While it is true that every field of law has become increasingly complex, family law has expanded to include several areas regulated by federal law, as well as the usual proliferation and changes in state law. Moreover, there are important differences between domestic relations cases and almost every other form of civil case. The litigants will usually remain involved with each other, not just during the litigation, but long after the gavel has fallen. Divorce affects the rights of three generations at once-parents, children, and grandparents. The court retains jurisdiction explicitly over these issues, as well as over many future financial matters. Thus, there are special considerations in drafting, knowledge of long-term consequences of property settlements, and ethical issues that require careful thought and research. Fortunately, as complex as the field has become, there are excellent resources available on all aspects of family law practice.
There are two major treatises written for Michigan practitioners. The first, ICLE's Michigan Family Law, edited by Scott Bassett, Judith A. Curtis, and Sherri L. Katz, was first published in 1978. It is now in its fifth edition and is supplemented annually. Its two volumes contain a basic, yet scholarly, discussion on every major topic likely to be encountered, as well as forms (on disk and in hard copy) and practice tips. It would be hard to imagine practicing in the field without consulting this book on an almost daily basis.
A 1997 entry into the field was the West Group's three-volume Michigan Family Law and Practice, edited by Richard S. Victor. In addition to the basic substantive topics, this book contains important material on parent education programs and protecting children of divorce, areas where the editor has contributed pioneering work and gained national recognition. The bibliographies at the beginning of each chapter are excellent.
The State Bar of Michigan Family Law Section produces an indispensable monthly publication called the Michigan Family Law Journal. For the nominal cost of section membership, the Journal makes available case updates; important unpublished decisions; articles on evolving legal, political, and ethical issues; and a monthly column on "Tax Trends & Developments" by Joseph Cunningham that is "required reading."
The Michigan Bar Journal also publishes this annual family law issue containing case summaries and articles covering recent developments in the law.
Every family court judge and referee in Michigan received a copy of ICLE's Michigan Family Law 5th ed in 1998. In 1999, ICLE published the Michigan Family Law Benchbook. While this will not supplant the other book on most judges' desks, the Benchbook contains checklists and summary discussions that are a quick reference and should not be overlooked.
Practitioners should also watch for the next edition of a little-known manual published by the Oakland County Friend of the Court, the Family Law Trial Book for Michigan Referees. It includes a comprehensive list of cases for each custodial factor. It is now out-of-print, but a new edition is expected to be available in the spring of 2000. Contact the Oakland County Circuit Court for information closer to that time.
Seminars & Practice Manuals
The State Bar of Michigan Family Law Section has several excellent seminars every year. The printed course materials are excellent. Announcements and publications available are listed in the monthly publication of the section.
ICLE produces and publishes a number of seminars and course materials each year. The seminars are available live and on videotape throughout the state. The course materials can be purchased separately. There is an annual Child Custody, Child Support & Parenting Time Update, as well as seminars on topics such as QDROs, drafting, taxation, and discovery of assets. Hanley Gurwin’s Drafting Michigan Family Law Documents (2/99) will not go out of style. In addition, for the last three years, ICLE has included "How to Handle a Divorce" as a part of its "Foundations of Michigan Law" course, usually held in February each year. This seminar and course materials are a must for new lawyers or lawyers expanding their practice to include divorce, as a surprisingly large number are doing in the post-tort reform era.
A list of recent manuals and seminars is available by contacting ICLE, 1020 Greene St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1444, phone (877) 229-4350, fax (877) 229-4351, or by checking the ICLE website at www.icle.org
Ethics & Civility
Both of the major treatises previously discussed contain good sections on ethics and malpractice avoidance. There is also a very thoughtful publication that describes optimal ethical behavior and suggests that matrimonial lawyers consider the best interests of children regardless of which family member they represent. The booklet is called Bounds of Advocacy and is available from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 150 N. Michigan Ave., Ste. 2040, Chicago, IL 60601, phone (312) 263-6477. The pamphlet contains civility standards that, if more commonly practiced, would vastly improve the process and results in family court.
There are at least six areas of domestic relations practice now governed primarily by federal statutes. These areas are listed below with some suggestions on where to start.
Controls dischargeablity of marital debt; property settlements; spousal support.
- The Attorney's Handbook on Consumer Bankruptcy and Chapter 13, John H. Williamson (Argyle 1999)
- Michigan Family Law & Practice ch 9 (Richard S. Victor ed, West 1997)
- 11 USC 101 et seq., especially 11 USC 523(a)(5), (15)
Laws regulating pension plans, pension valuations, and criteria for qualification of QDROs.
- Michigan Family Law ch 15 (Scott Bassett et al. eds, ICLE 5th ed 1998 & Supp)
- Qualified Domestic Relations Order Answer Book, Victor B. Meyen & Mark Dundee (Panel Publishers, 7201 McKinney Circle, Frederick, MD 21701)
- The Attorney's Handbook on QDROs, John H. Williamson (Argyle Publishing, 10395 West Colfax Ave., Ste. 380, Lakewood, CO 82015)
- QDROs, EDROs and Retirement Benefits (Nancy Keppelman & Katharine B. Soper, ICLE 1994 & Supps)
Health Insurance Extensions-COBRA
Requires most private employers with 20 or more employees to offer continued coverage (note time deadlines to elect coverage and for coverage period).
- Pub L No 99-272, 100 Stat 82 (1985)
The Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA) expands the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution to favor parental rights in foreign custody orders, among other protections.
- 28 USC 1738A et seq.
The Hague Convention
Applies to children under 16 in international abduction situations.
- Michigan Family Law, Section 11.13 (Scott Bassett et al. eds, ICLE 5th ed 1998 & Supp)
- Michigan Family Law Benchbook Section ;3.46 (ICLE 1998)
- 42 USC 11601 et seq.
Transfer of property incident to divorce, dependency exemptions, exclusion of gain on sale of residence, tax treatment of legal fees, and alimony.
- Michigan Family Law ch 16 (Scott Bassett et al. eds, ICLE 5th ed 1998 & Supp)
- Tax Checklists for Divorce Settlements, Joseph W. Cunningham, JD, CPA (available from Mr. Cunningham of Plante & Moran, Southfield, on behalf of the State Bar of Michigan)
- USC Title 26
- 2000 US Master Tax Guide, CCH, phone (800) 248-3248 or www.tax.cch.com/full/bookstore
- Tax Aspects of Marital Dissolution, Wren, Gabinet & Carrad (West 1997)
Books for Clients
A visit to the ‘self-help’ section of your local bookstore will reveal a large selection of books, many written by lawyers, on ‘divorce survival.’ There is also a wide selection of books on joint custody and single parenting. I have listed some of the more thoughtful ones. I recommend practitioners and judges also read them, because they often explain concepts in lay terms that can help communication with clients and litigants. However, these books are not offered as a substitute for consulting a lawyer, and any summaries of the law may not be Michigan-specific.
- Getting Divorced Without Ruining Your Life, Sam Marguiles, Ph.D., JD (Simon & Shuster Trade 1992)
- Complete Idiot’s Guide to Surviving Divorce (Alpha Books, Maryland 1996)
- Practical Divorce Solutions: How to Settle Out of Court, Charles Edward Sherman, (1993, Nolo Press Occidental, P.O. Box 722, Occidental, CA 85465, phone (707) 874-3105)
Custody; Parenting Time
- How to Help Your Child Overcome Your Divorce: A Support Guide for Families, Dr. Elissa Benedek (Newmarket Press, New York 1998) (Dr. Benedek is an Ann Arbor psychotherapist. This book is excellent.)
- What to Tell The Kids About Your Divorce, Darlene Weyburne (New Harbinger Publications 1999)
- Joint Custody With a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex, Ross & Corcoran (St. Martins Press 1996)
There is also a helpful video, SMILE (Start Making It Liveable for Everyone), available from Richard S. Victor, 100 West Long Lake Rd., Ste. 250, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304.
On the Internet, there is a huge amount of information available to lay people, but regrettably, much of it is misleading or misinterpreted. A client recently presented me with an Internet self-quiz demonstrating that she would win a custody battle. For $39, a ‘‘Complete Child Custody Evaluation’’ can be obtained on one website—clearly not a substitute for a thorough legal consultation, although billed as one. Obviously, such an exercise could only yield a very wooden interpretation of the custody factors. An educated client is good; a miseducated one is hard to dissuade.
That said, there are some Internet sites for lawyers and clients that can be recommended.
Use of these sites and resources can provide useful information that supplements the other sources of information mentioned in this article.
Sherrie L. Katz practices family law in Flint and serves as a Genesee County Family Court Referee. She is a member of the Genesee County Bar Association, the American Inns of Court, the State Bar of Michigan, and the ICLE Family Law Advisory Board. For two terms, she was regional chair of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan. Ms. Katz received the 1997 National Association of Career Women's Pioneer award from Just For Her Magazine. She has taught a number if ICLE courses on subjects such as family law document drafting; foundations of divorce practice; and child custody, support and visitation.