WFCL is thrilled to bid farewell to our vice president and board member, Stephen Pitre, and our honorary board member, Lacey Powell Clark. Both of these outstanding attorneys will join the First Circuit’s roster of judges.
We thank them for their service in West Florida Collaborative Law and wish them well in their new roles.
Sometimes we take for granted that we can be objective for the benefit of our clients. They come to us embroiled in the emotional breakdown of a marriage, and we’re faced with the challenge of separating our professional judgment from one-sided compassion and empathy for the client. We also face the challenge of balancing collaboration against the mandate of zealous advocacy. Failure to maintain a check on our own emotions makes it impossible to do either and can hinder our ability to render accurate and sound legal advice. And even if we remain objective, it is sometimes easier to proceed down the path of least resistance and hold-back rather than challenge our own client’s inappropriate position or demands.
In other instances, past negative experiences with another professional can cause us to forego objectivity and kindness and instead shift our focus to obstinacy and avoidance. Within our own practice group, the Board has been made aware of some problems that appear to have arisen from these issues, for example, preferential lists that do not include all members of WFCL. This is one of many issues we want to address in this column. After all, one point of WFCL is to help us all grow our professionalism.
While it is certainly appropriate to advise a client that some professionals are easier to work with than others, attorneys should be cautious when offering such comments about other attorneys. To say that one attorney is better than another or that another attorney doesn’t know what they’re doing could run afoul of the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct, as well as the Florida Family Law Bounds of Advocacy.
Preferential lists and disparaging comments about other members also violates Section 5.7 of the WFCL bylaws. This provision was designed to encourage members to include all members in the process, even the ones for which there are personality conflicts. It is natural to hope that our client’s spouse chooses to use certain professionals over others. Personality preferences are part of human nature. We are all free to voice our opinion to our clients as to our preferences, but it would be inappropriate for a member of WFCL to target other WFCL members for exclusion. At the same time, it is important that members, who feel frustrated and shut out, express their concerns to leadership and self-examine their contributions to past cases. It underscores the importance of a post-case debrief.
If we become too wrapped up in our clients’ emotions or our prior experiences, such that we freeze-out or black ball another member, the mission of our organization and the philosophy of the collaborative movement fails. Sometimes tough cases bring about regrets, but we each should be humbled enough to improve our own professionalism with every conversation, phone call, letter, email, and meeting. While it may seem that the chance for reconciliation among counsel is less likely than for the people who were actually married to each other for years, hope springs eternal. We all have a tough task, but working to improve professionalism will enhance this new practice field with benefits to the parties and their children.
WEST FLORIDA COLLABORATIVE LAW BYLAW 5.7:
Section 5.7 MEMBERSHIP TERMINATION.
The Corporation, acting through the Board of Directors, may terminate the membership of a member if such member engages in any conduct or activity that materially interferes with or conflicts with the purpose of this Corporation, including, but not limited to, a substantial and material violation of these By-Laws, the provisions of the Participation Agreement, or of the rules of this Corporation, as they may be adopted and/or amended from time to time. Furthermore, the Corporation, acting through the Board of Directors, shall terminate the membership of a member if such member no longer meets the requirements for membership, is no longer in good standing with The Florida Bar or other applicable professional licensing body in the State of Florida, has failed to attend five regular meetings of the Corporation within a calendar year without an excuse that is approved by the Officers, or has not paid membership dues within thirty (30) days of billing. Membership shall also terminate upon the resignation or death of a member. Termination of membership shall be recorded in the membership book of the Corporation and the rights and privileges of a member shall cease immediately upon termination of membership.
Stephen A. Pitre is a collaborative family law attorney in Pensacola, Florida at Clark Partington.
I am a collaborative attorney and certified family law mediator.
3. How long have you practiced collaborative family law:
My first collaborative case was in 2008, but I was a member of the Central Florida group since its founding. I worked on our first web site.
4. When was your collaborative law group founded:
5. What make your organization unique from other collaborative law groups in the state?
We are among the oldest and largest groups in the state. We have almost 100 paid members across all 3 disciplines. We have had amazing founders and leadership team since the inception who have committed themselves fully to “changing the culture of divorce in Central Florida.” The creation of the Barry University School Of Law Collaborative class and clinic by our founding leadership, along with a regular basic training offered in conjunction with the Clinic and open to the professional community has been among the drivers of our growth.
6. What challenges does your local organization face:
We are transitioning our leadership away from the founding members, and that’s always a challenging time for organizations.
7. Why should WFCL members get involved at the FACP level?
To meet like-minded practitioners from around the state, to share ideas, learn and grow our collaborative practices. No sense “reinventing the wheel” when we can share good ideas.
8. Why should WFCL members attend the FACP conference in May?
To be inspired, to learn, to go home impassioned to start fresh on Monday bringing peace to your community. And to experience the historic and beautiful Biltmore Hotel (and golf course—if you’re a golfer) and all that Miami has to offer. The conference ends early Saturday afternoon, so you’ll have lots of time to explore. My personal favorite—the new Perez, right on the water.
Early bird registration for the conference ends April 13, so REGISTER NOW!
9. Have you used collaborative methods in practice areas, other than family law?
Yes, Collaborative process—especially the concept of option-building—informs my mediations, my non-collaborative settlement conversations, every meeting with my clients, my organizations’ meetings, even my home life. It’s a great tool to use in challenging conversations of all kinds.
10. What advice do you have for someone considering collaborative methods in their practice?
Abraham Maslow, the famous psychologist (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.”
Its time we stopped treating clients like nails.
Over 85% of all family case litigants are pro se. We’re putting ourselves out of business by clinging to the expensive and time consuming traditional litigation model. Why not explore Collaborative Practice—better for the practitioner, better for clients, families, the community, the world – the collaborative model offers peace.
Consider that less than 5% of all cases are ultimately decided by judges. Why spend all that time pretending that a judge will decide the case. Why not engage clients in problem solving from day one.
11. Any final comments?
Among the tools that Collaborative Practice offers is respectfully curiosity. Ask clients questions that include:
If you couldn’t hire me to fix this problem, what would you do? What if I said I can guide you to a solution that YOU and your spouse create?
Clients have spent their entire lives as autonomous humans who have solved problems on their own. Don’t let them buy into the myth of thinking the court system has a magical fix that will definitely be on their side—we know it doesn’t. We must help clients help themselves.
After a successful first year, West Florida Collaborative Law, Inc. is pleased to announce its 2018 leadership! Any of the professionals below, as well as our general membership, would be glad to speak with you or your civic, church, or social group about the benefits and cost savings of collaborative legal solutions. We look forward to serving the Pensacola area community over the next year!
We are excited to announce that we will host a collaborative family law training in Pensacola, Florida on November 2-4, 2017. Tampa Bay Collaborative Trainers will lead the courses.
The first two days will cover introductory training, and the last day will be an advanced training entitled, Enrolling the Collaborative Case. All are welcome to attend all three days, including those attending introductory training for the first time.
This training will be useful to attorneys, paralegals, financial professionals, mental health professionals, social workers, educators, clergy, and other family management professionals.
We hope to see many professionals, even those who work outside the family law, from Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa Counties, as well as our colleagues from around the state.
A Contract of Love: Why Every Smart Bride (And Groom) Should Consider a Prenuptial Agreement
There is just something romantic about this time of year. In Pensacola, we know that the cold weather is about to give way to a glorious panhandle spring and, frequently, our first days of warm weather coincide with the heady season of love and St. Valentine’s day. The jewelry stores start preparing for the engagement and wedding season and increase their diamond inventory; restaurants plan special menus; and florists put in their orders for the red roses, to be delivered all around town. Ladies who are well-loved by the right man become more beautiful every day, and the men who love them become more confident. If you have ever witnessed a couple become engaged, the nervous posture of the groom-to-be and the excitement of the bride-to-be cannot help but elicit a feeling of hope in the observer. Yes, Shakespeare was right; the sight of lovers is like seed for lovebirds.
Ahh and a bride-to-be, constantly looking down at her hand, admiring the way that her ring catches the light, flipping through magazines full of dresses and decorations, and putting in place the wedding she has had planned in her mind since she was a little girl. The cake, the dress, the party! And just as the fun of the wedding planning is being undertaken, someone dares to ask, “Are you getting a pre-nup?” Gasp! Who would cast this shadow of doubt on a newly engaged couple?
Yes, over the years the word “pre-nup” has become a dirty word for hopeful and committed brides and grooms. It is understandable of course, as who wants to enter a marriage with the expectation of it failing; why plan for the end your marriage when you have just committed to undertake this life in a permanent partnership? But what if the discussion about a prenuptial agreement did just the opposite? What if it solidified your commitment instead of polarized it?
Prenuptial agreements have been around for centuries. In the Jewish faith, the bride and groom not only make an emotional and spiritual commitment to one another through marriage but also make a legal commitment through the use of a ketubah. In a ketubah, the mutual responsibilities of the parties are outlined for the couple both during the marriage and, if necessary, upon their divorce. The true historic goal of the first prenuptial agreements, therefore, was not just for divorce planning, but also for marriage planning. Over the years, society’s view of prenuptial agreements has deviated from this idea. It’s no wonder, given that when celebrity couples break up and the extreme terms of their prenuptial agreements highlight nothing but their selfish motives and greed. But the purpose of a well thought out prenuptial is the exact opposite and has less to do with protecting your “stuff” from the other person and more about writing your own plan for your future, as husband and wife.
This may sound harsh, but bear with me. Smart couples know that, even though they do not intend and do not want to ever dissolve their marriage, the possibility of dissolution is a reality. The current national divorce average is somewhere around 40 percent, down from recent years when it topped 50 percent. While every newly engaged couple is hoping and expecting to beat those odds, smart brides and grooms do not ignore the possibility of dissolution. Aside from the possibility of divorce, smart brides and grooms know with certainty that if divorce doesn’t end their marriage, death will. Prenuptials not only help outline terms for divorce but can also establish terms for inheritance and estate planning. When a person dies, Florida law provides for how that person’s property is transferred. Similarly, if a couple divorces, the law will dictate the terms of that divorce. In these instances, a statute or a judge interpreting the facts to the relevant law can ultimately make very personal decisions for families. A prenuptial is a contract that sets forth some minimum terms in both situations, and smart brides and grooms use a prenuptial to decide that, when the marriage ends, due to either death or dissolution, that their lives will be governed by the terms of their own agreement, rather than by any terms dictated by a statute or a judge.
Ask any couple who has been married for a long time what their secret of success is and they will likely tell you “communication.” In fact, the pastors, licensed mental health counselors, and other people involved in helping struggling marriages, that I work with on a regular basis, will tell you that couples are headed for divorce when they can no longer communicate. A prenuptial agreement forces a couple to have conversations about difficult subjects like finances, death, and honesty before they take the leap. Smart brides and grooms believe that by openly discussing these matters, they are solidifying their commitment and love for each other and setting a pattern of open communication that will stay with them for the duration of their relationship and married lives. This is accomplished in several ways as the prenuptial is negotiated. Enforceable prenuptial agreements require full financial disclosure of each party’s assets and liability and
This is accomplished in several ways, as the prenuptial is negotiated. Enforceable prenuptial agreements require full financial disclosure of each party’s assets and liabilities, and the process forces the parties to think about their positions on legal issues like alimony, marital assets, debt, and inheritance. A good prenuptial agreement also helps the couple outline how finances will be handled during the marriage and can address financial issues like separate bank accounts and individual earnings.
Most people do not know the rules of the game when it comes to divorce or death. There is no doubt about it that when you get married, you are entering into a contract. Saying “I do” means they are committing themselves to certain spiritual and emotional responsibilities, as well as certain legal rights and responsibilities under the law. But, when you think about it, it is probably the only contract that you enter into without understanding what those rights and responsibilities really are. Few couples know if they will have to pay alimony or not if they divorce, whether or not keeping the title of a property in the name of only one party will determine who it will belong to after divorce, or how assets and debt would be divided in the event of a divorce. The first time they learn about the rules of the game is after someone has filed for divorce or one party has died. Then it can be too late. A prenuptial helps a couple understand what the law says about marriage, divorce, and death and helps them decide at the outset, whether or not they agree with the laws. The prenuptial can then override the current law, in many instances, and create the “law of the marriage” for this couple. Don’t believe in alimony? You can waive your entitlement to it via your prenuptial. Believe that forgoing a career to stay at home with children should be financially compensated for? Contract for that compensation. Want to require that the title controls ownership for all the property acquired during the marriage? Include it in your agreement. A smart bride and groom use a prenuptial to write their own rules.
As a divorce lawyer, I don’t get the opportunity, as often as I would like, to facilitate the creation of families. Honestly, when I started doing prenuptial agreements, I had the impression that they were just for the wealthy, blended families, or for couples who really didn’t think they were going to “make it” long term. But the more brides and grooms that I represent, the more value I see in the process of creating a prenuptial agreement and making financial decisions together. A recent prenuptial client said, “If we can talk about things like whether or not to have a baby, we should be able to talk about the real embarrassing things like my credit card debt.” As this particular couple was leaving my office on the date they executed their prenuptial agreement, they looked at me and the other attorney and informed us that their next stop was the courthouse, to get their marriage license. “Now that we signed this contract of love, let’s make it official.”
Pensacola, Florida Collaborative Family Law Practice Group Announces It’s Inaugural Officers:
President – John Susko, Esq.
Vice President – Stephen Pitre, Esq.
Secretary – Joshua Aaron Jones, Esq.
Treasurer – Catherine Bond, CPA
The officers are happy to take questions from the public and from our legal, financial, and mental health colleagues. We welcome the opportunity to speak with your professional, school, church, or civic group about the benefits of collaborative family law, as an option in marital and family legal disputes. Please contact us to schedule a presentation.
Our group is already off to a great start! Less than a month into our membership drive, we’ve joined with more than twenty members. Meanwhile, our programs committee is working diligently to bring the group high-quality speakers, for our monthly meetings, and outreach programs to educate the public and our colleagues about collaborative family law.
If we want to know what the laws in our state will look like in the future, many times we only need to look west. Under a new law enacted in Alaska, judges will take into consideration the well-being of the animal and can assign custody of pets similar to children in a divorce setting.
So if you are wondering what does a Bedlington Terrier (look it up) have to do with Florida’s collaborative divorce process, the answer is options to accomplish things that our laws do not permit. In Florida, dogs are legally still considered personal property and a court has no authority to grant custody or visitation to pets. Unlike kids, the pet goes to one parent only and that’s all folks. Perhaps one reason for the disparity in treatment is that the courts are overwhelmed enough with children; having courts increase their responsibility to include animals, in a time-sharing context, is not helpful on a state-wide scale. Bennett v. Bennett, 655 So.2d 109 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995).
The problem with the all or nothing legal approach is that while one spouse will be happy with the result, the other will be very disappointed. And as long as there are minor children involved, it is an opportunity to perhaps seek revenge or express resentment over the loss of a pet through the children. In a collaborative setting, there is no opportunity to have a winner or loser because the parties are not limited to treating the pet the same as a coffee mug.
While parties even undergoing the litigation process are always free to reach agreements on their own, sometimes it is all too tempting to run to the judge and hope they give you what you want if the other side will not agree to your terms. The my-way-or-the-highway approach to dissolution is what separates collaborative divorce from the litigation approach. While Florida courts may not enforce any agreement, including making up timesharing for a family pet, the collaborative divorce process structure held to eliminate the small items from causing bigger problems in the years to follow after the lawyers and judges are gone.
Why should you choose collaborative family law for a Florida divorce?
In some instances, the number of reasons to divorce a particular person might outnumber the reasons to marry such person in the first place. However, there will always be plenty of reasons to choose the collaborative divorce process over the litigation method. I read an appellate opinion issued about one month ago by the First DCA that highlights the value of the collaborative process. In that appellate case, the trial court ordered one party to pay a prior balance owed for alimony to the other party, but both parties disagreed as to the calculation used by the trial court. The disputed amount of $6,064 was likely less money than the amount each side paid to appeal a decision that they both disagreed with. It is quite possible that had the parties proceeded through the collaborative divorce process, not only could they have saved themselves from having their differences appear on the internet, but by sharing a single accountant, the arrearage may not have been subject to dispute.
I have sometimes heard the remark that the more lawyers there are in a case, the longer the trial will take. If there is some truth to that, then it is no secret that when parties duplicate their resources on either side of the aisle, the potential for disagreement will likewise increase. Part of the collaborative process is to remove the scoreboard so that nobody has an incentive to obtain points to the detriment of the other. Where parties want to get the amounts correct rather than trying to “win,” there may be much savings of time, effort and stress by using a process that facilitates agreement by consolidation (collaborative) rather than a decision by contest (litigation).
In response to the enactment of the Collaborative Law Process Act as a method to encourage peaceful resolution of various family law matters, a formation committee is conducting a meeting on January 20, 2017 at Emmanuel, Sheppard & Condon at noon.
The purpose of the meeting is to accept applications from attorneys in good standing with the Florida Bar, mental health professionals, and public accountants and CPAs to join the West Florida Collaborative Law Group, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation serving as a practice group to facilitate collaborative law as it relates to certain family law matters.
Membership requirements including training specifications will be detailed at the meeting.
Any questions in the meantime can be referred to the formation committee members identified below: