Courthouse Divorce File: What's Private?

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” 
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Gabriel García Márquez: a Life

The public thirsts for gossip, apparent in websites like TMZ and Perz Hilton. Celebrity splits are big news such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon. While most of us do not enjoy celebrity status, the small town rumor mill can be just as virulent as celebrity gossip. Divorce litigants should beware the rules regarding public access to their divorce file. Anyone can head down to the local courthouse and view all the happenings in the neighbor's divorce or co-worker's custody battle.  

The prominent case on this issue is the Petition of Keene Sentinel issued by the New Hampshire Supreme Court on August 27, 1992. During the 1990 political campaign for New Hampshire’s Second congressional seat, The Keene Sentinel sought to gain access to one of the incumbent’s, Charles Douglas III’s divorce records. The clerk granted the Keene Sentinel only some of the divorce records, citing privacy concerns. The Keene Sentinel brought suit and Charles Douglas III sought to intervene, asking the Superior Court to dismiss the suit. The Superior Court ultimately denied the Keene Sentinel’s request.

The Keene Sentinel appealed, arguing that “disclosure should have been permitted pursuant to RSA chapter 91-A, the Right to Know Law.” The Supreme Court held that a party in a divorce proceeding cannot have the records sealed simply for the sake of general privacy concerns.  The Court held that “[b]efore a document is ordered sealed, the trial judge must determine that no reasonable alternative to nondisclosure exists.” If a trial judge does make such a determination, it must use the least restrictive means available to secure the parties’ privacy rights.

This generally requires that the orders, pleadings and other materials in the file are open to the public for viewing. An exception is a financial affidavit. A party is required by the court to complete and submit a sworn financial affidavit, detailing all income, property and debts. This document usually contains very personal information such as social security numbers, bank information and paystubs. Family Division Rule 2.16 and RSA 458:15-b requires financial affidavits to be confidential for non-parties. In practice, this means that the court file contains an envelope which the clerk will remove if you are not a party to the case. Financial affidavits filed in divorce, legal separation, annulment, or parenting petition cases shall be confidential to non-parties. Access to such financial affidavits shall be pursuant to Family Division Rule 1.30. However, a person not otherwise entitled to access may file a motion under Family Division Rule 1.30 to gain access to the financial affidavit. 

The Associated Press v. NH gives some context to the rule regarding financial affidavit confidentiality. The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its holding in this case on December 30, 2005.   After RSA 458:15-b took effect on August 10, 2004, which, inter alia, made financial affidavits in divorce proceedings only accessible to parties to the proceeding and their attorneys of record, the Associated Press filed suit claiming the law was unconstitutional. The Associated Press argued that the law “violated the public’s right of access to court records” under the State Constitution, and that it was an impermissible restraint on freedom of speech per the State and Federal Constitutions.  The trial court determined that the law was not unconstitutional, and dismissed The Associated Press’ suit. The Associated Press appealed the trial court decision, arguing that the trial court erred in finding that the law was constitutional.

 The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court, and finding RSA 458:15-b constitutional. The Court ruled that although the public has a right to access government documents, including court documents, the right is not unlimited.  It opined that "the right of access may be overcome when a sufficiently compelling interest for nondisclosure is identified,” which included the compelling interest to prevent exposing divorce litigants to identify theft and fraud. The Court’s ruling was narrow, however, and only applied to keeping financial affidavits sealed. 

In general, the Court may upon request consider keeping confidential case-related materials for collateral cases that are already confidential pursuant to New Hampshire law. These include termination of parental rights, adoption, juvenile criminal records and abuse/neglect cases and DCYF records.  

 

Unbundled Legal Services

Unbundled legal services, also known as limited scope representation, allow you to hire a lawyer to do certain parts of your case, instead of the traditional soup to nuts representation. Some clients choose unbundled services because they cannot afford full representation, and some advice is better than no advice. Other clients feel capable of handling certain parts of the case, but need assistance with other portions.

Unbundled services can be customized to fit your needs, and can include

  • Representation at a specific hearing, such as a temporary hearing
  • Draft proposed orders or pleadings
  • Attending mediation
  • Assisting with discovery preparations
  • Consulting during your case to provide assistance and advice  

Payment arrangements for unbundled services can be tailored to the specific service. For example, paying a small retainer for ongoing advice, or paying for an hour at the end of a meeting to prepare documents.

Lawyers providing unbundled services will ask the client to sign a consent form that clearly spells out what services are, and are not, going to be provided, in addition to a fee agreement. 

In the Matter of Mason: Debt to a former spouse is non-dischargeable in bankruptcy

The Facts

Husband and Wife divorced, and the final decree directs Wife to pay 50% of Husband’s 2006 taxes. Wife later files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, listing her obligation under the divorce decree in the bankruptcy petition. She lists Husband as a co-debtor on the tax debt, and as a creditor holding an unsecured non-priority claim. Wife received a discharge from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Each spouse petitioned the IRS for “innocent spouse” relief from their federal income tax liability for 2006. The Wife’s petition was granted, the Husband’s denied.

Husband filed a motion for contempt, asking the trial court to compel the wife to pay the obligation to him as ordered in the divorce decree. The trial court denied the motion, reasoning that:

[Wife] sought to have her debt to [Husband] discharged in bankruptcy. Toward [that] end, in her bankruptcy petition [Wife] noticed [Husband] as a creditor for “2010: divorce settlement” in the amount of the original debt to the IRS. [Husband] was duly noticed that he was listed as a creditor and had the opportunity to litigate the issue in the bankruptcy court. [Husband] was granted a bankruptcy and the debt was discharged.

The Appeal

Husband appealed, arguing that: 1) the trial court erred as a matter of law when it found that Wife’s obligation to pay 50% of his 2006 federal income taxes had been discharged in bankruptcy because he failed to litigate in the bankruptcy court that her obligation was non-dischargeable; and, 2) that the trial court erred as a matter of law and unsustainably exercised its discretion when it declined to award him attorney’s fees and costs.

The Supreme Court issued an opinion on November 28, 2012. 

The Holding

Wife’s debt to Husband to pay 50% of his 2006 taxes was automatically non-dischargeable under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(15) as a debt to a former spouse. Even if the Wife was ordered to make payments on the obligation to a third party instead of directly to Husband, it is still a debt to the spouse and therefore non-dischargeable.

The trial court did not err when it declined to award Husband attorney’s fees. The general rule in New Hampshire is that each party must bear their own costs in litigation. A prevailing party may only recover attorney’s fees when it is authorized by statute, there is an agreement between the parties allocating or awarding attorney fees, or there is an established judicial exception to the general rule. Exceptions to the general rule include:

(W)here an individual is forced to seek judicial assistance to secure a clearly defined and established right if bad faith can be established; where litigation is instituted  or unnecessarily prolonged through a party’s oppressive, vexatious, arbitrary, capricious or bad faith conduct; as compensation for those who are forced to litigate in order to enjoy what a court has already decreed; and for those who are forced to litigate against an opponent whose position is patently unreasonable.

The Supreme Court noted that although it held that Wife’s position was erroneous under the law, her position was not patently unreasonable. Therefore, Husband was not entitled to an award of attorney’s fees.

The Takeaway

Whether a financial obligation to a former spouse is incurred by an agreement approved by the court or by court order, that obligation cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Plan on the obligation surviving the discharge, and ask your bankruptcy attorney whether the bankruptcy court can restructure the repayment of the debt. 

Tips for Completing your New Hampshire Family Division Financial Affidavit

This blog has been a great way to reach out to people who need information about divorce, parenting and family law, and it has been a great experience hearing feedback from colleagues and watching the number of readers grow throughout the years. I hadn't considered branching out into You Tube until I read a blog post on Kevin O'Keefe's Real Lawyers Have Blogs called Are Law Firms Underutilizing You Tube? The idea of a audio/visual piece to this blog appealed to me. Much like I like to hear the audio tour in an art museum instead of reading all the tags next to a painting because it is easier to absorb the information, I think that a video can help convey information in a good way.  

So without further ado, the following is my first You Tube video on the topic of completing your financial affidavit.

Click here for the Financial Affidavit form for theNew Hampshire Circuit Court, Family Division.

Thank you to Jeremy Collins at Ellipsis Entertainment for being easy to work with and producing a great product.

Divorce & Bankruptcy

I came across a great article titled Bankruptcy - What You Need to Know. Divorce and bankruptcy are often intertwined, and the decision about whether one party or both parties should seek a bankruptcy before or after the divorce is a decision that should be reached with the advice of an experienced bankruptcy attorney. This article provides basic concepts of Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, which are the types of bankruptcy most often used by consumers.

For more bankruptcy and divorce reading, see the following:

Married Filing an Individual Bankruptcy: How Does this Affect my Spouse? by Attorney Christine Wilson on the Los Angeles Bankruptcy Law Monitor

Should I get a divorce before or after bankruptcy? by Attorney Bryan Fears on the Texas Bankruptcy Blog

Bankruptcy During Divorce posted on Lawyers.com

Short Sale: Selling Your Home for Less than the Costs and Mortgage Balance

As foreclosures are on the rise, many homeowners are seeking alternatives to protect their credit and move on. One such alternative is a "short sale." A short sale is when the costs of selling the home (i.e. realtor's commission, transfer taxes) and the mortgage payoffs are greater than the proceeds received from the sale. The seller must then either bring funds to the closing to complete the transaction, or work out a deal with their lender to accept less than the amount due on the mortgage.

A recent posting from Barbara Strapp Nielsen on the New Jersey Law Blog titled Short Sales When Loans Exceed the Value of a Home provides insight and analysis on this topic. Attorney Nielsen writes:

Unless a homeowner is able to pay off all of the mortgages which are secured by his property, the homeowner will not be able to convey good title to a buyer.  If the homeowner is unable to obtain a sales price which enables him to pay off all loans and closing costs, and he does not have the funds to make up the difference, then he may want to try to obtain approval from his current lender(s) to accept an amount less than the full amount due on its mortgage.  For a lender, this may be acceptable to obtain repayment of a substantial amount of its loan and to avoid the costs and delay of foreclosing on the loan.  This will generally mean that the Seller will not receive any funds from the sale of his home.

In order to obtain such approval from a lender - which may or may not be granted - the homeowner needs to contact his lender(s) to determine what information they will need to make their decision.  This usually includes a financial statement of the homeowner, copy of a contract of sale, appraisal, and other pertinent documents.  Generally, a lender will not consider approving a short sale without a clear economic hardship on the part of the homeowner and an existing default or pending foreclosure.

Until recently, forgiveness of a debt under these circumstances, could trigger a taxable event according to the IRS.  This means that if a lender forgave a part of the mortgage debt by accepting a reduced amount in full satisfaction of the loan, then the amount forgiven could be deemed taxable income to the homeowner.  This was so even though the homeowner received nothing from the sale.  However, in December 2007 Congress passed the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007.  This Act amends the Internal Revenue Code to exclude from gross income amounts attributed to a discharge of indebtedness incurred to acquire a homeowner’s principle residence.  The amount of the debt forgiveness can be up to $2.0 million.  Thus, a homeowner is now able to sell his home for less than what is owed on it without incurring an additional tax liability.   This exemption for forgiven debt, however, is only temporary and expires within three years.

New legislation re: payday loans

Today the New Hampshire house passed HB 267, legislation that puts a cap on the interest rate for small loans given out by payday and title lenders. As on January 1, 2009, the date that the bill becomes effective, lenders may not charge more than 36% annualized. The bill also limits the eligibility of borrowers by restricting the number of times that a borrower can utlize a payday loan.

Although these types of loans can be a valuable way to manage an emergency, the loans can create a cycle of debt that the borrower can not break free from. Especially during a divorce, as pressure mounts to make ends meet, it is important to make good choices in the type of debt that you incur. Whether you are using a credit card, a payday loan, or a loan from your 401(k), read the fine print and make sure you understand the ramifications of the debt that you are taking on and the fees and costs that are associated with the debt.