How to Find a Good Family Law Attorney

Choosing a lawyer to represent you in a divorce can be overwhelming. In addition to the more obvious factors to consider, such as experience or whether the attorney was referred to you by someone whose judgment you trust, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Your lawyer should be responsive. Keeping in mind that your lawyer may be in court, mediation, a settlement conference, or with other clients, your lawyer should still make a reasonable effort to return calls or respond to email messages in a timely fashion.

2. Your lawyer should remember the details of your case. In the beginning, it may take your attorney some time to remember the names of your children or keep the details of your assets straight. But when your lawyer continuously asks you for the same information, it could signal trouble.

3. Your lawyer should know about local court practices and procedures. If you know from the beginning that your attorney is branching out into a new jurisdiction, you have to be willing to cut him or her some slack. But familiarity with local practices and procedures is expected of an experienced attorney. In many cases, it’s wise to hire a lawyer who frequently handles cases in your geographic area. Of course, your lawyer’s overall experience or reputation may override that concern, but your lawyer should be upfront with you about his or her experience.

4. Your attorney should have compassion for you. Your lawyer is not there to be your friend or therapist, but you should feel like more than a number.

5. Your lawyer should be able to maintain professional distance. Many family law attorneys become overly involved or emotionally invested in your case. You need someone who can maintain distance and objectivity.

6. Your lawyer should treat you with respect. If you feel condescended to, you should walk away.

7. Your lawyer should be your advocate. Sometimes lawyers get so wrapped up in trying to settle a case – which in most cases will be in your best interests – that their clients end up feeling bullied. If this is happening to you, you either need to stand up to your lawyer or find yourself someone new.

8. Your lawyer should be professional. Making things personal between opposing counsel doesn’t serve you. It only detracts from your case.

9. Your lawyer should be truthful. Whether speaking to you, opposing counsel, or the court, your lawyer should always tell the truth. Attorneys must share settlement proposals with you, and they should also admit mistakes instead of trying to cover them up.

If your own lawyer doesn’t meet these criteria and you’re uncomfortable with the representation or advice you’re receiving, consider moving on and finding someone new.

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Can I use an affidavit in my divorce or custody case?

People often want to use affidavits to introduce testimony in a divorce or custody case.  After all, going to court is time-consuming and inconvenient.  A potential witness might be willing to help you out, but prefer not to take time out of his schedule to testify in person.  Or maybe the witness doesn’t really want to get involved, but would feel less hesitant if she didn’t have to appear in person.

Unfortunately, witness testimony cannot be introduced by affidavits to help prove the facts of a custody or visitation case, and not in contested divorces either.  There is no way to cross-examine a piece of paper, so the rules require witnesses to come to court.  (There are times when special arrangements can be made in advance to present a video-taped deposition, but it is not generally cost-effective to do so.)  Requiring witnesses to testify in person helps the court get more, and more accurate, information.  In many cases, judges have questions for the witnesses and want the opportunity to ask those questions.

Recent changes to Virginia law, however, do permit the use of affidavits in uncontested divorce hearings.  If the divorce is based on separation and all issues relating to the divorce are resolved, someone seeking a divorce in Virginia can now produce affidavits as evidence.  This saves both time and money — you don’t have to go to court or hire a court reporter to prepare a transcript.

If you have questions about your divorce or custody case, you can contact me at (703) 383-0100. 


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Stop Making Excuses!

“The therapist only has appointments at 8:30 a.m.”  “It’s too expensive and I can’t find anyone in network.”  “There was traffic so I couldn’t get there on time.”  “I couldn’t find my court order so I couldn’t figure out the schedule.”

Have you ever heard yourself saying any of these things?

If you are in the middle of a custody battle and you hear phrases like this coming out of your mouth, it’s time to stop and reconsider what you’re really saying:

I’m not responsible enough to take care of my children.

Plain and simple, that’s the message you’re sending to the court.  So why should you be awarded custody or increased visitation?

Here’s what any judge will tell you:  If you’re supposed to be in therapy, find a way to get there.  If the kids need help, you need to find a way to get it for them.  Traffic?  I think we all know we need to plan ahead, especially in this area.  Lost your court order?  Contact the court to get one.

So the next time you find yourself making an excuse, do yourself (and your children!) a favor and make it right.  Organize your things the night before, print out the directions or put the address into your GPS, leave early, call the courthouse (or your lawyer!) and do what it takes to get it done.

You may not get the other parent to cooperate, but at least the court will recognize your efforts at addressing problem behavior.  And you’ll be modeling important life lessons for those little ones who look up to everything you do.

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How to Make a Visitation Exchange Go Smoothly

Some families handle their separation or divorce with grace.  Others turn each interaction into a shouting match.  Courts expect parents to handle transitions in a way that’s best for their children.  Wondering just how to do that?  Here are some ideas to get you started:

1.  Be on time.  Plan ahead.  Especially in urban areas, traffic is no excuse for keeping your kids waiting, as bad traffic is often predictable.  Chronic lateness is not only impolite, it can eventually lead to a judge reducing the amount of time you get to spend with your children.

2.  Stick to the plan.  If you’ve already set a meeting place, don’t call at the last minute to change it.  Keep in mind that change is stressful, especially at the last minute.

3.  Don’t bring up issues like child support or co-parenting issues.  Save these conversations for a time when the children aren’t present.

4.  Be prepared.  Know what you need and have it with you.  No one likes to scramble around looking for soccer cleats or homework, but when transitioning between households, it becomes extra stressful for the children.

5.  Don’t bring a friend or a date.  It’s uncomfortable for the kids, and it’s not necessary.  Many judges will tell you that until you’re serious enough to marry, there is no need to introduce a new romantic interest to the children.  

6.  If domestic violence is an issue, do bring a third party who can be a witness, a deterrent, or intervene if necessary.  Try to bring someone the kids are comfortable with, such as another family member or trusted family friend.  Save the police for true emergencies.     

7.  Keep the kids out of it.  Even if you’re sitting in the car waiting for what feels like the millionth time, or your ex shows up without a coat for your child in the middle of winter, do not make comments.  No “Isn’t  that just like your father?”, or “Well, I see Mom is late … again!”  It’s bad for the children, and it’s not going to reflect well on you in court either.

8.  Don’t send messages through the kids.  The same goes for handing over child support checks, even if they’re in an envelope.  You’re adults.  You need to find a way to speak to each other that doesn’t involve putting the child in the middle.

9.  Be flexible.  If your ex doesn’t follow Rules 1 and 2, be the bigger person and don’t give in to the urge to be stubborn.  Go to the store instead of meeting at the house.  Meet your ex halfway if he or she is stuck in traffic.  You’ll be teaching your child valuable lessons in giving grace, and as an added bonus, a court may reward your generosity of spirit if you end up back in court.

The overall themes here?  Plan ahead.  Follow the golden rule.  Your children will thank you for it.  Questions?  Feel free to call me for a consultation at (703) 383-0100.


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Divorce Seminar this Saturday

If you’d like to find out more about divorce in Virginia, click here to sign up for Second Saturday.  I’ll give you an overview of separation and divorce, and other speakers include a private investigator, a financial planner, and a speaker on credit issues.  

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Facebook, Twitter, and New Year’s Resolutions

Do your new year’s resolutions involve changes to your personal relationships?  Perhaps you’re considering a trial separation from your spouse or partner.  Or you’ve decided it’s time to move forward with a divorce.  Maybe, after a bitter and tense period, you’ve resolved to stop fighting with your ex and try to get along better for the sake of your children.  If you have these intentions, a family law attorney can provide wise counsel as you move through this time.

One thing you ought to consider is your use of social media.  Facebook is a great way to keep in touch with friends, loved ones, and acquaintances, but things you post on this site can also come back to haunt you.  If you put negative comments about your spouse, partner, or ex on your wall, they could be used against you in court in an effort to show that you’re unable to have a positive relationship with the other parent, which could impact your children.  If you’ve moved on romantically, posting comments or photos can lead to adultery charges.  Or it could inflame the emotions of your ex, who in turn does things to make your life more difficult.  Keep in mind that just because you’ve moved on doesn’t necessarily mean the other party is ready to accept that you have a new love interest.

What about the other side of the equation?  Is there anything wrong with using social media to keep tabs on your spouse or ex?  Possibly, yes.  If you’re constantly checking for Facebook or Twitter updates posted by your spouse, you may be preventing yourself from gaining the emotional distance required to heal or allow you to deal objectively with the legal aspects of your relationship.  In order to move forward this year, perhaps the most helpful thing you can do is shut down your Facebook page.  If that’s too drastic or would just increase any sense of isolation or loss you’re feeling, talk to your lawyer about appropriate posts or other positive ways to use this and other sites.

There are many, many details to consider whenever you want to make changes in your life.  If those changes involve family relationships, this blog is a resource you can use to help you keep those resolutions.  January’s posts on this site will be dedicated to steps you can take to improve your life and the lives of your children in 2012.  Feel free to discuss these ideas with me or your own attorney to see if they can help you with your family relationships this year and beyond.

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New Year, New Life?

So many of us are going through major life changes right now.  Maybe it’s your new year’s resolutions.  Maybe it’s upheaval in your family due to separation or divorce.  If the change involves your family and you (or your child or spouse) live in Virginia, this blog is your resource.

Having gone through a major life change myself at the end of 2011 (new baby!), I certainly appreciate your patience during the break I took from blogging.  Right after the new year, I’ll have the site up and running again — in the mean time, if you have ideas about what you’d like to see in 2012, please let me know!


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Addressing Mental Health in Virginia Divorce and Custody Cases

Item #7 on my list of things to do in 2011 is to take care of your mental health issues.

I mentioned this briefly in my last post.  But this item on our list is so important that it deserves its own post.

Virginia courts are required to consider the mental health of both parents whenever they have to make decisions about custody or visitation issues.  Many people are afraid that if they seek treatment for a mental health issue (or a perceived mental health issue), they will not be allowed to have custody of their children.

But mental health issues are in many respects treated similarly to physical health issues, which courts are also required to consider in Virginia.  In other words, a diabetic is expected to eat carefully, seek medical attention, and take medications prescribed by a doctor to manage his or her illness.

Similarly, a woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder is expected to seek treatment from a mental health professional and take the medications prescribed by her psychiatrist.

Failure to attend to physical or mental health issues sends the wrong signal to a court.  Courts look to adults to behave responsibly and make improvements in their lives.  If not, the court often draws the conclusion that the adults are not capable of caring properly for their children.  Since the court needs to determine which parent has the greater capacity to assess and meet the needs of the child — including physical and emotional needs — it’s important to be able to show your own ability to recognize such issues in your life as well.

Failure to address or even acknowledge mental health issues is a weakness in your custody or visitation case.

Do you have questions about how your mental health could affect your divorce or custody case?  Are you concerned about confidentiality? Feel free to contact me.

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Don’t be a stalker!

Item #6 on my list of things to do in 2011 is to stop stalking or any type of behavior that appears obsessive-compulsive.

Don’t call, text, or email more than a reasonable number of times in any day or week.  If you have questions about what’s reasonable, ask a family law attorney who regularly handles cases involving protective orders, custody, and divorces.

Virginia is moving closer toward penalizing people who engage in stalking behaviors, and offering greater protection to their victims.  If you have good intentions but your behavior is close to the edge of what the law considers stalking, you could find yourself being dealt with quite harshly by the legal system.  You could also find yourself barred from seeing or talking to your children as often as you would like.

In a previous post, I suggested keep a log of visitation or phone calls to help track behavior or patterns for use in court hearing.  Sometimes people go overboard in their attempts to document behavior, so it’s important to consult with an experienced family law attorney about the type of log to keep or introduce in court.  It’s easy for a court to get a false impression of your intentions when making a decision after limited exposure to your family law case.

Make sure any messages you do leave are cordial.  Don’t make threats or say anything that could be misconstrued by someone else — a judge, magistrate, or police officer — as a threat.

If you have a mental health issue that makes it difficult for you to regulate how often you call, text, or email, it’s wise to address the issue with a mental health therapist.  Courts expect adults to take care of their health issues and deal with them appropriately.

Do you have questions about your attempts to communicate with your spouse, children, or the children’s other parent?  Feel free to contact me.

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Don’t procrastinate!

Item #5 on my list of things to do in 2011 is don’t procrastinate!

Specifically, don’t procrastinate when it comes to asking for child support or spousal support.  It’s heartbreaking to tell clients that their decision to delay filing for child support or spousal support has cost them thousands of dollars they will never recover.


In Virginia, the court cannot award support retroactively except in very narrow circumstances.  To get court-ordered spousal or child support, an individual needs to file a petition for support, and then arrange to have the petition served on the other party (a spouse or the child’s other parent).

At the court hearing, a judge does have the authority to award support retroactive to the date the petition was served (delivered in a specific way) on the other party.

A delay in filing means a delay in support.  If a mother decides to sue for child support after a year of separation, she has forfeited an entire year’s worth of support for her child with no chance of recovering it except if the father agrees.

Do you have questions about how to get child support or spousal support from the court?  Or would you like to discuss getting support by an agreement instead of using the court system?  Feel free to contact me.

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