Those of us that like to plan ahead visualize our goals and then work backwards from that point to figure out all the steps that need to be completed to achieve the desired outcome. No where is this skill more useful than in dealing with legal disputes.
Unfortunately many seem to be unaware of the fact that litigation is a drawn out process. We all need to do our due diligence first, gather all the relevant information, review all the settlement options, try to promote a compromise between the parties, and then as a last resort prepare for trial if the parties cannot reach a resolution. All of this takes time and money.
Understandably a lot of people put off filing a legal action, but the sad reality is that the longer you put off filing an action, the more time you will have to wait to get your matter scheduled before a judge. Waiting until the situation is urgent will not necessarily make the case an emergency for court personnel. So for example if someone stops paying you alimony or child support, after 6 months without payments have gone by, you may want to ask the court to intervene sooner rather than later. Similarly, if you have kids and are already starting to realize that you and your former partner do not agree on issues such as (i) summer camps, (ii) travel arrangements or (iii) the choice in schools for next year, NOW is the time to start raising those issues with the court, which may well have a 6 month waiting period for you to get on the docket.
As much as I like to promote settlements out of court, sadly I do admit that when time is of the essence on getting a resolution, sometimes the only option you have with a non-responsive or difficult opponent is to file first, negotiate later. Odds are in your favor that you will work something out, either because calmer heads tend to prevail once professionals get involved, or maybe because the stark reality of what it costs to go to trial acts a great incentive for getting people to settle. To be honest, I think it’s a bit of both.
Now outside of court, there is another end-game that you need to consider– what is the long term goal with your personal relationships? When kids are involved, you have to be very careful to filter what you say around them. Kids don’t want to hear negative things about their parents. It is very hurtful for them to even be aware of the fact that their parents are fighting. When I have to act as the attorney for the children, I explain to them that their parents are simply in disagreement, and when two people cannot agree on important legal issues, they have to request a meeting with a judge. It really is that simple, and I emphasize that no one is going to jail or anything like that.
I realize that the prospect of going to court is terrifying to most people, but for those of us that are in there almost every week, it is a very safe place governed by rules and logic. After 20 years in the legal industry, it is to me a very predictable process that I am quite comfortable with, but the truly scary aspect to me is the unpredictable nature of what happens outside that courtroom. How will children and/or their parents react to certain decisions we make? How well will parents be able to filter and work together going forward? These are the true unknowns, and so it is that I find the most important work is that which occurs long after my court files are closed. It is the work that parents and children, often with the help of family therapists, do to repair any damage done to the personal relationships that are part of that family.
So what does your end-game look like? It’s not just an important legal question, but a very deep and personal one that you need to answer before taking any drastic actions. Think before you speak and act. This is good advice not just inside the courtroom, but in life.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.