A difficult economy can mean difficult choices that seem to accumulate faster than unpaid bills. But when a couple is divorcing, the financial stress increases if they cannot settle their differences without litigation. “When issues cannot be resolved,” explains Susan Hais of Hais, Hais, Goldberger & Coyne, “the cost of the divorce proceedings can escalate rapidly, and finding the funds to pay those costs can be problematic. Since one spouse usually controls the purse strings, it’s not a ‘level playing field’ in terms of who pays what for the lawsuit.” Arguing over who pays compounds the problem, she notes. “Often there will be extensive litigation about just finding enough funds to litigate. It’s a waste of time and money.”
Even though national statistics indicate a downturn in the divorce rate because couples ‘can’t afford’ to get divorced, Hais has not seen that here. “We haven’t seen a decrease, but I believe motions to modify are on the rise.” High unemployment rates impact divorce settlements already in place, she explains, often requiring a return to the courtroom. “So litigation is affected in St. Louis, perhaps because we are near the top 10 percent nationwide in unemployment rate.”
Hais says the bump in litigation could also be attributed to “a sense of unreality about the economy. If, for example, the husband had been the bigger income earner and is now unemployed or underemployed, and the wife has difficulty coming to terms with that, it must all be proven, and that creates the desire to litigate on the part of some clients,” she explains.
Hais also reports a state of ‘economic warfare’ in the legal system. “Lawyers are reaching new heights of incivility to one another and even professional jealousy, which sometimes, regrettably, causes them to ‘go negative’ about their fellow attorneys,” Hais says.
She is convinced there’s a better way, and advocates a comprehensive plan to address the funding of litigation in contested family court cases. “We believe it would help both sides understand that they are spending money to argue over money. It’s wasteful and unnecessary,” she insists. “We prefer a process that would explain the modification details to the judge in the beginning, with an estimate of the fees involved. Then have a specific marital asset or amount of money set aside in a fund, earmarked for those costs.” The concept has been discussed before, Hais says, but she hopes to help develop a workable plan that could be routinely implemented in the litigation process.
Although the goal is to reduce litigation, Hais says that people should not fear litigation per se. “Sometimes litigation is the best answer,” she says. “We always try to resolve the issues first, work with the other side and make a determination of how close we can get. But if you’re just too far apart you have no choice but to litigate.” Hais says that in some instances, litigation can be a positive experience. “You tell your story to a judge, the judge listens, and resolves it. It ends up being a good thing.”
Hais and her partners have adapted their fee structure in recognition of the economic downturn and its impact on their clients. “You see the struggle across the economic spectrum, and we are empathetic to those difficulties. We want our clients to know that the financial details can be worked out.” She is proud of her firm’s teamwork and loyalty in the midst of economic tough times. “We’ve all seen lawyers who are not taking the high road, but we’re not going to change our standards. We will work assiduously with other lawyers, and we’ll give them information that is proper and helpful to a mutual resolution, and above all, professional courtesy and respect. We want to see a new day in litigation reform and better lawyer-to-lawyer relations that benefits our clients.”
On the cover: Hais, Hais, Goldberger & Coyne, a family law practice at 100 S. Brentwood Blvd. in Clayton, supports a comprehensive plan for the courts to address the funding of litigation in contested family court cases. For more information, call 862-1300 or visit their new website soon, currently under construction, hhgc-law.com. Photo by Jason Mueller