A LAYPERSON GUIDE. PLEASE CONSULT ALL DECISIONS WITH AN ATTORNEY . THIS WEBSITE MAKES NO LEGAL REPRESENTATION AND OFFERS NO LEGAL ADVICE. THIS WEBSITE IS SIMPLY INFORMAL OBSERVATIONS GAINED BY VARIOUS VERMONT ADULTS WHO HAVE BEEN THROUGH VERMONT"S TRAGIC FAMILY COURT PROCESS. Note a large body of information also exists at the state funded Vermont Commission for Women (women.vermont.gov).
VERMONT COURT TRICKS. Vermont VSA 665 is quite vague. If seems to specifically legislate that a child cannot have two custodial parents unless both parents agree to share custody, and it also seems to say that in making a ruling the Judge is supposed to act in the best interest of the child. So ultimately a Judge has very large discretion in chosing the winner and the loser, and determining who has to pay whom what and for how long. This unfortunately gives Vermont lawyers wide latitude to attempt to game the Vermont Family Court to create large disparity in parenting time and rights, as well as the division of assets, alimony payments, child support (not deductible), and generational family property that is in someone's will (eg. a parents house, willed to them, shared family heirloom's). Note that in general either the parties agee right away or not at all. Determine as soon as possible which camp you are in and act accordingly.
HOW THIS TRAGIC GAME IS PLAYED: In a contested divorce there is almost always a huge winner and a huge loser. The general strategy of this game of extraordinary high stakes is for the person with the winnable hand (typically the less working parent) to have conflict and try to get the other spouse to do something abusive (like a nasty email, or worse). The more the conflict, and the alimony and child support and assets money the winning spouse will get, and the more time the winning spouse will get with the kids, as Vermont's philosophy is the the rights of the so-called primary caregiver are so important that they must be preserved at all cost, even if it means loss of contact with the other spouse with the kids.
AGREEMENTS ARE OFTEN FOREVER. It is very difficult to get an court decree agreement changed. The kids getting older is not a reason for the Vermont courts to change a "visitation" schedule for the winning parent. So if one gets divorced with young children, they may face an entire childood with very little of one of the parents as younger children are often placed substantially with one parent compared to the other.
THE CUSTODIAL SPOUSE CAN LEAVE. In many cases Vermont allows the winning spouse to leave the state for just about any reason, and thus the losing spouse who wants to preserve a relationship with children must forever move and follow and chase the winning spouse across the country if they want to continue to visit with their kids.
1. DRAFTING COURT ORDERS. The opposing attorney may offer to draft the temporary or final court order for submission after the hearing. Then, he/she will ignore what was discussed in court, and modify the order to his/her client’s benefit.
Protect Yourself: Always Always Always have your attorney draft any documents for the court or between you and your wife. Never ever let the other attorney draft the documents if you can avoid it.
2. PREVENTING YOUR USE OF ATTORNEYS. Your spouse may interview all of the good attorneys in the town to prevent you from using any of them. Once a person interviews an attorney, there is an ethical conflict for that attorney to represent the opposing party (i.e., you at a later date), even if your spouse does not retain that attorney.
Protect Yourself: It is wise to be proactive and find a good attorney early – see “Attorney” section of this website. Even if you don’t use an attorney you interview, spend some time finding the right one so you are ready, and have a resource to go to when you have questions. Don’t wait until the last minute, only to find out that you have to compromise on a mediocre attorney.
3. FORCED TO MOVE OUT OF YOUR HOME. One of the first tricks Vermont lawyers play is to try to get the other spouse to move out of the house. Lawyers have even been known to even have the client hire marriage counselors / psychologists who help to persuade the other spouse to leave. Once a spouse has left, the remaining spouse can then declare to a judge that the other spouse "abandoned" the family, and therefore successfully convince a judge to award the remaining spouse both the home and it's contents, along with
Protect Yourself: Be sure you understand all of the consequences of moving out of your house. Discuss it with an attorney. You must have a court ordered visitation agreement in writing before you leave (or agreed to and submitted to the court), or your spouse will have complete control over when you see your child(ren). Make sure before leaving that you reach an agreement in writing that allows you to take everything that is important to you out of the house. Do not assume you will have access to your items in the future.
4. LIMITING TIME WITH YOUR CHILDREN. The Family Court claims its guiding principle is the best interest of the child(ren). If a spouse has spent every hour possible with his child(ren), the judge will evaluate the effect that a loss of spouse-child contact will have on the child(ren). As you can imagine, a spouse who does not see much of his children is at a disadvantage in the eyes of the court. Accurate or not, it can be assumed that the child(ren) spend more time with the mother, which leads to the assumption that the mother is the “Primary Caregiver,” which can lead to minimal visitation and high child support payments. Remember, TIME WITH KIDS = MONEY.
Protect Yourself: Maximize your time with your child, and push for as many overnights as possible (overnights are the biggest factor in determining child support). You should do this anyway, but the court will evaluate the current amount of time each parent is spending with the child(ren). An inactive spouse may expect limited visitation, whereas a spouse actively involved in his child(ren)’s life has a better chance at getting more of the time he deserves with his child(ren). Document the time you spend with your child(ren) (e.g., keep a log).
5. UNFAIR PROPOSALS. Due to the overwhelming bias against men in the Family Court, mothers are often encouraged to assume they will get custody, significantly more time with your child(ren), unreasonable child support payments, alimony…etc. Thus there is no incentive for the spouse with the winning hand (usually the non working parent) to compromise and stay out of court, because they feel they will get what they want. Vermont Family Court encourages mediation before hearings begin. At the same time, it most often grants mothers custody when both parties do not agree on joint custody. This is based on the Supreme Court of Vermont’s controversial interpretation of a State statute. Often this results in unfair proposals from the mother’s attorney because they think they can get what they demand, which exacerbates the conflict and increases attorney’s fees on both sides.
Protect Yourself. Attorneys will send proposals back and forth in an attempt to find common ground and possibly avoid going to court. (They also can increase their billable hours). Try as hard as you can not to get drawn in emotionally to this process. It is purely posturing (like a gorilla beating its chest to warn the other animals about how strong he/she is on the Animal Planet channel). It’s also negotiating. When you purchase a car and negotiate the price, you and the salesman go through the same process. Not nearly as much is at stake, but the process is the same. You’re trying to figure out the other side while acting like you will never compromise. Come up with a bottom line that you can accept, and adjust your expectations as necessary throughout the process. Keep in mind that just because your wife demands that you get minimal time with your child(ren), absurd amounts of alimony, the house, your cars, retirement accounts…etc., it does not mean a judge would award her what she demands. At the same time, don’t let useless negotiations continue.
6. ACCUSATIONS OF ABUSE, THREATS, INTIMIDATION…ETC. This is a common strategy to minimize a spouse’s time with his child(ren). This strategy ranges from completely false accusations, to provoking arguments and even fights, all to get the spouse out of the house, to get a restraining order, to keep the child(ren) away from the spouse…etc. And for men, it is often guilty until proven innocent, and innocence is hard to prove when there are only two people involved. The false but pervasive idea is that women are victims of men and their abuse and abandonment.
Keep in mind that a winning spouse will provoke the working spouse in a variety of ways to get them to “snap.” If you lose it either verbally or physically, the non working spouse has won, and you might end up losing time with your child(ren). Be very careful never to be physically close to the other, always make sure trusted people are around, never enter the house, walk the property, or open the door of the other spouses residence. Always cary a movie camera when in presence of spouse.
Protect Yourself: Go to Radio Shack, and purchase a handheld digital recorder. The more expensive it is, the more memory and recording time it has. It should come with software so you can download the recordings onto your computer. You can then burn CDs/DVDs with the recordings. Keep the recorder in your shirt pocket, record as much as you can, and record the dates and times. Another idea is to keep a video camera with you when the child(ren) transition from one parent to the other. Do not get drawn into arguments. Your wife may be trying to get you to snap, so she can claim abuse. Treat all conversations as though they will be heard by a judge. You go to the store, and have a business-like relationship with the cashier or salesperson. Act like that with your spouse. Avoid conflict. The spouse may simply be baiting you to lose it – this knowledge should be an incentive to remain calm. Go vent to your friends and family, not to your spouse.
7. KEEPING YOUR BELONGINGS. With the goal of antagonizing you, your spouse may keep your personal items by either hiding them, removing them from your home, or giving them away. Note that when a temporary order is made, the judge will order the loosing spouse out of the house, usually with only an hour or so to get belonging. SO get everything beforehand.
Protect Yourself: Early on, remove any of your personal items from your home that you would regret losing. Ideally, take your things without your spouse knowing in order to avoid a provocation, and put them in a safe place (e.g., a friend’s house, storage unit…etc.). Don’t trust that your belongings will be left for you at a later date. (Do not remove spouse property or common property).
8. IGNORING AGREEMENTS/STIPULATIONS. If it isn’t written into a court order or submitted to the court, agreements/stipulations are based on trust between parties and their attorneys. With court hearings being infrequent and expensive, it is easy for your spouse to decide to ignore a verbal or written (e.g., in an email or letter) agreement.
Protect Yourself: All agreements must be written in clear and unambiguous language. Do not rely on verbal agreements between you and your spouse OR between attorneys. If you allow verbal agreements, you will regret it when they are not followed. Preferably, your attorney should make the first draft of any written agreement. Your interests will be better protected.
9. ORDERS TO REACH MUTUAL AGREEMENTS. If a court order states that the two parties must mutually agree on a particular issue, expect problems. If you couldn’t get along, chances are you will not mutually agree on most issues in the future.
Protect Yourself: Instead, have an easy, fast, and cheap method for resolving conflict if the two of you cannot agree on an issue.
10. PREVENTING WORKING SPOUSE FROM HAVING CHILD IN LIEU OF DAYCARE. Common sense dictates that either parent should have the right to be with their child(ren) instead of the child(ren) being with a babysitter, or at daycare or preschool, yet many winning spouses reject this concept. They may insist that the losing spouse not have this right, and argue this to a judge.
Protect Yourself: Any temporary or final court order should have clear and concise language that you have a right to be with your child(ren) if they are placed with babysitters and/or in daycare/preschool. If your winning spouse works, that spouses time at work would normally provide an idea of when your child will be in daycare/preschool.
PREVENTING SPOUSE FROM ATTENDING CHILD’S EVENTS AND HAVING KNOWLEDGE OF CHILD(REN)’S PERSONAL INFORMATION
Because most working spouses do not have custody and therefore have limited time with their children, they often are not informed of events in the child’s life, doctor’s visits, education information…etc. Many non working spouses will purposefully withhold this information from the working spouse in order to limit the working spouse role in their child(ren)’s life.
Protect Yourself. Have the court order state that the parties must inform each other of all medical, education, and other activity information. Do not rely on the statute that requires doctors and schools to release this information to you. There is more to a child’s life than what doctors and schools advise you about.
ISSUES THAT ARISE IN COURT
Protect Yourself: The Family Court prefers that the parties come to an agreement on issues that arise rather than have a judge decide for the parties. In theory, the parties will be more content with the outcome, and grounds for an appeal will be limited. In practice, judges often issue general rulings, and let the parties work out the details (e.g., working spouse gets 12 overnights, parties work out a schedule) and the judge may impose time constraints to force the parties to come to agreement.
OBJECTIVELY EVALUATE ALL PROPOSALS, DEMAND TIME TO CONSIDER EACH ISSUE, DO NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE RUSHED INTO ANY DECISION WITHOUT TIME TO FULLY EVALUATE. It is extremely important that you and your attorney sit back and objectively look at any agreement you sign. Make sure that you are never rushed into signing a court order at the end of a hearing. If necessary, ask for a break, go into one of the private rooms, and slowly/carefully write or examine the language of the document. You need this time to avoid mistakes (which you probably won’t be able to correct after the hearing), and to think of how the language works for your benefit/detriment. If the order is long or complex, ask for a few days to work on it.
DON"T BE MADE OUT TO BE THE BAD GUY. The opposing attorneys may attempt to come across to the judge as the good guy, the one who seeks compromise. Don’t allow yourself to be pushed into a bad agreement by this tactic.
AVOID LAST MINUTE REQUESTS. Watch out for last minute requests and/or changes in court by the opposing attorney. You may not have time to analyze their requests properly. If necessary, make an excuse to come back to court later to discuss these issues.
DO NOT NEGOTIATE IN PART, SEE ENTIRE PROPOSAL BEFORE AGREEING TO ANYTHING. One trick employed is to try to get one party to agree to one compromise. Then layer more on step by step later. Don't do this, always negotiate with the entire proposed settlement laid out so one know's exactly what is on the table.
IF YOU ARE THE LOSER. If you have the weaker hand and are faced with being the loser with no legal custody, make SURE THE AGREEMENT IS DETAILED OUT WITH EXACT DATES, pickup and drop times, vacation dates, holiday's etc. Leave absolutely nothing to interpretation. Then live exactly to the decree absolutely as much as possible. Otherwise post - divorce the loser is easily played by the winner and the winning attorney, and will end up with substantially less time and more losses. Also, if the two ever go back to court later, the loser will go back to court as an inferior party and any conflict issues will likely result in the loser losing even more time and money.