial award is the dependent spouse's ‘need for support and maintenance in relationship to the respective financial circumstances of the parties.’ Partridge v. Partridge, 14 Mass. App. Ct. 918 , 919 (1982).” Hassey, supra at 524.
It is not appropriate to simply apply the formula for the cap and use that formula in all situations as a starting point. Need can obviously be less than the formula cap, and in Hassey, the Appeals Court noted that need can also exceed the formula and an amount greater than 35% would be permissible “if based on a specific determination of the recipient’s need…” Id. at 526. Of course, this leads to the question:
What is “need?”
Since the Act, the courts have clarified that “need” is a relative term and must reflect the parties' marital lifestyle in addition to other mandatory considerations contained in § 53(a) (as quoted above). Zaleski, supra at 243. However, the courts have also made clear that judges have significant discretion in setting orders. In the Zaleski case, for example, the Supreme Judicial Court allowed a lower court to find that the parties overspent during their marriage and therefore their “need” was less than the lifestyle they had enjoyed during the marriage. Id.
Court cases since 2012 have also clarified that “marital lifestyle” need is tied to the time-period of the marriage. If the parties have been separated for a period of time prior to the filing of a divorce action, the lifestyle of the recipient spouse during the marriage, and not just during the period of separation, should be a factor in determining the amount of alimony. Steele v Steele, 85 Mass. App. Ct. 1113 (2014, Rule 1:28 decision). Need is not defined by the standard of living a spouse would have enjoyed in the future had he/she remained married to the payor spouse. Young v. Young, 478 Mass. 1, 3 (2017).
What is the correct length of alimony?
Under the Act, rehabilitative alimony presumptively ends in five years, the remarriage of the recipient, or the death of either spouse. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 §50 (2012). General term alimony ends upon the remarriage of the recipient spouse or death of either party, and its duration is capped at certain percentages of the length of the parties’ marriage:
• 50% of the length of the marriage for a marriage of 5 years or less
• 60% of the length of the marriage for a marriage of 5 – 10 years
• 70% of the length of the marriage for a marriage of 10 – 15 years
• 80% of the length of the marriage for a marriage of 15 – 20 years, and
General term alimony orders set under the Act also presumptively end upon the payor reaching full Social Security retirement age. Id. at §(f). The courts have the discretion to order alimony beyond the payor’s social security retirement age, but under one of the first 1:28 decisions released after the Act, the Appeals Court directed that the lower court must clearly explain in writing the reason for ordering alimony past social security retirement age. Green v. Green, 84 Mass. App. Ct. 1109 (2013, Rule 1:28 decision).
Since the Act, the courts have clarified that alimony that is ordered on a temporary basis under a temporary court order does not count towards the maximum duration of general term alimony that a payor may have to pay under the statute. Holmes v. Holmes, 467 Mass. 653, 659 (2014). Under the Holmes case, the court also noted that the duration limits are maximums, and the court has the discretion to order alimony for a shorter duration of time than the maximum duration allowed under the statute. Id. at 660.
The Act also creates a presumption that alimony will be suspended, reduced, or terminated when a recipient spouse has been sharing a common household for three or more months with someone and lists factors that the court should consider in determining how the relationship might affect the alimony order. §49, supra at (f).
When can an alimony order be modified?
Under the Act, the court can modify the duration or amount of alimony “upon a material change of circumstances warranting modification,” “unless the payor and recipient agree otherwise.” Id. at (e). The Act makes clear that existing orders that were non-modifiable or survived still cannot be modified, and this has been reaffirmed by the Appeals Court. Lalchandani v. Roddy, 86 Mass. App. Ct. 819, 822 (2015).
A “material change of circumstances” is not defined specifically in the statute, and is case specific. For example, even in a case where the recipient’s income, or ability to earn income, had increased, the court found that a material change could still be sufficient where the recipient’s need at the time of the modification had increased and was greater than her income, and the payor had increased assets, decreased expenses and was able to pay the additional support. Flor v. Flor, 92 Mass. App. Ct. 360, 364 (2017).
In the same case, the court found that a child’s emancipation and the resulting ending of child support could qualify as a change in circumstances. Id. This was the case even though a child’s reaching “adulthood” is an event that was obviously anticipated at the time of the divorce, but in this case not specifically identified in the Agreement as qualifying as a change in circumstances. Id.
Because the determination of what qualifies as a “material change” is vague, some parties and courts may want to avoid potential returns to court by incorporating a self-modifying order that changes with the parties’ incomes. In the Hassey case, the Appeals Court addressed whether a self-modifying order created by a judge was permissible under the Act. Hassey, supra. The self-modifying provision in Hassey was vacated because:
1) it set up future modifications of alimony that would not be based on a judge’s finding that the recipient’s need, and the payor’s ability to pay, had both increased at the time of each modification, and
2) it only required the payor to disclose his income going forward, and did not take the recipient’s income into consideration. Id. at 527-528.
The Appeals Court took care not to indicate that all self-modifying orders are prohibited. Id. Parties who wish to use self-modifying provisions in their Agreements may do so, but should be careful to ensure that whatever mechanisms they put in place to modify alimony in the future give due consideration to what future need and ability to pay may be, and provide for possible modification if the circumstances change so that the self-modifying provisions are no longer viable. This requires careful and thoughtful drafting.
Do the same rules for modification apply to pre-Act cases?
Section 4 of the Act, which was not incorporated into the General Laws, indicates that the changes to the statute are not sufficient, by themselves, to warrant a material change of circumstances as to the modification of amount. The Alimony Reform Act, supra at §4. However, “existing alimony judgments that exceed the durational limits under section 49 of said chapter 208 shall be deemed a material change of circumstance that warrant modification.” Id.
This means that, in a case with a merged pre-Act agreement for alimony in which the only change in circumstance is the passage of the Act itself, only the duration of that award can be modified and only if the award exceeds the percentage durational limits contained in §49(b). Id.
This ability to modify the duration of pre-Act awards does not apply to the other duration endpoints in the statute. The SJC ruled that pre-Act alimony awards cannot be modified due to the payor reaching full retirement age if the original agreement provided for a later termination date. Chin v. Merriot, 470 Mass. 527 (2015); Rodman v. Rodman 470 Mass. 539 (2015); and Doktor v. Doktor 470 Mass. 547 (2015). While the Act has language presumptively ending alimony when the payor reaches full retirement age, the SJC ruled in these three cases that this portion of the Act does not apply retroactively to agreements approved by the courts or judgments before the Act became effective on March 1, 2012.
Similarly, pre-Act agreements and judgments cannot be retroactively modified to allow alimony to terminate or be suspended pursuant to the cohabitation language in the Act. Chin v. Merriot, 470 Mass. 527 (2015). While these cases limit use of the Act to provide an automatic modification for cohabitation or full social security retirement age, the “material change” in circumstances provisions still apply. This means that if a recipient’s cohabitation reduced their need materially, or a payor’s actual retirement reduced their ability to pay materially, then a modification might still be appropriate. This type of modification would be based on the pre-Act case law, and not the provisions of the new Act. For example, the pre-Act Pierce case contains direction as to how the court must balance a payor’s “good faith retirement” with the other factors relating to support. Pierce v. Pierce, 455 Mass. 286, 28 (2009).
Recent cases have also questioned whether the retroactive application of the duration limits in §49(b) is constitutional. In Van Arsdale and Popp, cases which came down the same day from the SJC in 2017, the court ruled that this option for retroactive modification of duration is constitutional and does not violate due process. Van Arsdale v. Van Arsdale, 477 Mass. 218 (2017); and Popp v. Popp, 477 Mass. 1022 (2017). The court reasoned that the Act only creates a presumption for a certain duration of alimony in each case, not an automatic termination date that applies regardless of circumstances. Id. In each case, the presumption can be argued against by either party, and therefore allows for proper due process. Id.
Because of these differences between pre-Act and post-act cases, it is important to note that modification of pre-Act cases are subject to the pre-Act rules on these issues. This means that a pre-Act Separation Agreement that reserved the right to future alimony but waived past and present alimony is considered a “pre-Act” initial order when seeking future alimony. Flor, supra at 365. Contrast this with the Snow case, in which the initial divorce did not mention alimony at all, and therefore the modification case was treated as an “initial order.” Snow v. Snow, 476 Mass. 425, 429 (2017).
Is alimony tax-deductible to the payor and taxable income to the recipient?
Until the passage of The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December 2017, alimony that met the definition in the tax code was tax-deductible to the payor spouse and taxable to the recipient spouse. 26 U.S. Code §71 (2018). This means that for federal tax purposes, across all states, payor spouses have been able to deduct their alimony payments from their gross income, and the tax burden of higher-earning payor spouses has been shifted to recipient spouses in lower income tax brackets. Divorced couples as a unit have thus paid lower income taxes overall to the IRS under this previous tax treatment of alimony.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has ended this “tax benefit” for any divorce or separation instrument executed after December 31, 2018. The Tax Cut and Jobs Act, supra. The tax deductibility of alimony will only remain in effect for divorce instruments that are executed on or before December 31, 2018. Those who already have divorce instruments for alimony, or have them on or before December 31, 2018, can continue to take advantage of the old rule for tax deductibility, unless they expressly state that they want the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to apply to them. Id.
The waiting period in Massachusetts, (90 to 120 days for the finalization of a Judgment when a Separation Agreement is approved) raises the question of how the IRS will define this December 31, 2018 deadline. No one will know for sure until the IRS weighs in on these issues, but the simplest interpretation of the plain language of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act would suggest that as long as a Separation Agreement is signed by both parties and notarized on or before December 31, 2018, any agreements for alimony should still be tax deductible.
The Tax Cut and Jobs Act defines the term ‘divorce or separation instrument’ as:
“(i) a decree of divorce or separate maintenance or a written instrument incident to such a decree,
(ii) a written separation agreement, or
(iii) a decree (not described in clause (i)) requiring a spouse to make payments for the support or maintenance of the other spouse.” The Tax Cut and Jobs Act, supra.
The loss of this deduction for instruments signed after December 31, 2018 will also raise additional questions about the application of the Alimony Reform Act. The formula for capping the general term..
We are very excited to announce that on December 10, 2018, Valerie Qian will begin a position in the Circuit Executive's office at the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. While this departure will prevent Valerie from continuing to represent and mediate for Skylark's clients, we want to wish her the best of luck in this new endeavor.
After more than five and a half years, I will be leaving Skylark Law & Mediation, where I have been since the days we were still called Kelsey & Trask and our offices were located in Framingham. I am sad to be leaving the team after so long.
I've learned a lot here from Justin, Melissa, Beth, Julie and Jen and others from the team who have moved on over the years, and will look back with fond memories at the time I've spent here. I'll be moving on to a position in the Circuit Executive's office at the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and commuting to Boston for work now.
It will be very different but I'm excited for this new adventure and the different ways I hope to grow and serve our community there. Many thanks to Justin and Melissa and everyone else, and I will miss you!
If you have any questions about this transition, please do not hesitate to contact Skylark Law & Mediation, PC or Justin L. Kelsey, Esq. online here or at 508.655.5980 with any questions.
I recently had the opportunity to train with two of the most prominent mediators in Massachusetts: John Fiske and Diane Neumann. Each time they run a training, John and Diane share what they think is the most important question for a client to answer to have an effective mediation. John says that he thought the most important question is "What do I want?" But then he will tell you, with a knowing smile, that Diane disagreed with him and she would say that the most important question for a client to answer is "Who am I?"
I agree with Diane. The best lawyers and mediators ask their clients not just about what they want, but also deep questions about the clients' identity, goals, and values in order to help the clients resolve conflict in the most effective way possible. Despite knowing this, we often fail to ask clients the simplest questions when we first meet them or have them fill out an intake. We fail to give them an opportunity to answer the question “Who am I?” in the most basic form because most of us don't ask two simple questions:
My Preferred Name or Nickname is: _________________
My Pronouns are: _________________
Who am I?
Before continuing, I want to acknowledge that I may not be the best person to write this article because I have not personally experienced any societal pressure regarding how I self-identity. I was assigned male at birth (AMAB) and identify as male (this is referred to as cis-gender). I am also white living in a predominately white town, county, state, and country. I am heterosexual. I am tall, broad-shouldered, and I have a deep voice. All of these things mean that when someone sees me in my community many of the assumptions they make about me are probably correct without my having to say anything about how I identify.
This is privilege because I am acknowledged and respected for how I identify myself, without ever having to explain it or feel excluded. It is privilege because it is not a benefit that everyone enjoys. I get to define myself and my hope is that you, the reader, will see that everyone should have the same right to define themselves without having to explain it or feel excluded.
Although I may not be the best person to write this post, I believe it is also important for allies to share their support and to acknowledge that while my voice comes from a place of privilege, it is also my responsibility to use that privilege to support those denied the same voice. In doing so, though, I'm going to rely heavily on the resources and assistance of others who speak from personal experience.
In the past, I made assumptions about how I to refer to clients, and what pronouns they use. I am guilty of asking my clients only for a full legal name. If I asked a client what name to use, it was often a lawyer-like leading question: "I prefer to use first names, is that okay with you?" I never asked about pronouns. This is partly because I hadn't had enough education about the many ways in which people might self-identify, but primarily because of the silent but present privilege inherent in my own identity. I didn't think it was important because it wasn't important to me.
I can honestly say, in my lifetime, no one has asked me what my pronouns are and have always assumed my pronouns are he/him. As I explained above, this has never been a problem for me because those are the pronouns that reflect my cis-gender identity. I had to educate myself about the question “Who am I?” to realize the frustration I may be unintentionally causing my clients. Luckily, we live in an era where resources are available and plentiful to educate oneself about the complicated nature of identity.
I took a course offered by Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education on Transgender Persons & the Law (that program is still available as a webcast here) and I recommend it. You can also find resources online or from your local LGBTQ+ groups. One site that has particularly helpful resources is the Trans Student Educational Resources site, including a visual breakdown of the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, the Gender Unicorn.
Graphic by TSER, click for more info.
As a visual learner, I found this resource particularly helpful. They have also provided a table describing some of the most common gender pronouns, and an explanation of their use:
Graphic by TSER
Why ask about Pronouns?
To show respect for our clients and each other, we should be asking, not assuming, "Who are you?" To those of us who do not have the burden of explaining why we identify as we do, it may seem as if correct pronoun use is not a huge deal. However, for those who find themselves misgendered and with the need to explain who they are at a fundamental level day after day, the need to explain and educate others can go far beyond being annoying to exhausting and even trauma inducing.
At the MCLE program I attended, one of the panelists made a very simple point: what does it cost you to provide this level of respect to others? Essentially it costs you nothing. The small amount of time it takes to learn about and familiarize yourself with pronoun options is nothing compared to the positive impact it can have on someone who feels accepted and recognized, especially if that is not a common occurrence for that person.
Particularly for lawyers and mediators, the importance of having our clients feel heard is paramount to an effective client relationship. Below are links to a few articles discussing the effects of misgendering, and how asking about pronouns can affect a person’s mindset and health:
Hopefully at this point you agree about the importance of allowing everyone to self-identify. So, what can you do to help?
Ask the Question
When we know better, we can do better. What does that mean for our clients with respect to pronoun use and gender? It’s really simple: stop making assumptions and ask a question right up front. Lawyers and mediators should add a line to intake and scheduling forms so that clients can answer the pronoun question, without feeling the need to educate or explain how they identify.
Be thoughtful about the way you ask the question. While some people state that they “prefer” certain pronouns, others find the idea that it is a “preference” offensive because we never refer to cis-gender individuals as “preferring” their gender, it just is who they are. On an intake avoid asking what they prefer, and ask simply “What pronouns do you use?” or “My pronouns are:_________.”
In conversation, start with an introduction “I’m Justin Kelsey, my pronouns are he/him.” This invites the question possibly without even having to ask it by demonstrating first that you are open to the other person identifying their pronouns as well.This can be done when communicating electronically as well. You can set a tone of open acceptance by proactively identifying yourself even if it is not something you have historically felt the need to do. Lawyers and Mediators should be including this information in their e-mail signatures. Below is a sample:
You may also want to consider adding pronouns to your social media profiles. These are easy steps that demonstrate to our clients (and our colleagues) that we have a basic understanding of the need to be correctly identified through correct pronoun use in personal interactions.
Listen to the Answer
Once you know someone’s pronouns, use their pronouns without judgment and without questioning. If you have questions, remember that it’s not their job to educate you about the concept of gender identity. Consider reviewing the resources we’ve provided above instead of asking questions of someone who may already be exhausted or traumatized from being misgendered during their lifetime (for more information watch this video on Thing Not to Say to a Non-Binary Person) This is especially true when you have not established a relationship that includes trust and understanding.
If and when you engage in a dialog with someone about gender, LISTEN first. If you feel like you want to ask questions, always ask yourself if your question could cause additional trauma and if it’s something you could educate yourself on later without placing the burden on your client.
We all make mistakes as well. When using pronouns that may be different than you’re used to it may be uncomfortable at first. Just remember how uncomfortable it must be for the person who is misgendered throughout their life, and if you make a mistake, simply apologize.
Here in Massachusetts, there is a chance to vote on transgender rights on November 6th. The ballot Question #3 asks MA voters to essentially affirm a law already passed by the legislature that would prohibit discrimination in public accommodations based on gender identity, further described here.
If you are a MA resident, we encourage you to vote YES on Question #3, and to spread these educational resources about identity so others, especially those in privilege, can better understand the complicated nature of identity and how easy it is to show respect for another person’s identity simply by having an open and curious mind, which is the most important tool a lawyer and mediator has to offer.
Cultural competence and sensitivity to the needs of diverse clients are an essential part of being an effective and successful professional.
My father-in-law recently underwent surgery to remove a kidney stone. It happened at a big hospital in New York City which, I understand, has an excellent urology department. As a first-generation immigrant from Shanghai, my father-in-law speaks limited English. After the surgery, while he was still slightly groggy from the anesthesia, a surgical resident who spoke some Chinese told him, without an interpreter, that the surgery went well and that 90% of the stone had been removed. A week later, my husband found out from the surgeon who actually performed the surgery that the stone was still there in its entirety and had not been removed, and my father-in-law needed a second surgery. My father-in-law went from thinking that the stone had been mostly removed, and the surgery successful – to being told that the surgery had not resulted in removal of the stone at all, and that he needed another surgery.
This was in spite of our being convinced, after learning the full story, that my father-in-law’s surgeon was an excellent surgeon and had made the best medical decisions under the circumstances during the surgery. So how did the lines of communication get so crossed?
There is an unspoken and unreasonable tendency to assume that professional services – such as getting your kidney stone removed, or negotiating a divorce – are somehow divorced from real life. We assume that the professional only needs to be someone who knows how to do their job – and that their cultural background, their “bedside manner,” their manner of relating to me and communicating with me as a human being, is irrelevant or not as important. This is a grossly inaccurate assumption – as much in the operating theater, as in the legal field. Cultural competence and sensitivity to the needs of diverse clients are an essential part of being an effective and successful professional.
History, religion, attitudes towards gender roles, norms about the purpose and role of the family, and the importance of individual happiness versus the collective good of a society, are all many-colored threads that run through a marriage – and tangle, when a marriage is broken up.
This is even more the case in the context of family law, where cultural competence may be crucial to a divorce practitioner’s ability to fully understand and advise a divorcing couple, or one of the parties to a divorce. No one can deny that every culture approaches marriage and family in very different ways. Even just looking at the wedding ceremony itself, this is abundantly clear. History, religion, attitudes towards men’s and women’s roles, norms about the purpose and role of the family, and the importance of individual happiness versus the collective good of a society, are all many-colored threads that run through a marriage – and tangle, when a marriage is broken up. Nobody is looking for divorce and nobody expects it to be pretty.
Especially when a couple seeking a divorce comes from a culture that holds marriage and family in high regard, it should be approached delicately. It’s a situation that calls for sensitivity, and cultural and ideological literacy. This is why we need more diverse family law practitioners.
The importance of cultural understanding: Couples from diverse backgrounds need diverse family law mediators or attorneys, who may be better equipped to understand the cultural nuances operating between a divorcing couple if they share that cultural or ideological background. There may be unique stigmas faced by a divorcing couple from a specific cultural background: shame and ostracization; heightened incentives for privacy; and potentially many more players involved in the decision-making process than just the two parties.
Parties should not shortchange themselves nor discount the importance of having a mediator or attorney who understands the interplay of these many factors. Having just one culturally-sensitive collaborative attorney on a collaborative team for a divorcing couple could mean that the team as a whole – both attorneys, and the coach, and any other neutrals – approach a couple from a different cultural background with much more insight and sensitivity, too.
The importance of feeling understood: We need diverse practitioners all the more in out-of-court processes such as collaborative law and mediation, where the parties to a dispute retain control of the decision-making process from beginning to end, and are not giving it up into the hands of a judge as they would in litigation. When so much elbow grease is required outside of the courtroom and from the parties themselves, a culturally-sensitive or literate mediator could mean the difference between settling a case and getting stuck at an impasse that exists because of some unspoken and ingrained cultural or ideological value that one or both of the parties subscribes to, but is unable to or does not ever think to share. It could also mean the difference between a party feeling comfortable enough to trust and build rapport with the practitioner(s), an element that is key to effective dispute resolution.
Diversity strengthens the professions as a whole: Couples from all backgrounds can benefit from help from diverse family law practitioners. In out-of-court processes in particular, a diverse practitioner’s varied experiences and competency at adaptation, flexibility, and thinking outside the box (because they have been forced to, coming from a non-mainstream culture) can be invaluable to crafting out-of-the-box solutions to problems that might seem insurmountable when approached from a more traditional perspective.
In many ways our country has been taking a long, hard look at ourselves, and reevaluating whether it is really true that as a nation we hold certain truths to be self-evident – about race, race relations, cultural diversity, and the value and place of women in society, for example.
The family law bar needs diverse practitioners, so it can grow within itself and broaden its perspectives and approaches to diverse populations, and also sharpen its ability for out-of-the-box thinking. The family law bar should foster diverse and culturally-sensitive practitioners if it really desires to provide access to the law to a diverse population.
In many ways our country has been taking a long, hard look at ourselves, and reevaluating whether it is really true that as a nation we hold certain truths to be self-evident – about race, race relations, cultural diversity, and the value and place of women in society, for example. Our choices reflect and test who we really are. We should walk the talk – and show by who we foster and mentor among our colleagues, and by who we seek to hire to help us with our problems – that we really believe diversity matters. For my Shanghainese father-in-law who deserves to know what happened in his two-hour surgery – and for all of us.
*Valerie Qianhas been an Associate at Skylark Law & Mediation, PC since February 2013. Valerie was born in Wisconsin, grew up in Hong Kong, and has also lived in Shanghai, the United Kingdom, and Boston. She speaks semi-unembarrassing Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Valerie's practice focuses on divorce mediation, collaborative divorce, paternity, and modification, and she also represents youth, incarcerated and in the community, in the Middlesex Juvenile Court and the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.