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Wednesday
May072014

Legal Pad: Words Matter; Keep your Divorce Off Social Media

By M. J. Goodwin

Today there are reports on the radio and internet about Jessica Aldean, wife of country music artist Jason Aldean, posting comments about their divorce on social media.  The comment attributed to her makes reference to the couple’s children knowing the truth about their break-up.   The alleged adulterous relationship is no secret and I am certain the children, two daughters, do know about it.  But that is not the point.  The point I want to drive home is that social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) is no place for personal information to be posted, particularly about an ongoing divorce case.  

I enjoy Facebook.  It has allowed me to connect with  people who were once a daily part of my life, but whom I have not seen in over thirty years.  It allows me to share pictures of my family and horses with my friends.  It even allows me to share information, like this blog, about my law firm with the general public.  But it is not a place to  put something hurtful about my spouse or anyone else with whom I might have discord.  Why?  Because I am not the only one reading the posts.  

Let’s look at Jessica Aldean’s post, as it is reported, more closely.  This appeared after a photo of Jason Aldean and his new love (the woman he allegedly cheated with) appeared on Instagram with a comment from a fan about how happy the couple looks. 

Had to comment....just sittin back watching God work......They have created there own mess .....lol....funny .....everyone does have an opinion....people still have morals too, but We know the truth....my kids do.....most importantly God does ... this was too funny....happiness isn't made from lies and destruction of innocent people......IDC...I know the whole truth! 20 yrs worth!! “  

This post reflects hurt and bitterness and is better left in private life.  It drags the children into the fray.  And it is in poor taste.  By posting this, Mrs. Aldean makes herself less the victim and more the viper.  But more crucially, she hurts her children.

In my 22 years in Family Court, I have seen many people with children do awful things to each other.  The ones who involved the children in the dispute and told the children how bad the other parent is, invariably were the ultimate losers regardless of the Court’s decision.  Children will love both parents no matter what.  They do not need to be told their other parent is bad.  Children know their parents’ faults.  And they love them anyway.  So while I am sure that the Aldean children are hurt, I am also sure that they still love their father.  Their mother’s public rantings about what he has done will only amplify their pain and draw more attention to their unfortunate situation.

When I am made aware of a client’s inadvisable activity on social media, I advise the client to remove the hurtful post and not to repeat the behavior.  When an opposing party makes such a public comment, I advise my client to print the post out and have it ready for Court.  These statements are admissible in Court and are often very damaging to the party that posted the comment.  No Judge likes to see a litigant publicly disparage their child’s other parent.  

As I have said in many other blogs, think before you speak.  Think before you act.  Put your children first.  Remove the hostile emotion before you address your spouse.   I realize that this is easier said than done and that many people will not be able to resist the temptation of disrespecting their spouse in a public, yet somewhat distanced, forum like Facebook.   Those that fall prey to such temptation will likely need the services of a good Family Law attorney.

M. J. Goodwin has practiced Family Law in Anderson, South Carolina since 1991.  If you need  a divorce lawyer in Anderson, Greenville, Abbeville, Oconee or Pickens County, call 864-375-0909 or contact her atmj@mjgoodwin.com

Monday
Mar172014

Legal Pad: Rethinking Order to Pay Debt in Your Own Name

By M. J. Goodwin

I see a lot of Family Court orders that read:  “Each party shall pay the debt in his or her own name.”  Sounds fair, right?  But is it really prudent or even necessary to have this order?  Maybe not, if the debts are not joint debts.

Married people borrow money.  Sometimes together (as joint borrowers) and sometimes not (as an individual borrower, think that American Express card that you got in your sole name).  If the debt was incurred during the marriage, it is marital debt and subject to equitable division by the Family Court.  If the debt is in both names (joint debt), it needs to be dealt with by the Court.  The best solution is obviously to pay off the joint debt.  Paying it off would mean that it did not damage (at least any further) either party’s credit score.  However, paying it off may not be realistic.  If you have to keep paying it, the best way to have that ordered, in my opinion, is to have one spouse responsible for that monthly payment, with the other spouse having access to the records to insure that the payment is actually made.  The one who is not ordered to pay it should keep regular check on the payment status.  

 It is important to remember that just because the Family Court orders that the husband or wife has to pay a particular joint debt bill, the creditor is not bound by that order and can seek repayment from either debtor.  This confuses a lot of Family Court litigants.  They seem to believe that the Court order supersedes the contract that was entered on the loan.    Such is not the case and an uninformed litigant could find him or herself being sued for collections on a debt that the other spouse is ordered to pay.  The remedy in such a situation is a Family Court contempt action.  But that won’t fix the credit damage.

But what about debt that is only in the name of one spouse?  This is different.  My typical advice is that if the debt is only in one name and is not a debt that the other party should legally or morally be responsible for paying, then it is best for the Order to remain silent on the debt.  Why would anyone want to be ordered to do something?   So for example, if you got a TV at Best Buy, bought on credit in your name only, and you kept the TV, you would not want to be ordered to pay that bill.  However, if you got a TV at Best Buy, in your name only, and your spouse kept the TV, you might want to seek  to have your spouse ordered to pay that bill.   If your spouse is ordered to pay that bill, you should monitor the bill and make sure it gets paid.  Assuming it is paid is not a safe course of action.

If the other spouse insists on an order similar to the “Each party shall pay the debt in his or her own name” a better option is to ask the Court to order “There are no marital debts to divide.”  This does not put an additional affirmative order on either party regarding the debts.

There are many options for dividing debt and assets at the time of separation or divorce.  The only way to know all your options and make the best choice for yourself is to hire a qualified domestic relations attorney.  It is folly to attempt to resolve these issues without competent counsel.

With 22 years of Family Court experience, M. J. Goodwin is the founding attorney of Goodwin & Pruette, Attorneys at Law, LLC, with offices in Anderson, South Carolina.  Goodwin & Pruette practice trial law in Upstate South Carolina, with an emphasis on Family Court matters.

Sunday
Dec292013

Legal Pad: Is Going to Trial Worth the Risk?

By M. J. Goodwin/Founding Attorney, Goodwin & Pruette, Attorneys at Law, LLC 

Twenty-two years in South Carolina’s Family Courts has taught me many things.  I’ve learned more than just the application of the academic law taught in Law School.  I have also learned about human nature and how it interacts in the legal environment.  A break-up of a family is sad.  Divorces are sad; custody cases evensadder.  If the issues between the parties can be resolved by agreement, that is by far the best route.  Because a trial goes beyond sad.  A trial is akin to a war.  A trial, while just another day in the life of a lawyer, can be accurately called a tragedy for the parties involved.  

A trial is a risk.  There is the obvious risk of losing.  A party may come out significantly worse that he or she would have been via a compromise resolution.  Judges often view cases as an “all or nothing” proposition.  But there are other, more insidious aspects of trials that make them undesirable.

Trials consist of lawyers calling witnesses.  So many times I have had persons say “put me on the stand!” That person is eager to testify, to tell his or her story.  That person has no real concept of what testifying means.  It is so much more than just answering questions and giving evidence favorable to the “side” one supports.   People forget that the litigants, if they have children, are still a family long after the custody trial is over.  That is important.  In that respect, Family Court is unlike criminal court or civil court.  One does not attend weddings with the guy that ran the red light and one’s car. One can expect to see the father or mother of one’s child from time to time.  Many of those events will be for things important to the child:  school functions, football games, dance recitals, graduations, weddings, births of grandchildren, grandchildren’s functions.  Yes, life goes on.  Everything a witness says is recorded for posterity.  Even transcribed if one choses to buy the transcript.  So all those hateful, possibly slanted things that are said during trial are out there.  They can never be “unsaid.”  Emotional fractures that may have healed may be rendered permanent as the result of a trial.  And future events may be much more tense than they need to be due to the testimony elicited at trial.

A trial airs everyone’s dirty secrets, to everyone in the litigants’ lives.  This is also a concept not widely considered before litigants trudge headlong into a trial.  The dirty secrets don’t stay in the Courtroom.  They come out.  This happens very quickly.  A supporting witness, perhaps a neighbor or church member, is asked “Are you aware that Mr. Jones has a drinking problem?” or “Are you aware that Mrs. Jones gave Mr. Jones a sexually transmitted disease?”  The very nature of the question gives away much private information.  But for trial, many painful private secrets would have remained private.  These secrets then make their way around the church, the school, the sports teams, the neighborhood, etc.   

So why go to trial?  Sometimes there are very good reasons to go to trial.  Sometimes it is absolutely necessary.  If there is no room for compromise, go to trial.  If things are so bad that it is absolutely better for a stranger (the Family Court Judge), with limited information, to make the decisions regarding the most intimate aspects of one’s life, go to trial.  Otherwise, attempt to compromise and settle the case. 

After 22 years, if I have all the relevant information, I have found that I can pretty accurately predict the outcome of most cases for my clients.  That is not to say that I am always correct or that I get every detail exactly as the Judge ultimately orders it, but I can get in the ballpark.  There are few new frontiers in Family Court.  Some clients choose to listen, others do not.  That is a personal decision each client must make.  But it is important for clients to leave their emotions out of any decision making in Family Court.  And that is a tall order. Not everyone can do it and those folks will always have trials.

When seeking an attorney, be sure to inquire about the attorney’s ability to settle cases and reach beneficial compromises, as well as the attorney’s trial experience.  Both are important for competent representation in Family Court.

M. J. Goodwin, is a partner in Goodwin & Pruette, Attorneys at Law, LLC, which is located at 113 North Main Street, Anderson, SC 29621.  864-375-0909.  The information in this column is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice for any given situation.  Only clients who have hired M. J. Goodwin, Attorney at Law, LLC, are receiving actual legal advice that pertains to their particular situation.  If you would like to hire M. J. Goodwin, Attorney at Law, LLC to represent you in your family, criminal or civil court action, please call 864-375-0909.

Monday
Jan212013

Legal Pad: Divorce Creates Insanity in Families

By M. J. Goodwin/Founding Attorney, Goodwin & Pruette, Attorneys at Law, LLC 

Even though it was well over twenty years ago, I vividly recall my first day of “Domestic Relations” class in law school.  My professor, twice divorced himself, stood at the podium and stated loudly:  “Every human being going through a divorce is legally insane.  Remember that.  Write that down.”  Of course this got some chuckles from the class and then we dove into the material.  I wrote it down asinstructed.  And I might have forgotten it had I not written it down.  It wasn’t on the exam for the course and it wasn’t on the Bar exam.  It was lost for a few years in the minutia of legal study and early practice as an Assistant Solicitor.  However, as a young lawyer striking out on her own in 1994, after three years in criminal court, I dug out those notebooks and saw that first line of notes.  I was opening a Family Law practice.  I already had a few clients.  It finally hit home as to what my professor had meant.  

I remember well my first domestic client.  He was going through a divorce.  There was one child of the marriage, a daughter, who was 11 years old.  His wife was attempting to severely restrict his access to the child for no sound reason.  And this was slowly driving him insane.  So my role as his attorney was to get him through the divorce equitably and preserve his relationship with his child, a relationship that his wife was fighting so hard to destroy.  We ultimately were able to do just that.  He actually ended up with joint custody after a hard fought battle.  But the battles take their toll, financially and emotionally.

 

My first Guardian ad Litem cases were equally enlightening.  One involved a child of a couple who ended their marriage in a murder-suicide, whose grandparents fought a long battle for her future.  That child suffered a lot.  Both sets of grandparents suffered a lot.  Another involved a man who had fathered two children and who blew in and out of their lives like the wind, touting his “parental rights” to them.  Again, a lot of suffering to go around.

My point is that Family Court is a place that is about much more than law.  It is about families.  Ideally, our families are our source of joy.  They can also be our source of “crazy.”  When lawyers and the Family Court become involved, my professor’s words ring true.  I would re-word it a little.  I would venture to say that every litigant in Family Court is undergoing some level of extreme psychological and emotional stress.  These clients are best served by an attorney who understands that and who serves not only the client’s legal interests, but recognizes the emotional and psychological issues and points them out to the client.  Certainly a lawyer cannot serve as a mental health counselor. But a good lawyer will be familiar with local programs, support groups and counselors to help their clients get through the Family Court process. 

M. J. Goodwin is the founding attorney of Goodwin & Pruette, Attorneys at Law, LLC.  She has practiced in South Carolina’s Family Courts since 1991.

**Disclaimer:  M. J. Goodwin, is a partner in Goodwin & Pruette, Attorneys at Law, LLC, which is located at 113 North Main Street, Anderson, SC 29621.  864-375-0909.  The information in this column is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice for any given situation.  Only clients who have hired M. J. Goodwin, Attorney at Law, LLC, are receiving actual legal advice that pertains to their particular situation.  If you would like to hire M. J. Goodwin, Attorney at Law, LLC to represent you in your family, criminal or civil court action, please call 864-375-0909.

Monday
Dec172012

Legal Pad: Three Myths of Criminal Court  

By M. J. Goodwin

Founding Attorney, Goodwin & Pruette, Attorneys at Law, LLC 

I have worked in the criminal justice system of South Carolina for over 20 years.   I have been a prosecutor in both General Sessions (“big court”) and Summary or Municipal Court.  I have defended all sorts of cases from murder to DUI.  Every time I think I have heard or seen everything, I am reminded that such a feat is not possible.  My clients always seem to find another niche of the law for me to ponder.  But there are a few mythsthat come up again and again in criminal defense work.  It is my belief that these myths are planted and nurtured by the “jailhouse lawyers.”  Desperate people believe these myths in hopes of finding the magic way out of trouble.  These defendants would be better served if they were simply properly represented and followed the advice of counsel.

This writing is devoted to debunking some common myths that are routinely stated to me as fact by defendants in criminal cases. 

  1. “The State has to make me three offers before I plead guilty.”  WRONG!  You have a right to a trial by jury.  You have no right to plead guilty.  The State is not required to make you any plea offers at all.  If the State does make you a  plea offer, you should consider the evidence against you and weigh your chance of conviction by a jury and that possible punishment against what is offered to you.  Typically plea “bargains” are offered to induce guilty pleas and move the State’s docket along.  They generally are for a lesser charge or lesser sentence.  Some general rules to consider are that if a plea offer changes a violent charge to a non-violent charge, it can considerably reduce the potential for actual jail time.  If a plea offer is for probation, then the immediate risk of incarceration is gone, but a long term risk of incarceration remains if the probation is violated.
  2. “I am entitled to a bond hearing every thirty days.”  WRONG.  You are entitled to a bond hearing.  Once bond is set or denied, you do not have a right to go back to Court every thirty days to ask that the bond be set or lowered.  Just because you cannot pay a bond does not mean that the bond is unreasonable.  The criteria for bond are whether the Defendant is a threat to the community or a flight risk.  If you are out on bond and are arrested again, most Judges will deem you a risk to the community.
  3. “My charges will be thrown out because the police did not read me my rights.”  WRONG.  Miranda rights are only required during custodial interrogations by the police.  In those situations, law enforcement presents the person giving a statement with a waiver of rights form that is signed and made part of the investigation.  If the police do not question you, they do not have to read you your rights.  If you blurt something out to the police, that statement is likely admissible whether or not the police have read you your rights.  In all cases, you do have a right to remain silent.  It is most prudent to remain silent.  In my experience, remaining silent is very difficult for defendants to do.  Consequently, they are often convicted with their own statements.

What you can and should do is protect yourself legitimately and intelligently.  If you find yourself charged with a crime, be quiet.  Do not make any statements.  Resist the temptation to explain yourself.  Retain a lawyer immediately.  Make sure that attorney is well versed in criminal defense.  Your entire future may depend on it. 

**Disclaimer:  M. J. Goodwin, is a partner in Goodwin & Pruette, Attorneys at Law, LLC, which is located at 113 North Main Street, Anderson, SC 29621.  864-375-0909.  The information in this column is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice for any given situation.  Only clients who have hired M. J. Goodwin, Attorney at Law, LLC, are receiving actual legal advice that pertains to their particular situation.  If you would like to hire M. J. Goodwin, Attorney at Law, LLC to represent you in your family, criminal or civil court action, please call 864-375-0909.