I am disgusted. Utterly disgusted. Not with my client, or even opposing party (scoundrel that he is). I am disgusted with my client’s prior attorney’s failure to protect her interest in retirement accounts acquired during marriage, but held solely in husband’s name. I am disgusted with prior counsel’s failure, over a period of years, to subpoena the records to prove the existence of the money, or to even serve basic discovery. I am disgusted with prior counsel’s utter failure to send so much as a NOTICE OF ADVERSE INTEREST to the holder of the funds – even more disgusted that the fund was never joined to the action, which would have prevented Husband from accessing a dime of that money without a court order, and would have prevented Wife’s tremendous and irrecoverable loss.
Nearly $600,000 in community property, tax-deferred funds was completely, irretrievably GONE, well over a year before we were hired by Wife.
Husband spent six years in court denying the money existed. His attorney helped him with that. Wife told her prior attorney the name of the institution where she believed the money was deposited during marriage very early in the proceedings. I know this because I read a letter from Wife’s prior attorney to opposing counsel asking for that information which was written less than a year after the Petition was filed… six years ago.
We came into the case after six years of unsuccessful and expensive litigation which accomplished nothing. A review of the file was a case study in the blind leading the blind. We came in on a shoestring budget because this woman had almost nothing left and she just wanted to know if the money had ever existed – enough years of Husband’s lies, abetted by his attorney, aided by complete inaction on the part of Wife’s prior attorney, was actually causing our client to doubt her sanity. We spent $600 to send subpoenas to the initial holder of the tax-deferred funds, as reported by Wife, and to all of Husband’s known bank accounts. $600. Less than 1/1000 of the value of the missing money.
Three months after we came into the case on Wife’s behalf, we obtained the records by deposition subpoena. The money had existed, all right, at the onset of proceedings. After separation Husband blew through that money on living expenses. He stopped working – at age 65, one year after the Petition was filed – and enjoyed an extraordinary lifestyle, in which he bought absolutely nothing of value that we could attach to try to recover some of our client’s share of that money.
Before we came into the case, prior counsel even agreed to sell the family residence and divide the proceeds, without bothering to look into the inheritance my client put into that house, without even considering asking the Court to order the proceeds held until the existence of the funds could be ascertained. He had already spent all his proceeds from the house, too, so we could not even grab his share of the house to make her whole – that, too, was gone by the time Wife hired us.
I obtained a judgment against Husband on Wife’s behalf, for an enormous amount; missing money + sanctions for willful non-disclosure and waste of a community asset. He’ll never pay it. He owns no property anywhere in the civilized world. He has no bank accounts with a balance over $2,000. He’s retired, living now on social security. I have no doubt he’ll walk into bankruptcy court in the near future, and shed that judgment.
I love the law. I love practicing Family Law. I believe that good counsel, appearing before good judges, can almost always get to the right result. The purpose of the Family Code is – I think, in large part – to protect people, physically and financially, from those who were closest to them and to whom they are most vulnerable. This case is emblematic of all those arrogant, lazy attorneys who think Family Law is just about “pots and pans” and who believe “any attorney can do it.” Family Law is so much more than that: in this case, it was about whether a wife of many, many years will live out her days homeless, or eating dog food so she can have a roof over her head.
The moral of this story? For your own sake, don’t choose an attorney for your Family Law proceeding who isn’t extensively experienced in THIS area of law. Ask about his/her experience; if he/she is a young attorney, make sure they’ve got a good, experienced supervising attorney behind them. Ask how much continuing legal education the attorney does each year in the area of Family Law, as well – most attorneys do the minimum MCLE requirement established by the State Bar, and that’s roughly 8 hours per year, and not necessarily in the area of Family Law. By way of comparison, every attorney at our firm does over 20 hours per year in just Family Law-specific training, and the Firm pays for our paralegals to get 15-18 hours of attorney-level training each year.
Because nothing is more expensive than an incompetent attorney.