Divorce Drama a Shakespearean Tragedy

DSC00280I first wrote about the mega-divorce of British couple Scot and Michelle Young in August 2013 after Mr. Young was sentenced to six months in jail for failing to pay $1 million in support. I predicted that by the time the matter went to trial he would “lawyer-up” with the best attorney money could buy! But I was wrong… Scot Young acted for himself in his divorce trial in October 2013, a move that fit his litigation strategy of “I’m broke”.

The outcome? Here’s the Young divorce, “By the numbers”:

$6.5 million Legal costs expended by Michelle Young

$5 million Legal costs ordered to by paid by Scot Young to his wife

65 Total number of court hearings

20 Days of trial

13 Sets of lawyers hired/fired/discharged by Michelle Young

6.5 Years it took to resolve the case

4 Sets of accountants hired by Michelle Young

$300 million Amount of money sought by Michelle Young

$32 million What Michelle got from the judge

10,000 Pages of court documents

6 months in jail for Mr. Young for failing to produce financial documents, but he only served three months

British newspapers reported that Michelle Young was angry that the court refused to find that her husband was hiding a billion dollar in assets and called the decision a “disgrace”. She also said her next herculean task was to collect the money she is owed.

As for the trial judge, Mr. Justice Moor remarked that the Young case was a prime example of how not to conduct divorce litigation.

While Young plead poverty throughout the divorce proceedings it was reported he purchased a six-carat diamond engagement ring for his girlfriend, British reality star, Noelle Reno.

But no one could have guessed the last chapter of this British drama. In 2014 Scot Young tragically flung himself out of a window of his $4.5 million dollar London apartment and impaled himself on the railing below. Rumours abound that his apparent suicide was in fact retaliation from the Russian mafia who he allegedly owed millions of dollars.

Mr. Young left two beautiful daughters. Even Shakespeare couldn’t have penned this modern tragedy.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Alaska Introduces Pet Custody Laws

phoenixIs it just me or does it seem there has been a pet explosion in North America? The American Pet Products Association reports that pet owners spend almost $60 billion dollars a year on pet industry products for their four-legged friends.

There certainly can be no doubt that our pets are a part of the family and like children, they are often overindulged. Little outfits, santa claus hats and hallowe’en costumes for our cats and dogs are old hat, now you can pay for pet massage, pet travel agents who arrange transportation for pets, snake-training for pets, and pet funerals.

Of course, pet owners are now also litigating who gets to keep their beloved animals upon their separation and you’d be amazed how often pets become a major issue in divorce matters. So much so that there are now lawyers who only do “pet law”.

So it is not surprising that several jurisdictions are considering amending their legislation to include laws governing pet custody after marriage breakdown.

Alaska appears to be the first state to introduce a bill that would deem “pets” to be divisible family property upon divorce, with the best interests of the pet as the guiding principle.

Representative Liz Vazquez introduced the bill, with bipartisan co-sponsorships.

The bill defines animal as vertebrates, such as dogs and cats, and specifically excludes fish.

It also would add a pet-related section to the rights of victims of domestic violence, allowing abuse victims to file a petition with the court to obtain custody of an animal living in the same household as the abuser and/or preventing the abuser from disposing of the animal. So many times I have heard stories of pets being abused, stolen, or worse, as retaliation for a relationship gone bad.

With North American’s zest for pets, these laws will likely be introduced in other states and provinces. Needless to say, pet litigation should be avoided and separating pet owners should work out a schedule to accommodate the sharing of their pet. Just like shared parenting!

PS The puppy pictured above is Phoenix, a cockapoo, age 8.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Wife Seeks Support 30 Years After Separation

GAL & PAL #2jpgImagine that you married when you were 20-years-old, had a child with your spouse and separated three years later. During the marriage you lived a peripatetic “new age hippy” lifestyle surviving on welfare benefits, with not a penny to your name.

Would you be surprised when your ex-wife, thirty years later brought a claim against you for financial compensation?

In a rags to riches tale, British entrepreneur and founder of wind farm company Ecotricity, Dale Vince, has battled his former spouse for several years to defeat her claim against him. She is asking for almost 2 million pounds.

Mr. Vince created a wind turbine from recycled materials, a venture that brought him millions of pounds and an Order of the British Empire.

Living in the lap of luxury with his second wife and their child, life was good. But not so good for his ex Kathleen Wyatt. When the marriage ended she took responsibility for their son, her daughter from a previous marriage, and went on to have two more children with her second husband, a marriage that also ended in divorce. Husband #2 also failed to provide financial support.

Ms. Wyatt approached Mr. Vince privately to see if he might be persuaded to assist her financially. He would not, and so she left the matter alone, claiming she was intimidated by his anger in response to her requests.

Her first foray into court in 2011 was successful, the lower court ruling that since the matter of support had never been settled or litigated, and given there was no statutory time limit to seek support, her claim could proceed.

Happily for Dale Vince, the English Court of Appeal disagreed with the lower court. Lord Justice Jackson said the court “should not allow people to be harassed by claims for financial relief which were issued many years after the divorce and had no real prospect of success.” The Court also noted that Mr. Vince was “the most improbable candidate for affluence.”

Alas for Mr. Vince, this week five members of Britain’s highest court, the House of Lords, overturned the appeal court’s ruling. Lord Wilson, for a unanimous court, ruled that the court must consider “the contribution of each party to the welfare of the family, including by looking after the home or caring for the family”.

Mr. Vince characterized his ex’s win as her “cashing in an old lottery ticket” however, the decision made by the Law Lords only allows her to pursue her claim. It does not guarantee her any amount of money and it is notable that the Court cautioned that it was unlikely she would receive anything close to millions of pounds.

The decision has received much media attention with Ms. Wyatt’s supporters suggesting that Mr. Vince went on his merry way unencumbered to achieve fame and fortune, while Ms. Wyatt cared for his son with no financial assistance from him.

Those who support wind-farm tycoon Mr. Vince decry the ruling saying that because Ms. Wyatt remarried and had two additional children, she should look to their father for support. They also criticize a media report that Mr. Vince has so far paid half a million pounds in legal fees, including his payment of Ms. Wyatt’s legal expenses. They protest that if she wishes to bring a claim against him, she should pay for it!

The next chapter of this litigation will be carefully watched and no doubt, appealed at every level.

As for former spouses in British Columbia, it is always dangerous to leave family matters “undone” and yes, there have been several cases where spouses have brought claims long after separation and been successful.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Meddling Friends No Help in Divorce

If you are going through a divorce you need all the support you can muster, particularly if you find yourself in the midst of the “affidavit” wars, a stage of divorce litigation where nasty allegations fly fast and furious, and usually turn out to be highly exaggerated and embellished.

It is not unusual for clients, particularly female clients, to visit their lawyer’s office with a sympathetic friend in tow, a practice that I do not discourage subscribing to the theory that friends make the burden lighter.

However, with the recent explosion of “grey” divorce, family law lawyers have noticed that the adult children of their clients are “interfering” in the process, making their jobs more difficult.

Sometimes the interference is the intentional undermining of the legal advice provided by the lawyer to their elderly parent, other times it is directed at the adult offspring’s concern about the loss of their future inheritance, or their desire to force the reconciliation of their parents, a goal that while laudable, may not be in their parent’s best interests, particularly where the marriage is marked by chronic family violence.

Whether the adult child is cajoling their parent to rewrite their will, or sending abusive missives to the parent they deem to be the “guilty” party, most of these tactics only serve to escalate the conflict between their parents.

Well-known British divorce lawyer and media commentator, Marilyn Stowe, remarks:

“A client should be able to rely upon their legal team 100 per cent. Friends (and family) play a completely different role, which is socially centred. It is free of the professional ethics, scruples, obligations, privilege and confidentiality that are the lawyer’s domain.”

Certainly, if you are paying a lawyer hundreds of dollars an hour, it is most unwise to discard their professional expertise in favour of a friend or family member, who “only wants to help”, but may have little real insight or knowledge of the process or the law.

Frankly, if you have so little confidence in your lawyer’s advice that you defer to your girlfriend, who has been through two divorces, or your son, who sees his “meal ticket” slipping away, you need to seriously consider hiring a lawyer that commands your respect.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Aged New York Husband His Wife’s Prisoner?

GEO#1Eighty-four-year old Martin Cassidy spent his career creating dinosaurs for the American Museum of National History.

His career began in 1972 when the museum was offered the articulated skeleton of a dinosaur, an acquisition that would cost $200,000, plus as much as $500,000 to send a team into the field to find, collect, pack, ship, prepare, and reassemble the gigantic beast. Realizing how financially impractical that was, his new calling began.

Over the years Mr. Cassidy and his team built life-like dinosaur facsimiles for museums around the world. It was while working at the museum that he became acquainted with New York pulp and paper billionaire and philanthropist Ira Wallach, whose charitable foundation provided funding for the famous museum.

Eventually he met Ira Wallach’s daughter, Kate Wallach, and before their 1987 marriage he signed a pre-nuptial agreement. Kate allegedly told him it was necessary to “make her family more comfortable”. Her father died in 2007 at the age of 97, and left her $200 million dollars.

During their 28-year May-December marriage they had five children. In Mr. Cassidy’s recent divorce court filing he deposed that while his wife luxuriates in their lavish $20 million dollar Long Island estate, he is relegated to a dark, dank area above the garage outfitted with a small bed and two rickety folding chairs.

There is a toilet, but no bath or shower, and he uses a nail pounded into the wall to hang his meagre wardrobe. His daily menu consists of canned soup and he receives $2,500 a month to meet his expenses.

Martin Cassidy explains in his filed affidavit that he is “literally and figuratively a prisoner” of his wife who he says is waiting for him to die so that she doesn’t have to share any of her large estate with him.

Kate Wallach’s lawyer, Kenneth, Weinstein, says Mr. Cassidy lives in a “beautiful home with surroundings he has chosen” and that his client’s husband is suffering from dementia. She reportedly does not wish to divorce.

A court-appointed guardian who is overseeing the process to determine his mental status has remarked that his living accommodation is “far from luxurious”.

In a recent court application Mr. Cassidy sought an order that his wife pay him $30,000 a month so he can move to his own rental accommodation. The Court ruled that pending the mental evaluation he should remain in the family home. His lawyer, Bettina Hindin, is appealing the order. She remarked:

“Imagine, solely as the result of being a divorce litigant, a court can force you to live with the spouse you are trying to rid yourself of.”

My observations? If the tables were turned and Kate Wallach was the victim of the circumstances described, a spousal support order would have been granted tout-suite, and probably for a lot more than $30,000 a month.

After 28-years of marriage and five children it is hard to imagine that a Court will not set aside the prenuptial agreement. In British Columbia these types of agreements are effective in short-term marriages with no children. Add years and children to the equation and they become less sustainable.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Final Chapter in LA Dodgers Divorce?

BarristerJamie and Frank McCourt are now more famous for their over-the-top divorce than for their eight-year run as the owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The twists and turns of their lengthy litigation could fill a book, and no doubt will!

For those of you who followed their case, you may remember the fight over their marriage agreement, made more complex and confusing because two different versions of the agreement surfaced. One agreement said that Frank McCourt would keep the ball team if the parties separated, while the second divided it equally as community property. Judge Scott Gordon threw out both agreements to the disappointment of Mr. McCourt who hoped he would prevail.

That then led to professional embarrassment and perhaps worse, for Boston lawyer, Larry Silverstein, who drafted the agreement. He testified that after both parties signed the agreement he “tinkered” with it: he changed it to say that Frank McCourt would retain the LA Dodgers. The trouble was he had six copies, three he changed and three he did not, and he didn’t tell Jamie or Frank what he had done.

He also broke two other cardinal rules: he had never practiced in the area of family law, and he acted for both Jamie and Frank McCourt, ignoring a potential conflict of interest.

But that was the least of the McCourts’ problems. Unable to meet the Dodger’s payroll, the team filed for bankruptcy and the league appointed a trustee to run the franchise.

Later in 2011 a settlement was finally achieved that saw Frank McCourt retain the ball club in exchange for a payment of $131 million to his wife, together with a portfolio of multi-million dollar homes.

Mr. McCourt eventually found a buyer for the team who agreed to pay him $2 billion dollars. Can you imagine Jamie McCourt’s wrath? She immediately filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the settlement agreement, alleging her husband had misled her with regards to the value of the team and television broadcast rights.

The trial judge tossed out her court action reasoning that her evidence that she was not provided with sufficient financial information was not credible. The Court noted that Mr. McCourt had disclosed 220,000 pages of financial documentation. He also found that as a director of the ball club she had seen documents estimating the value of the Dodgers at $2.3 billion. The trial decision was affirmed this week by the California Court of Appeal who said:

“Jamie simply chose the security of a guaranteed $131 million payment, plus more than $50 million in real and personal property, over the uncertainty and risk presented by the valuation and sale of the Dodger assets.”

It is reported that the McCourts’ legal fees up to the settlement exceeded $19 million dollars.

Mrs. McCourt must now also pay her former husband $1.9 million for her failed attempt to overturn their deal.

Is this the final chapter? Given the McCourt’s track record I would bet it is not!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

The Curse of the In-Person Litigant

GEO_edited-1I guess I’ve been lucky because I have never had to do a trial where the opposing party acted in person, “pro se”, as they call it in the United States.

Why lucky? Because some of the worst trial horror stories involve litigants acting for themselves while their spouse has to pay a lawyer hundreds of dollars an hour to respond to often marginally relevant or unreasonable litigation tactics.

A good example is the case of G.T. v A.T. 2014 NY Slip Op 24035 where Mr. T., a well-educated engineer, just short a few credits for his doctorate degree, turned what should have been a three-day trial into a 12-day debacle.

Judge H. Patrick Leis III of the New York Supreme Court described Mr. T.’s behaviour in the opening paragraph of his Reasons:

“This case highlights the difficulties that arise when one party uses their self-represented status as both a sword and a shield in an attempt to gain undue advantage and behaves in a manner that the court would never tolerate from an attorney. The manner in which the defendant presented his minimal evidence, fueled by his own emotional agenda, lacked direction, reason and oftentimes was totally devoid of probative value.”

In many family law cases a case management judge is assigned to deal with all pretrial matters and preside over the trial. Such was the case in G.T. v. A.T., where Mr. T. and his wife brought their procedural issues to Judge Leis for resolution.

During this 18-month period Mr. T. expressed his satisfaction to the Court with the way these preliminary matters were handled.

Nothing Mr. T. said pretrial could have foretold the application he brought when the trial commenced.

With almost no notice to his wife’s lawyer, Mr. T. argued that Judge Leis should recuse (remove) himself as the trial judge because he had been “disrespectful of the parties’ culture and faith, repeatedly pressuring Mr. T. to retain counsel with coercion and threats”.

Mr. T.’s complaints of judicial threats were held to be without foundation, Judge Leis pointing out that he was in receipt of five letters from Mr. T., all glowing with praise of the judge’s pretrial rulings. Remarkably it was Mr. T. who was disrespectful, advising the judge that if he did not recuse himself he would report him to the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

But that was just Day 1. Mr. T. wasted additional court time with a rambling, unfocused, and mainly irrelevant opening statement, the gist of which was his desire to reconcile with his wife.

He then cross-examined his long-suffering wife for four days, ignoring the Court’s direction that he should ask questions of her, not deliver time-consuming, self-serving statements.

He also disregarded the Judge’s evidentiary rulings and even after admonishment carried on with lines of questioning that were beyond the scope of the trial. He refused to abandon his recusal argument and raised issues about orders pronounced by the court months before. Worst of all, he was rude and nasty, shouting aggressively at his wife and her lawyer.

Of course, the main victim of his flagrant abuse of the court system was his wife, who had to take an additional nine days of holiday from her workplace to complete what should have been a three-day trial, and was now subject to ever-increasing legal fees.

Interestingly, Mr. T. had quit his job shortly after the couple separated, a tactic that was futile, since Judge Leis imputed $120,000 income to him, despite his refusal to work.

Unfortunately, short of finding a belligerent litigant in contempt of court, all a judge can do is award costs. That’s just what Judge Leis did, saying:

“Simple justice dictates that the defendant who chooses to function from a position of anger and resentment, not be allowed to purposely drive up the plaintiff’s counsel fees and act in such an inappropriate manner, without being made responsible for all of the trial fees. Therefore, in an exercise of this court’s discretion, the defendant is responsible for all of the plaintiff’s counsel fees for trial.”

You think Mr. T. is done with court proceedings? Think again…there’s always the appeal court.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang