The purpose of a blog is not to recount war stories. But war stories can be illustrative. We represent a client whose wife is a homemaker. She has the skill set to seek employment as a teacher but, for a variety of reasons, some reasonable, some not, she has not sought employment. On behalf of Husband, we have calculated the support due and advised our client to pay it. We did so on the basis of wife having a -0- earning capacity, even though time has made that position more and more unrealistic on wife’s behalf. Wife is represented by a smart attorney. We know that if she thought her client was undersupported she would take the matter to court. After more than two years of proceedings she has threatened court but never filed. Some might argue that because she did not file, our client must be overpaying. In our judgment those people are not in business of assessing the cost of litigation and offsetting that against the broad range of possible outcomes if the case was litigated. Experience tells us to follow our gut after running several series of calculations.
In recent months wife has begun an email campaign to convince her husband to pay more. We have told our client not to dismiss that request but the only reason to pay more than our recommended amount would be if Wife came through with a comprehensive proposal to settle the entire case. That would save the cost of further litigation and allow our client to formulate his own “plan” to right himself financially.
This week, the email campaign went into high gear. The client forwarded to us an email proclaiming that the $5,500 in monthly child and spousal support she was receiving was insufficient to meet her needs. Some readers will dismiss such claims as ludicrously high. Others would disagree. Our client has net income of roughly $12,500 per month. Forty-five percent is the “right” amount due based upon our calculations. This estimate is based upon the guidelines now in effect in Pennsylvania for primary custodians who are not working and have primary custody of two children. The email noted what the children were not doing and how disappointed they were to not be going to particular activities where a fee is involved. The email even alleged that there was no money to take the children to the dentist.
This drove our client to the edge. The client began to chain email us and then to call. What would we do? The family employs a psychologist to help them deal with child custody issues. Our client phoned the psychologist, who, appropriately told our client that children should not be immersed in financial issues. The client forwarded this advice to his spouse. The reply was that he could tell their elementary school daughter that she would miss out from her upcoming activity as there was no money.
The client shared his reply to this with us. He started out well. He was paying what his lawyers told him was appropriate support. He did not tee off on his wife about her ability to secure employment. But then he slipped over the edge. “Tell Nancy (their daughter) to call me.”
Nothing good could come of this, so we stopped our other projects and intervened. The psychologist had just told our client to keep the children out of support decisions. The only reason he was going to speak to his child was to address the “need” for the upcoming activity. If he took the call he was going to get a crying kid. Not many fathers can say no to a crying child who is not in their custody. They give in. And in so doing they send two “wrong” messages. The first is that the key to getting money out of a spouse is to use the kid. Bad precedent for the child and for the custodial parent. The second message is more invidious. The message to the child is that the real power is not with the custodial parent but with the spouse with the money. The message to the child is that “Mom is powerless, Dad is the one who makes things happen.”
We advised our client to do nothing. He was paying adequate support. No one was in any real distress. We had a child who, like all children, was needy. If he stepped forward and satisfied the need, he was creating a cycle of demands without a foreseeable end. The child learns to call a parent and cry for whatever was her need. The dependent spouse learns to couch any need as a child’s need and let the child carry the water.
Is this always the answer? Yes and no. There are times when an event is so unique or so important that exception should be made. But the basic premise of all support is that “needs” of divorced couples should be planned and budgeted, not handled extemporaneously. Costs are difficult to manage in a world where parties live together. Once they split and occupy two homes, costs are all the more problematic.
There is collateral damage as well. Seven or more emails and a phone conversation all made the cost of divorce more unmanageable. In an age when a phone is always at one’s side and text messages offer instant access to attorneys, clients tend to forget that they are spending real money. Last week our client was ruminating about the fact that his divorce costs were mounting. Today he racked up charges that did not bring him any closer to concluding his divorce. Rather, he came perilously close to making it last longer by creating a cycle where both his spouse and his child could increase their household budget by resort to claims of dire need.
Instant access can be a good thing. But it is also an expensive thing. It is not uncommon for clients to be staggered by a legal bill where they have indulged in hours of instant access legal counseling over relatively innocuous issues.