Welcome to the Business Leader Spotlight Show
I want to welcome everyone to the Business Leader Spotlight Show. This is Randy Van Ittersum your host for today. Today we have with us Jessica Ressler, a leading divorce attorney in White Plains, New York. She’s here today to talk to us about some of the legal issues that you can encounter during a divorce. Jessica, welcome to the show.
Jessica: Thank you Randy.
Randy: Jessica, tell us a little bit about yourself and about your law firm.
Jessica: I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada and I attended Law School in New York. Upon graduation I decided to stay in New York and I’ve been practicing exclusively Matrimonial and Family Law for the last 11 years. During Law school, I interned for the Honorable Jacquieline Silbermann who was the Supreme Court Justice in the Matrimonial Part in New York County at the time. It was a wonderful experience and it proved to me that this was the field I wished to pursue.
During Law School, I also interned for an agency called Lawyers for Children who represent children in family court matters. And I enjoyed representing children so much that I’m on the panel for Attorneys for Children in Westchester and Putnam County. And I represent thousands of children every year in family court and divorce proceedings.
After working for several Matrimonial firms in both Manhattan and Westchester over a 10 year period, I opened my own practice with another Matrimonial attorney in February 2013 called Jansen & Ressler. My practice is devoted to all aspects of Matrimonial and Family Law including but not limited to; child custody, visitation, child support, equitable distribution, paternity, prenuptial agreements, orders of protection and appellate proceedings. We’re trained to handle mediation and collaborative law as well. However, the majority of our cases are settled through negotiations or they are litigated.
We’ve been growing quickly and we have hired a 6th year associate and we have attorneys who are of counsel to us who have been assisting with some of our matters. You can read more about the members of our firm and their biographies on our website (www.westchestermatrimonial.com). We’ve managed to put together a strong team with strengths in different areas.
Randy: Excellent and congratulations on starting your law firm here this year or beginning this year since we’re at the end of the year.
Jessica: Thank you.
Randy: Tell us Jessica, in managing a client’s expectations, what’s the most frequent problem that you encounter and what should a person getting a divorce expect?
Jessica: The most frequent problem occurs when a client can’t have everything they want or believe they’re entitled to. The client should expect that while their attorney will fight for their position and their rights, that there maybe some tradeoffs or concessions that need to be made in order to come up with the best possible outcome. To help manage expectations, I think a good attorney will make sure their client understands the law applicable to the situation in which the client is finding him or herself in and will make sure the client understands the range of outcomes that are possible in that situation and be sure not to make promises to the client about the outcome of any particular dispute. Attorneys cannot guarantee results, however we can opine on the likely outcome.
Randy: Okay, and tell us if somebody were to come to you for a consultation, what is the process that they can expect to go through when they were sitting down with you?
Jessica: At a consultation the potential client is interviewing the attorney to make sure that they feel comfortable with the attorney. A divorce attorney becomes intricately involved with all aspects of your life and it’s important that the potential client find an attorney who they can trust, feel comfortable with and who is ready, willing and able to protect their rights. Potential clients should never feel obligated to hire the first attorney they meet with and they should ask the attorney plenty of questions to make sure it’s a good fit. They should take notes during the consultation and they should come in with the list of questions.
Potential clients should also be prepared to answer very personal questions and sometimes uncomfortable questions regarding the history of the marriage, the reason for the divorce, the financial circumstances (including their income, their assets and their liabilities), questions about their employment, their educational background, and discuss issues of marriage such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol dependencies, mental health issues, and special needs of children. My firm has an intake form which we prepared which we have all our potential clients complete and it contains a lot of basic information we need such as the date of the marriage, the county and state the marriage took place in, whether the marriage was a civil or a religious ceremony, social security numbers for the potential clients and their spouses and children, and birthdates for potential clients and their spouses and children. It’s important that the potential clients coming for their consultation that they give themselves plenty of time to get all of their questions answered. Normally consultations in my firm are approximately an hour however some are longer and some are shorter.
In addition to personal questions or concerns that a potential client may have, he or she may want to ask the attorney questions like; have you handled a case like mine before, what are the possible outcomes, what’s your experience in this area of the law, are you familiar with the judges in the county, what documents do I need to file, how long could the case possibly take, who else from your office will I be working with, and if there is someone to cover my case if you are unavailable. I think it is important for potential clients to ask questions like what are your fees, when and how do I pay you, what are your hours, how do I contact you.
Documentation is very important in divorce matters and even at the initial consultation you should bring the following documents with you – it helps the attorney to a get better grasp of your situation and also gives you a better idea what to expect. The documents include any documents you were served with like a summons, petition, complaint, your most recent tax returns, your most recent W2 for yourself and your spouse, three most recent pay stubs, a statement of your assets and liabilities, mortgage statement and information and bank statements with account numbers and names of your banking institutions. If you’re unsure what to bring just ask your attorney ahead of time and try to arrange the consultation as early in the divorce process as possible. You don’t want to be caught off guard.
The earlier you have the meeting, the sooner you will have an idea of your options and you’ll be prepared if your spouse moves the process along quicker than you had expected. Most importantly, after going through the consultation process you want to make sure you find an attorney you can trust and with whom you feel most comfortable.
Randy: Excellent. And tell us Jessica during a consultation I would imagine everybody wants to know what the cost is for a divorce. What they can expect to pay and who’s expected to pay for the cost of the divorce. Could you share your insights in this area?
Jessica: Matrimonial attorneys are prohibited by ethical rules from taking a flat fee or a contingency in a divorce case like they do in personal injury cases. This rule is designed to protect the client and to ensure they receive the best possible representation. Clients will receive a retainer agreement that outlines the attorney’s fee schedule. An hourly rate for attorneys range depending on their experience and location. The cost of the divorce depends on the issues that need to be resolved, whether the parties have to go to court or to trial, and a number of other factors which can increase fees such as businesses or individuals with unreported income, valuation of a business or license and separate property claims.
In New York, the Domestic Relations Law allows for an award of counsel fees from the monied spouse to the less monied spouse. Awards of counsel fee are in the discretion of the court and if no award of counsel fee is made each party will be expected to pay for his own fee.
Randy: Okay and tell us, just as a follow up question to that, what have you found to be the general practice of the court. Are they, for an example, let’s say you had a disparity in income either because you had a non-working spouse or you had a spouse that was not making near the income that his/her spouse had. How open is the court to actually allocating dollars evenly to cover the cost of the divorce or is it one of those provisions that is there but it does not get applied very frequently?
Jessica: It is applied very frequently. The amount varies so greatly so it really depends on how much financial resources both parties have. So when a lot of times people come in and they say they would like counsel fees but their spouse only earns another 30 or $40,000 dollars more than they do, the court may be reluctant to award attorney’s fees because while there is a monied spouse, the income disparity is very narrow and the monied spouse has to pay his/her own attorney’s fees and is often paying child support or maintenance and there is not enough money to pay counsel fees as well.
When income disparity is much greater, especially when you have a spouse that never has worked during the marriage or hasn’t worked for a long period of time, it is much more likely for counsel fees to be awarded in that situation.
Another thing is that a lot of people have to keep in mind that it’s unlikely that all of the attorney’s fees will be paid for. Usually a portion of the attorney’s fees are paid for and motions will have to be made to the court to request permission for the counsel fees to be paid. Those applications can be made throughout the case. It can also be made at the conclusion of the case.
Randy: Okay, excellent! And let’s talk about children. I mean this is an area obviously you have a great deal of background in as you shared in the beginning of our interview. How is custody of the children determined?
Jessica: Sure! There are different types of custody in New York which I would like to explain before discussing how custody of children is determined under New York Law. Parents can share physical custody which means that the children spend equal time with each parent or one parent can have primary physical custody with the other parent having visitation or parenting time rights.
Legal Custody on the other hand designates a person as a decision maker for major decisions in a child’s life and legal custody can be shared or can be bestowed on one parent. It is important to know that the child’s best interest should always be at the forefront of any custody decision. There are many factors that the court looks at on determining a child’s custody decision. All the factors fall under the predominant factor of what is in the best interest of the children and what will promote the children’s welfare.
However, the court analyzes various factors which include, but are not limited to which parent was traditionally the primary caretaker for the children, the availability of each parent to spend time and care for the children, the willingness of each parent to co-parent and share information with the other parent, the willingness of each parent to foster the children’s relationship with the other parent, the ability of each parent to provide for the intellectual and emotional needs of the children, the major and quality of each parent’s home environment, the children’s preference which is usually only considered when a child is old enough to make a rational determination, the quality of care each parent provides to children, the stability of the home life for each parent, abuse, neglect, and domestic violence history for each parent, alienation of the other parent or interference with the other parent’s visitation, alcohol and drug abuse, age and health of the party, mental and emotional stability of the parent, the ability of the parent to not involve the children in the marital conflict and custody case and courts tend to favor children continuing to reside with their siblings. These are some main factors that a court looks at when making a custody termination.
The above list is not all inclusive. The court has discretion to decide which factor will be given more weight in a particular case. This is itemized in the landmark case of Eschbach v.Eschbach, and the weighing of all of these various factors requires the evaluation of the testimony, the character, and the sincerity of all the parties involved in this type of proceeding.
Randy: Very good! And share with us because you did bring up the issue of domestic violence. If there was domestic violence in the marriage, what steps would you generally recommend that somebody take as they prepare to get a divorce?
Jessica: I would recommend in the event of domestic violence for a spouse to consider filing for an order of protection which prohibits the person against whom the order is issued from engaging in certain activity. The family court has concurrent jurisdiction with the criminal court and this means that an order of protection can be sought and obtained in both the family court and the criminal court depending on the individual facts and circumstances of the case. An order protection may direct a person to completely stay away from another person, this is called a “stay-away order of protection”, they may have no contact with another person which is often referred to as a “no contact order of protection”, or simply to refrain from committing any family offense or criminal offense against another person and this is referred to as a “refrain from” order of protection.
If you obtain an order of protection at the first court appearance, the respondent must be served with a copy of the order of protection. The order of protection is not effective until that person is served. Additionally, the court has the authority to issue a final order of protection that may last up to two years but five years is the length of time it can last for if there’s a finding of aggravated circumstances.
Randy: Okay. You had indicated that there is this limitation. Is it possible for somebody to seek the extension if they still feel at risk or is that something where there would have to be a violation in another order provided at the later date?
Jessica: It can certainly be considered in the initial petition if the court feels that there are aggravated circumstances but it’s certainly more possible if there have been multiple violations or even one violation of the order of protection for it to be extended to five years.
Randy: Okay, and we’re coming to the end of our interview and I’d like to ask you one last question and that is if someone is looking for a divorce attorney, what should they look for and how should they go about selecting the right attorney for their situation?
Jessica: It’s important to select an attorney who concentrates in the area of matrimonial and family law and has the expertise needed to handle your case. Matrimonial lawyers are members of the local and state bar associations and there are committees that deal with matrimonial law issues. We are current on the latest cases and rulings and matrimonial attorneys are required to participate in continuing education courses related to matrimonial law. We know the materials that are needed to move the case through the system and we have access to all of the legal research, statutes, and the case law necessary to handle the case.
In contrast, the lawyer that does not focus on matrimonial law doesn’t have access to this research or body of knowledge and would not have an in depth knowledge of these laws which is critical to developing the case. Someone looking for a divorce attorney should look for someone they can trust and someone who’s responsive and takes the time to explain the process and answer questions proposed by the client. If the client prefers email, he/she needs to make sure when you select an attorney that the attorney emails and will correspond with the client after business hours. Interviewing attorneys is really key to understanding who the best fit for your unique set of facts.
Randy: Excellent. Jessica I want to thank you for sharing your insight with us today. You’ve been very thorough and detailed that I’m sure our listeners are going to glean a lot of valuable information from the interview. If you want to learn more about Jessica Ressler you can go to www.westchestermatrimonial.com or call 914-761-2300. Again Jessica, thank you very much.