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Penny Wise and Pound Foolish (or, You Get What You Pay for)

I relate this sad story to future clients as, alas, a cautionary tale.

Several years ago, a man and woman decided to divorce after a fairly long marriage (I won’t give you specifics here; ethics forbid it). The man wanted to save money, and refused to pay for an attorney. He convinced his wife to go with him to a non-attorney mediator. Who needs attorneys, after all?

Well, Husband saved himself the minimal legal fees he would have paid to a competent attorney to work out the agreement and draft a good judgment. But the mediator drafted nothing more than the agreement the parties reached: Husband would pay non-modifiable spousal support, in a fairly high amount, for… well, forever. You see, no one thought to include a termination date for that support obligation prior to the death of either party. Not even upon Husband’s retirement.

Years go by. The statutory deadlines for vacating or correcting the judgment slid past, unnoticed. Husband remarried. New Wife didn’t like him paying Old Wife. That was a big monthly pile of money and New Wife didn’t like it leaving her household to go to another woman.

Into our office Husband comes. He hired one of my partners. My partner gave good advice: the judgment cannot be set aside at this point. Unless Old Wife agrees, Husband is stuck paying spousal support, at the amount set forth in the judgment, pretty much until one of them dies. My partner worked hard, got Old Wife and her attorney to the negotiating table. My partner wheeled and dealed on Husband’s behalf and pulled off a miracle: he reached an agreement with opposing counsel that included the much-desired termination date. That agreement would have saved him hundreds of thousands of dollars over the coming years.

But that was not good enough for New Wife. The proposed termination date wasn’t soon enough, and Husband would have to make concessions to get it. New Wife said no. To please New Wife, Husband rejected the settlement which would have gotten him an end date for his support obligation to Old Wife.

New Wife yelled at my partner. Husband yelled at my partner. I’m the managing partner for the Firm and they both yelled at me. My partner got a bad review. Husband went on line, out of county, and found a self-proclaimed “expert” who – after only a 30-minute meeting! – had a “game plan” and could Get Him What He Wanted. Without, mind you, the give and take of settlement.

Since we were fired – and since I knew we were right – I kept an eye on this case over the last year.

New lawyer filed a motion to terminate spousal support. It was poorly drafted, had no facts to back it up (merely Husband’s “belief”), and was contrary to the law. New lawyer didn’t even cite the law. One doubts he ever read the Judgment.

Old Wife hired a good local attorney who knows the law, and read the Judgment.

Argument ensued. Old Wife’s attorney said very little: under the law, and under the facts of this case and the terms of the Judgment, the Court CANNOT grant Husband the requested relief. None of it. Oh, and Husband should have to pay for Old Wife’s attorneys fees, because he should have known better.

New lawyer huffed and puffed about justice, fairness, and the outrage of it all. He didn’t bother with the law (in all fairness the law couldn’t help him).

The Court denied the motion to terminate or even reduce spousal support. The Court ordered Husband to pay a HUGE number for Old Wife’s attorneys’ fees and costs to defend that meritless motion.

And then… Old Wife’s attorney filed a Contempt action, for Husband’s willful failure to pay support as he’d agreed and been ordered in that Judgment. Many, many counts of contempt – one for each missed payment. And each of those counts can potentially result in up to five days in jail.

For the money Husband paid his new attorney, and now has to pay to Old Wife’s attorney, and is going to have to pay to get out of the contempt charges (if he can), Husband could have paid Old Wife under the terms of the settlement we had in hand, and gotten his termination date. Now Husband has made an enemy of Old Wife; I doubt she’ll ever let him stop paying her alimony.

Moral to the story:

You get what you pay for.

A bird in the hand is better than a bird in the bush.

If you hire an expert, listen to him.