Cooperative Principles and Real Life Divorce

By: Sabrina R. Grogan | February 16, 2022

            Here is an example of Family Law in Practice where Cooperative Principles are applied to a Real Life Divorce. Mr. and Ms. Johnson are divorced. They have a 2017 Order approving their marital settlement agreement, including provisions relating to recalculation of child support for their two minor children, one of whom has special needs.  Specifically, the Order states that either party can, at any time, request “tax returns, W-2s and 1099s” from the other party, and then request mediation if the parties can’t agree on a new child support amount. The current support amount under the Order is $500.00 per month; however, Mr. Johnson has been paying $1,000 per month voluntarily.  Still, Ms. Johnson regularly asks Mr. Johnson for additional monies for child-related expenses, like extracurricular activities.  In addition, she takes their special needs child to a children’s hospital in North Carolina, twice annually, and she incurs transportation, lodging, and other incidental expenses relating to these trips. She wants Mr. Johnson to contribute to these child support costs.  Mr. Johnson complains that Ms. Johnson is “nickel and diming” him.

            Ms. Johnson has now requested income information from her former husband by email, and Mr. Johnson has not responded.  Ms. Johnson has hired a lawyer, and her primary concern is that Mr. Johnson will revert to the Order’s provision, reducing her monthly amount from $1,000 to $500.  At the same time, she believes Mr. Johnson’s income has increased substantially. 

Question:         What can the Cooperative Law process do for Ms. Johnson and for Mr. Johnson?

Answer:           This is a very common situation that causes a lot of stress for both parties.  Each party is feeling tremendous financial uncertainty and pressure.  Ms. Johnson feels that $1,000 per month is not enough to contribute to the never-ending list of child support needs.  Mr. Johnson feels that he is already going above and beyond what the law requires of him.  Both parents feel they can never get ahead financially.  Each feels that the other is thinking of their own needs or wants, not the needs of the children.

            There are practical problems here too.  For example, when child support is modified it is generally only modified from the date the modification case is filed.  The change is not applied retroactively.  Therefore, if Mr. Johnson received a raise in January of 2021 that would increase his child support, and Ms. Johnson found about it in February, but did not take action to file a case until November, she could lose out on several months of increased child support. 

            Also, Mr. Johnson is not required to pay $1,000.00 per month, only $500.00.  If he gets upset with his former wife for trying to get more child support, he could simply go back to paying the lower amount.  And perhaps a current child support calculation by a judge would keep his obligation at the lower amount, or maybe it would go up a little, but not to $1,000.00 per month.  Ms. Johnson runs the risk of going to Court and ending up with less than what she is getting now.    

            If the Johnsons choose to use the Cooperative Law process, this tension-filled situation could potentially be worked out amicably without litigation.  Cooperative Law principles provide that both parties agree to voluntarily exchange relevant financial information.  In a child support case, this typically means current income information for each parent, proof of health insurance costs for the child or children, and proof of the cost of work-related daycare.  For a special needs child, it can also include proof of extraordinary medical expenses.  Even though both the Johnson’s are under a court order to exchange some of this information, when it is exchanged voluntarily, and both parties’ lawyers ensure that only truthful, accurate, and relevant information is used, the process is streamlined and stress is decreased.

            Cooperative Law principals permit Ms. Johnson to file a family court case to preserve her rights to a retroactive increase in child support, so long as she lets the cooperative process play out prior to requesting a hearing.  So she can preserve what rights she may have, while still trying to settle the issues cooperatively.

            Mr. Johnson will have the advantage of not having to prepare for a child support hearing in as little as five business days (as would happen in a traditional litigation mode), but rather to participate in a process where his concerns can be heard.  His lawyer will likely encourage him to continue to pay the $1,000.00 per month he has voluntarily been paying in order to preserve goodwill, but also because his prior voluntary payments of this amount are some indication that he knows the money is really needed and he can afford to pay it.

            In a Cooperative Law environment, both parties can review what the law says the child support should be, and make adjustments based on what they know about their children’s needs and their own financial situations.  There is a “happy medium” between Mr. Johnson being constantly subjected to requests for more money and Ms. Johnson feeling overwhelmed each month by the needs of the children.  Perhaps this means setting a new, higher, amount of support, with no additional requests for things like extracurricular activities.  Perhaps it means keeping the child support at $1,000.00 per month, with a cap on any additional request for funds.  There are any number of ways to handle these issues, but approaching them cooperatively can lead to a much smoother resolution than litigation ever would.

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