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Huge financial, emotional toll settling family disputes in court

By Staff

Before separating parents opt to resolve their differences in court they should consider the financial and emotional toll it will have on their family, says Alberta child protection specialist Melani Carefoot.

Legal costs can add up quickly, without any guarantee of making headway toward a resolution, she tells

“Last year, one of my clients spent $200,000 on lawyer’s fees, supervised visitation and a court-ordered bilateral assessment — essentially a psychological assessment of both parents used to determine custody — which took 18 months to complete. I know of one psychologist who’s been working on one for the last five years and the cost is in the range of $90,000,” she says.

People often don’t realize until they’re well into the legal process how time-consuming and financially crippling it can be, notes Carefoot, owner and principal of Positive Choices Counselling, which provides support services for parents involved in breakups or custody disputes.

“They have to take time off work to attend multiple court appearances and it seriously compromises their ability to co-parent because they’re in fight mode. When they get their first few legal bills, they think, ‘We spent $10,000 and we’re getting nowhere,’” she says.

Court backlogs and other delays in accessing services can drag divorce or custody disputes out for years, taking a toll on the children who are caught in the middle, says Carefoot.

“Psychologists sometimes take on more cases than they should, and that’s not fair to the parents who have to wait. If they know they can’t complete an assessment within 18 months, they should refuse the work,” she says.

Not only is the legal system difficult to navigate and emotionally and financially draining, Carefoot says it’s also slow and at times, appears to serve the more difficult parent.

“I worked with a dad who was trying to gain more access to his children, but his ex-wife was unco-operative. After four years, he had to declare bankruptcy and felt he had no choice but to walk away from his children,” she says.

It’s important for parents to remember that every dollar they spend in legal fees is a dollar diverted from supporting their children, and while lawyers can be helpful, there’s a price to be paid, says Carefoot.

“You don’t have a clue when you hire a lawyer that you are charged for every fax, phone call or photocopy,” she says. “And every time you go to court and have to wait around, the lawyer is still getting his or her hourly fee.”

Most people have no idea what to expect when they elect to have the court decide on important issues, such as who will have custody of the children, Carefoot explains.

“Why would you ask a judge who knows nothing about your family to make decisions for you? In some cases, these judges have backgrounds in corporate law or academia. Now they’re dealing predominantly with family matters with very little training or experience. They’re learning on the job,” she says.

Sometimes the parties get caught up in the legal manoeuvering, which delays the process and increases the cost.

“Some parents can be extremely manipulative; they change lawyers frequently and each time the do, the new counsel needs time to review the case and that could take months,” she says.

When parents decide to split, Carefoot says there are often huge emotions and hurt feelings, and for many, their first reaction is to retaliate by hiring a lawyer.

“That should be the last thing you do. You should find a parenting counsellor or divorce coach and ask them to help sort through the various issues with you. There’s also an option to go to arbitration, but most people don’t start with that idea,” she says.

Carefoot recently helped one of her clients avoid a potentially explosive domestic situation with his ex-wife when she told him he wouldn’t be able to pick up his kids for a planned visit.

“He called me and was obviously very upset, and it could have been an awful situation, but I helped calm him down, gave him some options for how to handle it, and everything worked out. He really just needed some support, but when a parent is in crisis mode, they’re not always going to get support from a lawyer or a judge,” she says.

Unless there’s domestic violence or some threat to a family member, parents should always try to resolve their difficulties out of court, says Carefoot, pointing to a quote from retired U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“The courts of this country should not be the places where resolution of disputes begins. They should be the places where the disputes end after alternative methods of resolving disputes have been considered and tried,” O’Connor said