Episode 001 of Inside the Law features divorce and family law attorney Sharon Johnson, co-founding partner of Johnson & Johnson, a law firm in Florham Park, NJ.
Address: 30 Columbia Turnpike # 200, Florham Park, NJ 07932
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In this episiode:
- How Sharon, as a young law associate, reacted to a matrimonial case file with X-rated greeting cards in it that a wife had found in her husband's desk at work, along with women's underwear
- The meaning behind unpaid funeral bills
- Her strategy starting out to take-on the stuff that everybody else was afraid to touch
- The importance of having a realistic conversation with clients and prospects about whether or not the law is aligned with where they are emotionally
- The patterns in family law mediation that that repeat themselves over and over
- Why it's important to let people know you understand what they're saying and to acknowledge how they feel
- The spouse initiating a divorce may have already been grieving the loss of their marriage for years, while the non-initiaing spouse might be hit broadside
- Fear and anxiety is probably overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing. "I think a mental health expert would help you work through that but they also can help you define your goals which makes you better at communicating."
- Can you make your spouse leave the residence?
- What is a "no-fault" divorce?
- Don't waste money to win emotional battles! Learn what is and isn't worth spending money on in a divorce
- How to react if there's domestic violence in your home, while still protecting your interests
And MUCH more...
Keywords: divorce, mediation, domestic violence, child custody, restraining orders, new jersey, nj
TRANSCRIPT: Welcome to the very first episode of Inside the law I am very pleased to have our guests today Sharon Johnson Hi there Sharon is a family law attorney she's been in practice as a co-founder of Johnson and Johnson and Florham Park New Jersey and she founded that firm with her father twenty years ago tell me about your upbringing and how you arrived at the decision to be an attorney and how you ended up in family law it's actually probably far less cerebral or dignified than one might imagine I went to college and graduated in one thousand nine hundred ninety two and it was a recession at the time and I was an English major and nobody was beating my door down to read books for a living so. I figured I had to come up with something to do and. (My father) always liked his job I can't recall a day when he was what he was doing I'm sure he had bad days we didn't know about them but he never spoke anything other than one hundred percent positively about his career path his job and what he got up and did every day so I think probably just by default that is what. Chose to do knowing that I would also have the support of my parents as opposed to. An advanced degree in something else I knew that they would be offered me whether that was financially emotionally or otherwise. And then while I was in law school and then while I was in law school my father was part of a partnership there were about five attorneys there and I would get what fell off everybody else's desk whatever kind of file they didn't want to be working on and I found a lot of fit less than interesting I mean. It probably was interesting we're talking about me as a as a twenty two to twenty five year olds for lack of a better term a kid the first matrimonial file that was given to me had some X-rated greeting cards in it that a wife had found in her husband's desk at work along with women's underwear and as strange as it is I thought wow this is super interesting in retrospect none of it needed to be there or it wasn't relevant to the file but I think just the salacious nature of it all this and I perked up and thought oh well this could be interesting I don't think at that point I fully realized the emotional component to it or all the other moving parts of this super emotional area of law but I found the facts compelling and then I just sort of got all the files that were even remotely matrimonial at that point I got all of the sort of emotional stuff I got collection work for a funeral home which was very emotional because people don't pay their funeral bells or their or their loved one's funeral bills it's because something probably went wrong in the the emotion level was really high. Even to this day at that well at the firm I met with my father I tend to get some of his work when the when the emotions are running really high the best example of that is I get the contested states and he and I will work on those together but those are very very emotional you know maybe a brother versus a sister fighting over Mom and Dad's estate and you know it comes down to did mom love you better than she loved me so it there's a lot going on in those files but to this day. Get the stuff that everybody else is afraid to touch That's interesting so that the type of case that you are drawn to most other people are fleeing from why do you think that that's something you are so drawn to and so good I think because. I don't want to say I'm desensitized but it doesn't shock me it doesn't scare me it did at the beginning but now that I know how to do it I find it to be second nature and I feel the need to run along side of my father's files not that he's not one hundred percent competent but I think I seem I want to insert myself into it to manage everybody's expectations to sort of explain to them within the framework of their really ripe emotions what the law is it's hard to be respectful of where they are emotional and still have this sort of realistic conversation with them it's a really fine line you have to walk recognizing where they are without looking like you're dismissing it but still having a realistic conversation with them about whether the law is sort of aligned with where they are emotionally in that sort of thing so I think. I do it now in the areas that are outside of family law just to sort of do a better job than my father does in terms of managing clients or tiptoeing around them because there are there are you know what their worst whether they're hurt or scared or whatever the case may be I think I just do it more often than he does so those muscles are really prime you've seen one hundred similar situations or maybe five hundred so your able to recognize this is this is this person and what they're struggling with and I know I need to just let them get the next ten minutes of ranting out of their system or whatever the right decision is. At that time yes I think that's accurate and the other thing that you just touched on is sort of leads to something else and I don't want to get too far off topic is I was trained to be a mediator on a court approved list for family law mediation but during that training there was a decent sized component of psychological training but information that was given to say that I think you recognize certain sayings there are certain patterns that repeat themselves and you know what it is when you when you see and you there are certain people that you say I have to let them as you said either just work through this and come out the other side I have to let them know that they were heard or that I understand before I tell them maybe that the law doesn't support them and they have to know that they were heard and I listened to every aspect of it and told them the aspects that aren't relevant to a judge but I heard them and then it's easier for them to accept if they know that you let them tell you every aspect of it that's important and you could tell them why it still doesn't help them or why you understand emotionally that that's important but legally it doesn't help them it may even work against them or you typically the only person who really listens to what your clients are saying and takes in all the emotions they're going through and gives them that acknowledgment and validation I think on an ongoing basis yes there are certain people who you know sort of pop into the case and pop out that may listen as it as it relates to certain topics for example a custody expert somebody doing the best interest evaluation will listen at length. Generally in the midst of a custody evaluation. You are given a certain opportunity to voice your concerns but there is no there's no validating it in that context because the expert is generally neutral they're bound by ethics and so they don't sit there and tell you how much they understand they're generally presenting sort of a poker face during an evaluation or any kind of expert assessment or analysis My mother is a social worker therapist yes and we were just speaking the other day and about the idea that perhaps people who are beginning to go through divorce or any type of emotionally charged legal event should in addition to having the best counsel they can possibly have got be in counseling so that they have the emotional support of a person that can really they can unload their feelings to and can help them through the emotional side so that they are maybe a little bit less emotional and better prepared to have the conversation with their attorney about the legal matters because that makes sense it makes perfect sense and I agree I think people are generally afraid they're hurt they're angry and sometimes there's a certain level of a lack of self-awareness for lack of a better term that the stress level is unbelievable so you especially for the non initiating spouse there's there's a spouse who's been grieving their the loss of their marriage sometimes for two years before they get to my office and then there's the other spouse who whether they were told every day for the last year or not that it's coming are still surprised when they get that letter from an attorney or a complaint in the mail and they thought they had the rest of their life planned and now all of a sudden they don't so those are the level of like. Fear and anxiety is probably overwhelming sometimes paralyzing I think a mental health expert would help you work through that but they also can help you define your goals which makes you better at communicating with me and helps me achieve those or tell you which ones are unrealistic a few years ago I had a woman come to me and her husband was the initiating spouse she clearly did not want this divorce even though maybe at the end of this it was better for her and it became evident to her at a certain point that he was having an extramarital affair she was angry she asked me every day can you get him out of the house can you get him out of the house can you get him out of the house and there's there's nothing that can get a person out of the house if they don't want to leave but for domestic violence or something that's harmful to the children or something's some emergent application just because you don't like each other and it's tense or or something to that effect doesn't mean somebody has to leave so eventually the other attorney and I came up with a plan where they the parties would share their children we had to find the financial components to it so that he would still support the household cover the roof expenses see the kids on an ongoing basis the minute I told her that it was a done deal she said well he can't leave can you make him stay she just. She was just fraught with like conflict and hurt and whatever the case may be but if she perhaps if she had had a therapist she could have been better able to identify what she was trying to achieve that makes sense how do you manage your emotions we need these are people you're with dozens or hundreds of hours I'm sure you care about them and to see them maybe one of the worst moments of their lives how do you manage. I think there's no. Clear cut answer for that I think you manage cases it comes to you it's sort of fact sensitive I think you have to be careful about boundaries and letting them know that they are not your only client and that you do your best for every client and I do I truly do my best for them there's there's a tendency for people to sort of couch what they want in the name of their children which may or may not necessarily be what's in their children's best interest so you can remind them what a judge is going to do or what a mental health expert such as a forensic psychologist doing the best interests of valuation is going to do so you sort of keep them on the straight and narrow by telling them Look I can ask for X. I can do Y. but at the end of the day if you can't resolve it this is it's going to court and this is what's likely going to happen so they know what they're the alternative is if if we can't resolve this ourselves so you have to sort of keep them grounded you can coach them to the extent that they're coachable in terms of here's how I would like you to behave in the interim but you don't want to you don't want to make a stark raving lunatic look like a great dad for just the three months before a custody evaluation because really one that I have an obligation to children and to it's not sustainable if he's a stark raving lunatic and I can get him to be on his best behavior it's going to fall apart the day after the evaluation so you just sort of have to have regular conversations with people about what you're going to be able to achieve Realistically of course money is always a factor because you know there's people who want to pound of flesh they want you to just go after that last. Ten thousand dollars just using an arbitrary figure and you can remind them that it's going to cost them eleven thousand to get there and there's people who don't mind that it's about the pound of flesh and then there's some people who put on their or their business hat and sort of make a financial decision OK I want to go back to something you mentioned a few minutes ago you talked about a hypothetical stark raving mad client of yours and you said that you have obligation to that person's children yes read up ethically attorneys are not allowed to undertake an action that is harmful to the children in the family so we don't have to be a better parent than say they are but I'm not allowed to. Extreme example would be I have knowledge that dad is a pedophile I know the dead has some history with the child and I don't reveal that and I fight for primary custody for Dad that would be unethical and on my part there's a lot of gray area though there's there's you know something short of that I could take say Dad has a short temper and mom doesn't what I would probably do in that situation is send to a parent coach or some kind of anger management or something to help dad be better and then sort of take him from where he is I mean I've had that before but the other thing often is you don't know a lot of times who's telling the truth and sometimes people don't purposefully lie to you but the conflicting stories between say Mom and Dad are night and day and and we don't know sometimes we guess and some once in a while I think we guess wrong but that's when you rely on mental health experts and it's I think it's really important if you're getting one to get a good one because there's a lot. Riding on it and your clients have to you know read this report at the end that it decides that their fate and the fate of their children and it has to look like it makes sense and we have to rely on it and say this person took the time and paid attention to these people and this is what they're recommending OK the instance where one spouse recorded the other in one of their worst moments ever it was the perfect storm of circumstances and stress and. Will a judge take that into account and say wait a second this can't be who this person is all the time or here's the evidence and you just can't you are dealing with a bad situation that's going to have an unfair outcome but you're really it's kind of hopeless you can't do anything about it if I do my job the judge would see it in the context of the bigger picture as would a mental health expert who gets this audio in there you know sort of mailed to them with a package of other things but I think a seasoned family court judge knows that there's a lot of different scenarios that could lead to this and you know there are judges are human being so judge in Maurice County might react differently than Judge C. and Passaic County but I think generally a judge who's been there more than a hot minute knows to sort of take context and afford things the appropriate amount of weight the other thing is the longer they've been there the worse they've seen. They are less horrified but then at the same time you have judges who develop sort of a hot button issue and they're like. We as attorneys know what some of those are there's a particular judge in Union County that came to sit on the bench presiding. For divorces but before that he was doing. Like the worst of the worst sort of D.C. P.P. cases so. It's what used to be die for this. Division of Youth and Family Services now it's. Division of Children. Protection and permanency So it's the people that come in and take your kids out of your house or the people that come in and bring you resources if you just need a little help OK thank you do you get a sense you might be talking to someone who's not an expert Well I think it's great if you don't know what D.C.P. N P Is it means they haven't been in your house so thank you very much I didn't think of it that way I'm glad you did yes but but those those are the hard cases those are the people that put out cigarettes on their children those are the people who do less dramatic but still harmful things they get drunk every night and scream in front of the kids and and so somebody comes into the house so now you get a judge who used to preside over those kinds of cases now he's doing what looks more civilized in terms of divorces but he still brings with him this sort of baggage that he had there and that triggers that says I will not tolerate this because it looks too much like something else so you sort of have to be mindful of who your audience is and you also rely on your experts to sort of afford it the right amount of weight they process facts but they also process psychological testing and incorporate a lot of other things into their reports so there's no one issue usually or one incident like the incident with dad in The Perfect Storm there's not usually one incident but for something truly horrible that the case stands or falls on OK so a pattern of behavior somebody this. Dr Mark Souter said he looks for lines not dots like a dot is that one perfect storm incident instance a line is lots of dots connected together where we're clearly seeing this is the person in January and February and March in May and June July and that is that part of what Yeah you look for or try to establish Yes I mean I think if you want I as parents you know that your parenting style probably isn't defined by your absolute best day or your absolute worst day it's most of those middle days and I guess that's what you're calling the line but that's what a qualified expert will look at that's even what a judge without the expert would probably look at OK that makes sense I want to go back and press one more time because when I asked about how do you take care of yourself with all these very very difficult emotional situations and you must care about your clients and you're in the midst of people's worst moments a lot of the time how do you take care of yourself and how do you think your profession has colored your view of relationships and marriage oh that's a question I think the way I take care of myself is about Yuri's you know the people as you said they're at their worst and there's no way for them to understand that this could possibly be less important to you than it is to them and I don't mean it's not important this is my job and I know that I have people's lives sort of hanging in the balance whether it's their life savings their children and things of that nature but when I go home at night I know I did the best I could and sometimes they don't sometimes they don't follow my instructions so I have to sort of turn it off I have deadlines sometimes when I have to work late but when I'm done I'm done I try not to read my emails if I'm out for the day with my children in that sort of thing and. The way it affects how I view marriage is that I think it made me realistic about marriage and what I mean by that there are plenty of people who make it to my office who wish that they weren't there and I think if they had had the. You know the ability to go back and do things over some of the might some don't want to be there just because the process is scary or there's not enough money or that sort of thing but some would take back the things they complained about the things they lost it on their spouse about and that sort of thing I think and I'm imposing this nobody really ever said this to me but it looks to me that there are some people that thought my life still would be better with that person I bitched at every day or I would still rather have them there or they were a net positive and I focused on the negatives so I think it makes me as a spouse although my husband might tell you otherwise worry about only the stuff I really believe is worth worrying about and communications important I think but I don't think you need to have my job to know that I think most people who don't end up in my office know that more OK Do you mind walking me through divorce want to one give me a sense of like OK here's how divorce works what the law seeks to accomplish in the process and just kind of that basic If you're thinking about divorce you want to know there's absolutely there's generally two ways it can start and there's one I recommend in the absence of an emergency so I'll tell you both the first way is somebody is thinking about a divorce they come and see me and say what does it look like what's it going to cost what's the process and then we initiate the divorce by sending their spouse a letter. It says. So and so is interested in getting divorced but we want to do it amicably therefore get an attorney have the attorney call me we'll see if we can work it out or so and so is interested in divorce and would like to explore mediation sicko go see an attorney and have the attorney call me and will will pick a mediator I generally try to draw only encourage the other side to get an attorney because I think. Educated negotiator is much better than an an educated one first of all the the power is even Secondly you focus on the real issues somebody else has been able to filter for me what's worth fighting about and what isn't and it's fair but we try to do it amicably whether it's you know four of us sitting down at a table whether it's me sending a client home to the kitchen table with his or her spouse to to see what they can resolve themselves to keep costs down sending them to mediation with or without attorneys that sort of thing and then if it's successful whether it's you know with the help of somebody else or not then we draft an agreement sort of circulated between the parties and their attorneys to come up with an agreement that reflects everything that was agreed upon and then. File a complaint for divorce and you can literally call the court shortly thereafter say we have a resolved case we're coming in takes about ten minutes you go in in what they refer to is put the divorce throw you testify for a couple minutes about the day to your marriage and the voluntary execution of the agreement and you're divorced. In the event that doesn't work or the letter is not well received when you say we want to work it out amicably or it is but it just sort of stalls then somebody files a complaint for divorce if that's the route you go generally it's sort of what you see on. T.V. somebody gets served they have thirty five days to answer they go in and generally get an attorney file an answer or a counter claim whatever they choose to do and then you're essentially you're in the bakery where you took that that ticket and you have a number and you're just waiting on line for them to call you and then there are certain stops along the way so the first thing you would be called into court for is something called a case management conference where the judge brings everybody and sometimes they do it over the phone which I think even though it's easier is unfortunate because I think it's helpful for litigants to get into that courtroom see how the judge works see what the process looks like and see what they're putting themselves in the middle of if they choose to really pursue every every battle that's available for them to to fight no not at all would it be helpful for people even if it only gets them two thirds of the benefit you can see an hour's worth of video showing Here's what this actually is if someone's not inclined or able to go in person to it they get a sense of it would that be helpful Absolutely there is a judge in Maurice County who used to and this was. Slightly different but I think it's sort of the same thing is before you got to trial she would make you sit in her court room and watch the trial for two full days because she wanted you to sort of see how the sausage was made to see I think how unrewarding it is how slow it is and how devoid of what you think is ripe with meaning the process is how many things are inadmissible or irrelevant and that sort of thing but just to see how it works it's not you're not getting your like you know. Dane Court the way you see it on T.V. you you pay your attorney to show up at whatever time they tell you to be there or the judge takes an hour to have you mark your exhibits in place to peel ations on the record then you get maybe an hour and a half of testimony then the staff breaks for lunch then there's an emergent application that comes in right after lunch so you break again so you might get four hours of actual court time but you paid your attorney nine hours you know to drive there sit there eat lunch and not work on something else and again to see that. It might take a day just to go through how the eighteenth tee stock split in in the ninety's into those Baby Bell and maybe that's the eighty's I'm just making up a sort of boring dry sort of. Topic and that might be your day in court when really that's not what you thought it was going to look like so yes I think it's helpful for you to see the process each step along the way the example I was using was an actual trial but I think a lot of it is helpful because I think people don't fully understand what it looks like and I mean they're not really expected to when you get to an attorney your mind is racing you have eighteen questions when I'm answering them you're really like your mind is already racing about what your next question is or I created a few new issues for you while I was talking about something else and they don't. Maybe understand how one stop along the way on the way to trial is different from another and how judges don't make decisions at certain points in your case. Unless it becomes an emergency or unless you pay your attorney quite a bit of money to put that issue in front of the judge OK. If I were your client every single time I sit down with you or speak with you on the phone it seems like I ought to have a notebook and be carefully writing down everything you say everything I'm supposed to do to follow up on so I'm just organized and I can recall your valuable advice rather than have to call you up again is that a basic you know if you're ever going to deal with an attorney make sure you do this absolutely because we'll answer the question as many times as you want but you're paying for and sometimes it's after the fact it's you know we explain something at the front end and assume you remember it so then when we get to this crossroad we assume you know what we told you but if you didn't we don't we may not even know to remind you and if even if you ask us again one it might be after the fact and two you're paying for it twice I mean the thing that you're paying for in a divorce aside from experts fees and you know expenses like depositions in court reporters over time so you really want to use it only when you have to use it the idea is we're available and we're here for you when you need us but don't need us more than you actually need us because it's just going to drive fees I like your concern about giving your clients value don't pay for the same thing three times take notes when I write when I give you that value the first time and refer to your notes later like that the reality is I'm trying to preserve your assets and your income stream and I don't think that I did a great job if I have to charge you more than the value of what we're fighting over a lot of that is in the control of the litigants some of it's outside of either of our control because the way the process runs but I want to remind people that they have the ability to sort of make it one kind of divorce versus another whether it's expensive or. And whether it's acrimonious or sort of civilized they have the ability to make it what they want it to be OK thank you I had pushed us down this tangent you were in the midst of telling us divorce one o one right the process of OK so we I think we left off at a case management conference which is your first court appearance it's just the judge basically giving you a calendar with deadlines on it trying to pin you down to what the issues are and bring in experts or set up alternative dispute resolution options to sort of get those off the table so if if the judge sees that the case management conference that custody is going to be an issue the one of the things they might do is send you to court ordered custody and parenting time mediation right out of the box and if you don't resolve it there they'll give you a deadline in which you have to hire your custody expert but that's that's the case management conference people think something substantive is going to happen there judge is going to make decisions they don't they just give you a roadmap for the rest of the divorce so now you're waiting sort of on line for the next step your case and depending on what county you're in could sort of be languishing on the things happening if something the need arises you do something called filing a motion it's you go into court with a list of what you need and why and hope that the judge is going to make a decision and it's beneficial Generally you want a judge to say order support or tweak a parenting arrangement in the meantime it's meant to be temporary so you file something about a month later you get into court and the judge will make a decision if you don't need the court's attention in the interim then the next time you end up in court is for something called an early settlement panel you go before for lack of a better term a firing squad of C.S.. Matrimonial attorneys who practice in your county on a regular basis your attorney submits a package to them they listen to the attorneys tell you what the case should be worth and then they bring the litigants in and make a recommendation for settlement they're volunteers they have no dog in the race they're objective and that is an invaluable opportunity to hear some interesting perspective on what your case is worth when I first started practicing that was a new program and people would get divorced that day they would go in they would hear it was the first time they heard from somebody else what their case was worth now because there are steps afterwards and it's her knees now it it generally my experience is it most frequently settles at the step just beyond that now the other thing that's different is back decades ago if I were to get my client divorced at the early settlement panel we would go in we would put on the record what the what the deal was and then somebody would go home and write a thirty five page agreement solidifying that now we don't like to do that and judges don't like to do it because you get them to Vorst you only put eight terms on the record and then there's a fight after the fact so it's the sloppiest divorce in the world so now even if you're settled there's nobody really wants to do it that way so you still go home and draft an agreement to make sure you have a deal before you tell a judge you have a deal if you don't settle at the early settlement panel you attend court ordered mediation and that is generally where people have been settling most frequently in my cases recently so you at once again and person volunteers their first two hours of time for Frey you attend mediation you either settle or you don't but by now you're sort of starting to run out of steam you're hearing from people. Your issues are winning issues losing issues or winning but they're going to cost you more then then you can afford or it's a proof issue you might be right but you don't have the evidence to establish that you're right so maybe there's a way to sort of split the difference for now it's not that arbitrary a mediator might not just say let's split the difference in the middle but maybe there's a way to do this that makes sense to everybody if you don't settle there the next thing you get is an intensive settlement conference which is a date with the judge where they basically call you and lock the courthouse doors until you settle and different judges take different approaches to it there's certain judges who get very involved that day I've recently had a intensive settlement conference in Maurice County where the judge was very hands on and she kept bringing us in saying what can I do tell me the issues she stayed till think seven thirty that night her staff had gone home she kept one person who didn't get paid overtime to sort of run. The equipment that evening and she said as it got late in the day if you're not if you don't settle today you're coming back tomorrow morning on my calendar because she she appropriately sensed the momentum and knew that if we stopped there and she said come back in a month that we would start a genesis the next time we came back she was in touch with the parties and listen to counsel enough to know that it was now or never and so now if you don't settle there the next thing is trial I think it's one and a half percent is the most recent statistic I heard of cases that go to trial there is really no reason a case should go to trial but some do and sometimes it's for a legal complicated. Legal issue like a closely held business and value is really a problem. Sometimes it's custody but it seems counterintuitive to me that you would leave the decisions about your children to some third party a lot of times it's because the level of acrimony or mental illness or something is is present and it makes the parties unable to negotiate but those are the cases that generally go to trial the other ones are high asset high income cases because the legal fees just don't seem like that big of a deal to them is there is it often the case that something settles in the midst of trial. Yes yes there are often cases where we're trying one or two issues you could settle all the financial issues and just try the custody or you could settle the equitable distribution issues and just have this support generally there's three components to a divorce there's custody and parenting time there's equitable distribution which is just a division of the assets and debts and there is support whether it's child support or alimony and so you could settle part of it and then leave the rest up to the judge OK where you think there tends to be the least just outcome the system just doesn't often work well for one side or the other. I believe that it's not equitable distribution I believe that one is fair generally because it's finite and it's whether you agree or disagree the day you leave court it's John the other two are sort of ongoing should you choose to let them be or should the other side decide to make it their life's work so. Custody so rough because it makes a. Decision based upon the facts right that minute if you were to enter an agreement about custody and parenting time you can address every single aspect of your kid's life from now until the day they graduate graduate school a judge might not necessarily hold you to those and enforce every single one if if it deviates from the kids' best interests at some later date but you can you can resolve that if you leave it up to a judge they decide issues that are ripe right that minute which leaves so much open and there is such a great level of uncertainty that I think it it could really take over and it doesn't really help your children I mean you don't if your kids are three and four you don't know how to and the judge makes a decision about custody and support that day you have no idea how to plan for college because they didn't decide anything about that support is also rough too because again if you settle that issue you can you can do all sorts of creative things with it if not the judge decides based on the facts before him or her right that minute so an example would be mom hasn't worked in and I'm using momently because I see it more often it could certainly go the other way but mom hasn't worked in twenty years she had a thriving career before that she needs some job training if we settle a case we could say a woman is going to get such and such support for the next two years dad's going to pay for her supplemental training to get her back up on her feet and then supports going to sort of step down as her career takes off again if the judge decides that they decide what it is today and if when things change you just have to keep coming back OK. If someone's marriage is not working at what point should they visit an attorney and how should someone go about. Selecting an attorney I think it's smart to visit an attorney even though it feels bad to visit an attorney before you're sure if you want a divorce or not because I think informed decisions are always the best so sometimes people get to my office because it's it's fallen apart so irreparably that they truly perceive that they have no choice or they've been living badly for a long time and they end up coming in with a restraining order I think you should be able to know what your two options look like so I think if you're thinking about it go see an attorney while you go see a marriage counselor ghost see somebody and ask what will it look like what will it cost what will the results be what are my liabilities what can I hope to achieve so I would say early rather than later even though you may no wish to retain one at that point and I think the best way you find an attorney is word of mouth find somebody who you think did OK in their divorce who who had the kind of divorce you hope you can have so you don't want the. The pit bull sort of trial attorney if you and your husband or you and your wife want to do mediation and that sort of thing you may find an attorney who is able to do both but I think it's important to find somebody who had the kind of divorce you want and and find out who they had sometimes people end up referring their spouses attorney rather than their own because they say Well mine did it OK that one did it better that sort of thing but word of mouth I think is the best way you can do it online but I don't think that's what you want to do a lot of people don't know people who had a good divorce so they may not have that in their bag of tricks I think any attorney you know is a good resource because attorneys know other attorneys so if you had. You know. A real estate attorney even a bankruptcy attorney your business attorneys something to that effect they generally know at least one good family law attorney I know somebody who's a surgeon in another part of the country and she said that a lot of people recommend this other person that she worked with for surgery they say this he's a great surgeon and it turns out he's very personable and he's very very fast he's a little sloppy but the nurses think he's great because they're out of there in no time at all and he's such a wonderful human being that it turns out they're recommending someone who is in fact not a great surgeon but they're saying he's a great surgeon how likely is it that an attorney who practices corporate litigation is able to properly suggest a great attorney for me if I'm looking for a family attorney likely but not guaranteed I think there is there's a tendency for attorneys to not want to say I don't know so I think they'll find you one even if it's like a third hand referral rather than telling you they don't know but I think you can get a sense from your conversation with the attorney how much they know that person why they're recommending them and that sort of thing you can also interview them but I know it really early in the process you may not even know what questions to ask so I think it it's a little trickier when it's someone outside of your geographical area like say you need an attorney to represent you in Florida that's usually a far removed kind of referral general practice attorney generally knows at least one good type of every attorney because we get asked all the time so I could I could tell. All you people that I recommend with conviction for most areas of law I will also tell you if look I don't know anyone but I can find you someone so that's a different kind of referral So I guess my answer is it varies in terms of how likely is it that you're getting a knowledgeable quality referral but I think it might still be your best shot in terms of getting some kind of educated referral there's probably some resource I'm overlooking at this point I just don't know what it is I think marriage counselors know divorce attorneys but I don't know that they know the sort of nuances between the different sort of attorney you might want in terms of one who's settlement minded mediation minded litigation ready that sort of thing OK Talk to me about what someone would experience with a large firm versus a medium or small firm and is there something that would lead someone well if your circumstances are X. You really ought to go with a large firm or a small firm I think there aren't many very large family law firms so there's medium sized like family law boutique firms and then there are small firms there are large firms with a matrimonial Department you know you're never going to find one hundred person family law firm you might find one hundred attorney firm with twenty family law attorney is there it's just there discreet department I think if it's a case that promises to result in litigation and there's going to be a lot of issues and a lot of experts and that sort of thing you might want a mid to large size firm just because if it's the kind of case where you need five attorneys working on it at once you're more likely to get that at a larger firm if you want personalized you know with you. Want to feel comfortable when you walk in an everyone who answers the phone knows who you are then you go with the smaller firm but divorces generally aren't huge in terms of needing twenty attorneys to work on a case so it's really just what makes you comfortable or at least as. Comfortable going to an attorney it's like a root canal they you don't want to be there you never meant to be there you're paying money for something that's painful so it's just what what works for you know it's scary sometimes so some people might find it intimidating to walk into a large setting with you know a million people walking by some people might find that comforting they might say I'm putting my life in these people's hands so I WANT THEIR I want them to look like a well oiled machine it really comes down to what works for you because you can get good representation at every level OK what the sixth you see people making in their marriages and in their divorce process I think in their marriages not to repeat myself but I think some people sort of let issues get away from them and they may you know fester about some unresolvable issue rather than sitting down and saying OK this one's not going away how do we navigate a marriage with this issue that it's not going anywhere I think other mistakes people make and this is either during a marriage and it but it certainly is highlighted or exacerbated as things start to fall apart is money people spend money differently and I think people probably should have a conversation before they get married about money and a really specific detailed in-depth conversation about where are we going to. Money How are we going to save money and maybe I mean I know it sounds goofy but maybe revisit that every couple years because you don't let things change dramatically so as twenty four year old kids you might have a plan and a certain budget and then you have different goals or life changes or something to that effect so sort of sit down and revisit it renegotiated after a while because people lie about it they keep secrets they they sort of are motivated by their self-interest rather than a collective set of goals and that that becomes problematic the way you voice that just now is so helpful in this is crystal clear advice that someone just thinking about getting married ought to follow and then again every couple years let's really make sure we're on the same track Yeah I mean life gets in the way so it's easier said than done but I think it would be helpful Those are those are problems that people when they get to my office they have a nice healthy income stream and they have for decades and yet they have nothing to show for and they truly each believe it's the other side's fault that they don't have much to show for it and that sort of thing again that may be a symptom of a larger problem where it's just they're not defining their goals collectively and it's made versus him more kids verses her or whatever but yeah money seems to be a problem in a lot of cases whether they have a lot or a little. What mistakes do you see people making as they initiate and go through a divorce process I think they defer to their attorneys too much I think they are not. Able to tell their attorney what they want and they sort of sit back and let the attorney decide what kind of a divorce it's going to be and I think it's always OK to ask why are you doing this or do we have to. Do it this way or is there a way to achieve or something to that effect a competent attorney is never going to feel badly about being second guessed or questioned or that sort of thing but I hear. The spouses litigants talking sometimes about oh well my attorney won't let me do it that way or oh it's too late or or something to that effect or they're afraid to say you're telling me we're going to mediation can I just talk to him at the kitchen table those sorts of things so I think. Open communication I know I said limit your communication but I meant just keep it efficient. I think advocating for yourself with your own attorney or making your wishes known or asking good questions is important and I think people's failure to do that is a mistake OK thank you I'd like to switch gears like you did talk to me a little bit please about a situation where there is very serious domestic violence what you somebody when there are kids involved and when there are. First I think. My advice would be when in doubt I mean even just on a day to day basis when in doubt call the police first and me second people worry about the effects of. Involving the police or something to that effect. But I think safety always has to be the primary concern and I think people there's people that fall on. The wrong side of whatever the line should be regularly and what I mean by that is people who who deal with it on an ongoing basis and then you also have people who sort of misuse the domestic violence statute to gain the upper hand in any case but I think. Regardless of whether there's children involved or not I think a mental health professional is essential. I think that there's a lot of resources available I think the if you file for every straining writer there's somebody from the Jersey battered women's society who meets you in court who acts as sort of your advocate who just sort of runs alongside you as you're going through the process because the process is really scary for somebody who's never done this before if you don't know to ask the right questions you may not get the right information when you get to court to file a restraining order they don't tell you if you don't say certain things in the temporary restraining order that you're not going to be able to introduce them later I mean the intake officers they're not there to educate you on the law but you sort of fall through the cracks and may not be able to sustain every strain in water that you may sorely need just because you didn't know that you had to tell them the entire history of the case when you when you got there but again I think that mental health professionals in your corner is essential and I think it's important at every economic level I think that there are resources available if money sent issue which it is for a lot of people I think if there are children involved obviously they need help too whether it's counseling or. A supervisor for parenting time and that sort of thing but they're all the resources are all there. If if there's domestic violence it affects the the process of the divorce because there are certain things you can't do You can't go to mediation except under very limited circumstances to settle your case so it's sort of takes the process away from you the goal. Is to protect the victimized spouse but in some ways it sort of makes that person more of a victim of the system because it's really you are now in the system in terms of litigating and you don't have a lot of the alternative dispute resolution options that other people have you they may work against you should you have them available because the dynamic is such that it wouldn't be fair but it sort of leaves you in the system a little bit longer should there be some new option available that is sort of gearing itself towards dispute resolution. But it's protect it's sort of keeping the scales balanced in that's right yes that's a good question and they did just recently change the rules so that if there is a restraining order in place you can attend mediation there's just a a lot of restrictions on it and a lot of mediators don't touch it they don't want to do it. And it's for a lot of different reasons one it's new to it's scary Sri sometimes you don't have the space there's you know you have to have people in separate rooms and some mediators have one room available so they don't they don't have two waiting rooms they don't have to conference rooms things of that nature so we don't get there but it's it's slow to happen as are most things when the law changes. There's a lot of half truths and advice that's just plain wrong and one thing I've heard is if you leave and even in a domestic abuse situation you are abandoning the household and there are serious consequences for that what's the truth of the matter OK. The truth is that somebody could file a complaint based on abandonment the good news. Says New Jersey is a no fault state and it won't matter in terms of how the assets are split people think oh it's I a band in the house so I lost it or I'll be charged with abandonment you might but it doesn't affect any of the financial aspects of your divorce the way it does to work against you with though is there's a certain loss of control when you leave and what I mean by that is if you leave and somebody files a complaint for divorce and you decide you want to come back you may not be able to come back if you leave with a custody and parenting plan and the kids don't come with you oh you may have to fight for access to the kids if you leave and the house is ordered to be sold You're not the one that decides if there's you know dirty dishes in the sink on the day of the open house or if somebody most of the lawn the day before you know the house is being shown to people so there's a loss of control but there's not really. A direct impact financially or custody wise just by virtue of the fact that you left the house or left your spouse So what's a rule of thumb if you were offering some generic situation a little bit of guidance which this could be the worst question ever No not at all because I get asked Can I leave a lot and my advice is always I would rather you not leave with out a negotiated agreement regarding support and children and what I mean by that is Don't think because you left that you're not going to be ordered to pay for part of the mortgage so now you've gone rent to a three bedroom townhouse and you don't realize you're going to have to contribute to the mortgage because it's a marital asset that needs to be preserved so figure out what's going to happen when you leave before you leave because once you're out it's sort of anybody's guess what could happen the day. After should your spouse go running to court or should your spouse decide not to pay the mortgage or something to that effect so yeah you can leave but try to do it after you've resolved the issues OK and if it's a serious domestic violence situation I would just go just go and we'll figure it out later because safety said it's you your mental health may be at issue your kids may be witnessing things that are horrible Plus I can justify a lot in the name of keeping a litigant and a child safe so Judge we had to leave because X. Y. and Z. was happening so if you make us pay a little bit to the mortgage we'll do that but bear in mind we were being very reasonable when we left the judge is going to forge a little more slack than somebody who just left to go check up with the boyfriend OK if it's soley spousal abuse should the abused spouse who's fleeing the household take the children yes. Domestic violence is a factor in the custody statute so while there's no direct connection between a party who beats his or her spouse and beats his or her children it is a factor so if you believe it's an issue or could be an issue or think there's even the possibility you should take your children what's the worst that would happen is the judge says you have to bring them back half the time and if there's if safety is the issue. You can deal with that on the back end and what I mean by that is just an example is dad loses his temper every night around seven o'clock it's the kids' witching hour or whatever the case may be and so parties could say All right we're going to get a mother's helper to come in from seven to nine thirty every night it kind of depends on what your goal is do you want to make look bad or do you want to make dad better for the kids' sake so. If it's big there's usually a solution if it's a then that's a kind of a different analysis there OK Are there any stories that you want to share there's a million but I want to be careful that I don't give away anybody's identity I think this one and it's not that interesting but it happened not that long ago was. Mediation I was serving as a mediator and this was a private mediation it was not one where they got to the certain point in the divorce where you're ordered to go because those are usually a little fraught with tension this was one where two educated people voluntarily before they filed said we want to come in and we want to mediate this can you just define what is a mediator or what is me oh yeah OK So mediation is a voluntary process where I or any mediator serves to facilitate an agreement we don't make decisions we don't force you to settle anything and you just sort of facilitate communication generate ideas to help people reach an agreement. So these two people came in and. Wife was literally screaming running around the conference table and husband was. Can you believe this can you believe this and meanwhile I'm supposed to stay objective but I'm also supposed to maintain some level of civility and so I sort of stopped and said Is this helpful to you was there a value to this and she talked for the next five minutes about why running around the table and screaming and telling me about everything he had ever done was helpful to her and he was frustrated by this but he also was smart enough to know that mediation was still what he wanted to be doing so he knew that. Let her waste the next five minutes half hour or he could go out and hire an attorney and start the litigation process so we let her run around. She went to the bathroom you know dried her eyes after she cried and accused him of everything and then she came back and had like a semi rational conversation and the case settle it's probably an hour and a half later and what I found interesting about that was you don't always know how you're going to get there and sometimes if you let people have a certain level of autonomy as to how to get there they're far more productive she needed to vent where I was saying some people need they're doing court she just needed somebody to hear how bad he was before I leaned in and said Well would it be OK if you got this support or if you stayed in the house for a while I as long as somebody heard what he had done she was OK So I think it was interesting to me that the process can be different things for different people but it's also if you give people what they need and people need stupid things sometimes but if you give them what they need they maybe are better able to get there so this guy had to give up an extra fifteen minutes of his life in an extra fifteen minutes of my time that he was paying for and it immediately diffused her and she was ready to sit down in like talk turkey after that. That's pretty encouraging Yeah yeah I mean I guess the other thing I think it shows us that the process isn't particularly linear so that people can go off the rails and come back five minutes later they can wake up the next morning and say the deal so off but they didn't really mean it they were just having a bad day where they wanted to see how sorry they can make you or that sort of thing OK if you had the ability. To change the law to make the process more just faster or something what would you change I would make the courts less backlog and I'm not blaming judges I'm not blaming one particular person but lately when you file something it's really a backlog so case I have a case right now parties are already divorced one of the children which is residence between dad's house to Mom's house mom has now had this child for months without support and mom doesn't make a lot of money dad is the wage earner in this family she's had this child's now for literally months we filed she had the child for months before she came to me because you don't file the first day the kid gets there and she's calling me about every three weeks saying to have a date to have a date to have a date this it's troubling because she can't afford to live like this and I can't tell her what the date is so I if I could change anything it would be get a couple more judges in each county fill the vacancies and move things along a little bit better OK technology how do you think technology has affected your industry throughout your career and was a going it's changed it several ways I mean obviously we can we can communicate differently in terms of things that we used to have to send certified mail in a well the extra three days you can send us an e-mail now and it's affected evidence in the way you gather evidence to I mean stuff you can find on Facebook or in somebody's e-mail now that you couldn't find before and I don't want to place too much weight on it because as I said New Jersey's a no fault state so people don't really get a lot out of finding somebody up to no good on Facebook but it's. And Lee can. Aid or or harm you in a custody battle and those sorts of things you tell me what a no fault state is a no fault state means the court doesn't care why you're getting divorced that you don't get more or less based upon what the cause of action is so I can file based on adultery I can file based upon abandonment or I can file based on irreconcilable differences which irreconcilable differences is the equivalent of a no fault complaint for divorce it does not move the needle one way or the other in terms of who gets what Unless of course you can connect the money or the custody to those things and what I mean by that is you don't get less money because you're cheating on your spouse you might get less money if you're lavishing your Param or with expensive gifts that you're using marital money for but by virtue of your quote unquote fault you don't get more or less OK thank you last question. What advice or insight would you provide to somebody who's considering a career in family law or considering being a family law judge go watch somebody for more than a day maybe watch them at least a day of everything they do because it's not what it looks like on T.V. Some days once in awhile it does it is like it looks on T.V. but most days it isn't so just to see what it really looks like judges I think even the same thing but probably by the time they get to the point where they're being made a judge they've already watched judges for a good part of their career so they they sort of know what it looks like I guess in their case I would say talk to other judges but usually when they get to that level they're smart enough where they've network to know what it looks like anyway so I would. They more so for the attorneys coming into it is go look at what it what a day looks like here and there. That sounds like great advice Sharon Johnson I want to thank you so much for being the very first guest on inside the law and this is Sharon Johnson of Johnson and Johnson Law Their website is Johnson law N.J. A dot com that J O H N S O N L A W N J dot com Their phone number is nine seven three nine three seven eight nine five nine And they are at thirty Columbia Turnpike in Florida Park New Jersey again that's Sharon Johnson of Johnson law and Jay dot com Sharon thank you so much my pleasure Mark thanks for having me.
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