July 7, 2020
Re: Couples opting for different approach to speed up divorce process in age of Covid-19
JUDGE FOR YOURSELF
Divorcing Couples Opt to Do What Celebrities Do: Hire a Retired Judge to Hear Their Cases
New trend likely faster and less expensive
By: Steve Mindel, Certified Family Law Specialist, managing partner FMBK Law, West Los Angeles, Calif.
Among the many disruptions caused by Covid-19, the delays in courtrooms around the country are chief among them. In Los Angeles county alone, there are more than 32,000 immediate hearings in the family law court system that are now backlogged. It could take a minimum of a year or possibly up to four years for those headed for a divorce courtroom trial to have their cases heard. The wait does not have to be as long as many might think though, if they take their trial to a retired judge. Divorcing couples can take advantage of what is becoming a popular trend to speed up the divorce process. And, in the long run, costs and attorney’s fees could run 50% less. With this choice, indeed, the time it would take to get to a full-blown trial heard in a public courtroom could be drastically reduced.
Divorcing celebrities with means shortcut the court system every day by hiring a retired judge; they’ve done so for years. Celebrities’ chief reason for doing so is their desire for privacy. What many divorcing couples don’t realize is that a couple with ample income can also enjoy the same advantage, especially those who can’t seem to resolve their issues through other means like many do when they can’t agree on a settlement. Arguably, the rich and famous typically have the money to go this route, but when you add up wasted time and costs associated with a drawn-out, protracted trial, it might be worth it to hire a private judge. Before you make that decision, consider or reconsider, mediation and arbitration. Even though those remedies did not work before Covid-19 was afoot – when you and your ex found yourselves deadlocked over many issues (usually over child custody, spousal support and community assets) they may work now. Perhaps you both dug in and decided to take your contested case to trial.
You should always try mediation or arbitration, but if neither of those are successful, the following five steps will guide you as you go about the privately compensated temporary retired-judge-route. They are as follows:
- Communicate with to your soon-to-be-ex about this option: Try to persuade him/her that this choice is best for both of you (and the children). You see, both parties must agree to hiring a retired judge. The mere idea of contacting your ex to get that person to agree to doing this may seem distasteful and untenable, but now is the not the time to be stubborn or resistant. Think of the two major practical considerations I mentioned a moment ago: You’ll likely save half the costs and half the time of what it might cost you if you moved through the court system at its recently- predicted snail’s pace. What may have (prior to the pandemic) taken a year, may well take up to four years. Your retired judge can hear your case very soon and likely via a video conference. Video conferencing minimizes the pressure felt “live” in a physical courtroom setting. That may also be to your advantage if the courthouse makes you feel uncomfortable or intimidated. The video setting could well prove to be less contentious.
- Find an attorney who will work quickly and efficiently: I’m not suggesting you give up any rights or rush your case, but there are attorneys who like to drag things out. Find a lawyer with whom you have great rapport and communication. One who knows how to move fast. If you mess up here, you’ll be right back where you started and that is what you don’t want. You want to put this phase of your life behind you. Ideally, you also want an attorney who has previously tried cases before a private judge. That requirement should be a must. He/she knows the procedural “ropes.” He/she also knows the different agencies and organizations such as: Signature Resolution; ADR (Alternate Dispute Resolution); JAMS (Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services); ARC (Alternative Resolution Centers); AAA (the American Arbitration Association) you two can access to find an appropriate judge “fit.” Though the above-mentioned agencies are known for helping you access mediators and arbitrators, they all have a full roster of retired judges, too. Your attorney may be familiar with many of the judges they offer and their respective areas of expertise.
- Share info freely with your ex’s legal team: Now is not the time to hide assets, bank records, financial statements, and other documents. When divorcing couples play “hide-the-ball,” which they often do, the divorce process is slowed down considerably. If you’re not above board on divulging your records honestly, the attorneys can spend months digging and investigating. Everyone is looking for trust with confirmation. That is when a divorce can get pricey!
- Choose the appropriate judge: You both should confer with your respective attorneys to find a retired judge who is patient; who has time to read all the documents; one who is gender-neutral, and one who has presided over family law matters throughout his/her career. You should choose a judge who has thorough knowledge of family law. He/she should also demonstrate that he/she has ample time on their calendar to carefully review your case thoroughly and hear it appropriately. Read up on some of your candidate’s rulings before you contract with him/her. You will get a sense of how they interpret the law and some sense of his/her overall demeanor in the courtroom.
- Keep your expectations in check: In many cases, there are decisions that not all couples are happy with. Don’t expect the judge to fully rule in your favor. He/she is obligated to render a fair and reasonable verdict in every matter before the court. Expect to leave some things on the table. Judges often do that. Each party gets, but at times they also may not give you what you ask for, entirely. Also, expect to pay $500 to $1000 an hour for this judge. Most divorce trials can last a few weeks, the average is one to five days, however, depending on how many witnesses are heard and how much evidence is presented. While these costs (and attorney’s fees may seem prohibitive) calculate your time off work, and what you might spend as you plod along the divorce-process trail. If, for instance you spend roughly $5000 a day for a two-day trial, you could spend a minimum of $50,000 or more for a drawn-out public court trial. A private judge trial may save you a bundle all the way around: attorneys fees, court costs, experts, your time… If you figure that many cases that were scheduled in the public courtroom were likely to take a few months to possibly a year, in the wake of coronavirus, know that now in this Covid-19 era, it may take you four years to accomplish that same goal. That’s crazy!
Granted, while you think the rent-a-judge option may prove to be too pricey for you and your ex, (although it is ideal for couples earning roughly $100,000 to $150,000 a year and up), with many divorces – by the time the final tab is tallied, it is quite feasible that you could reach the same amount in dollars spent in the traditional public courtroom trial as the retired judge “rental” method. But, look at the time and grief you save. As I stated earlier, now that Covid-19 has altered everything, give mediation or arbitration a second look before facing off with the judge, any judge, retired or not.
What all divorcing couples need to realize is that the world has changed. Courtroom procedures and the way legal issues will be handled once the system fully opens up, will usher in a whole new way of taking care of business.
Steve Mindel, the managing partner at Feinberg, Mindel, Brandt and Klein in West Los Angeles and a Certified Family Law Specialist (by the State Bar of California Legal Board of Certification) was featured on the cover of Los Angeles Magazine’s Superlawyer edition. He also has appeared on KCBS, KABC, KTLA, KCAL, CNN, Good Morning America, The Today Show, and been quoted in many print publications as well, including AP and the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, Good Housekeeping, Fox.com among others. A lecturer at Loyola Law School on family law, Mindel, graduated magna cum laude from both UCLA and USC Law Center. He is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers(TM) and the International Academy of Family Lawyers(TM). and also https://www.linkedin.com/in/stevenmindel/ and https://www.fmbklaw.com/attorneys/steven-a-mindel/