Transcript of Kristen Goss’s FAQs on Divorce in Florida
I’m Dan Couvrette, the publisher of Family Lawyer Magazine and www.DivorceMag.com. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Fort Lauderdale family lawyer Kristen Goss. We’re going to be covering a wide variety of issues of interest to those who are thinking about or going through a divorce in Florida. Kristen is the founder and Managing Partner of KWG Legal and Mediation Services in Fort Lauderdale. She focuses her practice in the area of divorce, child custody, timesharing, adoption, surrogacy, dependency, wills, trusts, probate, and guardianship.
Kristen, can you tell us what someone should do if they are going to file for a divorce in Florida or if they’re the recipient of divorce papers?
Divorce can be extremely difficult and fearful for a lot of people. I’d like to start with a couple of examples of some typical issues. Let’s say a mom – we’ll call her Samantha – has two kids. She’s been married to Joe, a successful businessman, for over 17 years. Their kids are 15 and 13 and she’s been a stay-at-home mom for the majority of her marriage. Joe files for a divorce. Samantha receives his petition for divorce and she’s scared. What should she do? She doesn’t know anything about the family’s finances, and it’s a very scary and challenging time for her.
Let’s look at another example. Tom, a father who broke up with his girlfriend of two years, hasn’t seen his son in six months. Tom’s name is on the birth certificate, and he’s definitely claiming that he’s the biological father, but the mother doesn’t want him to have any time with his son. What should he do in that situation?
These are common types of issues that people bring to me. They have a lot of questions and fears, which is why it’s important for me to really meet them where they are.
To answer your question, if someone were to be served with divorce papers, what should they do? The first thing would be to go to a family law attorney who can provide them with options. I normally provide my clients with several options to educate them and let them know how we can help them. To resolve their issues, they could choose the litigation route, the mediation route, or the collaborative law route, which I promote and suggest depending on the circumstances. It’s not for everyone, but in most cases, if divorce can be resolved outside of court, collaborative law is the best alternative.
You mentioned mediation and the collaborative approach to divorce. Can you say more about what those approaches are? Are they more or less expensive than litigation?
In the collaborative law process, each party would retain their own collaboratively-trained attorney; for example, I would advise the husband and the other attorney would advise the wife regarding their legal interests. We would do everything possible to help them reach an agreement outside of court. We often bring on other professionals as needed. For example, we could bring in mental health/parenting professionals if there are child-related issues that need to be addressed. We could also bring in financial neutrals if there are assets and debts that need to be discussed. How is their property going to be divided?
As a team, we work together to resolve the issues. As the attorney, I would focus on the legal interests of my clients; the mental health professional would focus on the child-related issues as well as the timesharing and co-parenting issues; and the financial neutral would focus on the financial aspects of the case. In most cases, this is cost-efficient because we really focus on streamlining things. The various professionals and experts each focus on their own areas of expertise, and they all work for the good of the family, so it can be less expensive than litigation.
I’ve spoken with you a number of times, and I have the sense that you truly understand the deep, personal emotions people go through during a divorce. This is not just filling out some forms and papers, is it?
No, it is not. I was speaking with someone the other day and they asked me, “What are my legal rights?” I said that we could get into that and that I could talk to them about it all day and night. That’s what I do day in and day out. But I want to know what’s important to them because each family is different – each family has different dynamics, and their interests are different as well.
Whatever reasons you bring to me, whatever goals you have in mind, I want to know that from beginning to end so we’re on the same page. I want to make sure that my client feels heard in the process because often, people need to get things off their chest. It’s a very emotional time. Humans are emotional, and family law is a human aspect of the law. You cannot separate one from the other.
Yes, I will address their legal interests, and there’s only so much I can do as far as addressing the emotional side, but my clients are also human beings who need to have that personal touch and connection to ensure that we’re on the same page and that they feel heard.
One of the other options you offer is unbundled services. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how divorcing people can use that service with you?
Attorneys are expensive. Depending on a person’s financial situation, unbundled services could be a good alternative. When someone wants to file for a divorce, there is a lot of paperwork involved. While you can get the forms and fill them out yourself, things have to be done correctly. A better way to do it is to go to a professional who does that every day. They know how to file things and what needs to be included in the paperwork. I can definitely take on that role, and while I’m not “the attorney of record,” as they call it, I would be preparing the paperwork for the client. I would provide them with legal advice so that they are not in the dark from beginning to end. I will prepare and file their paperwork if they want me to do soi
Family lawyers often tell me that they get clients who tried to complete the forms and filings themselves. Clients then come to realize that it is a lot more complicated than they think. Clients also don’t know the subtle intricacies. If you have children, the time you get to spend with them – and perhaps even paternity – might be an issue. How do you prepare your clients to resolve these child-related issues?
I will ask them what their goals and concerns are. What are their goals when it comes to their children? Often in paternity cases, the father just wants to have equal time with his child or children. For the mom, they could be scared to relinquish control because they don’t know how that’s going to work. We take a dive into that.
I tell clients all the time to think about their children. Your children are 50% mom and 50% dad, and they internalize whatever you say about the other parent. It’s so important to make sure you remember that, whether the child is a baby or a teenager.
I’ve seen too many times where kids are placed in the middle – usually not intentionally, although it does happen. That has a significant negative impact on the children. If mom and dad can remember that, at the end of the day, although they may disagree on many things, it’s okay as long as they communicate with each other and handle those disagreements for the sake of the children. We want to make sure the children feel they belong, they don’t have to choose one parent over the other, and they have that confidence to know that, “I’m mommy’s child and I’m daddy’s child.”
What about child support and alimony? How is that determined in Florida?
Child support is based on a number of factors. It’s a formula for the most part, but it’s based on other things as well – like the parents’ income, if anyone’s paying health insurance for the children, the number of overnights each of the parents has, and, if the child is not school age yet, we also focus on who is paying the monthly daycare expenses. Those are all things that are calculated in the formula.
If alimony will be a factor, that is also something that needs to be considered along with the child support calculations. However, if there are no children in the picture and it’s just alimony, then there’s no formula per se for that. Often, there’s a lot of negotiation involved in setting alimony. It could be a lump sum, or it could be a monthly amount. It depends on the circumstances and what the clients are comfortable with.
Do you sometimes bring in outside professionals to help you determine child support or alimony?
I would bring in a financial neutral – someone like a financial advisor, a CPA, or a certified financial planner. We have many people that we utilize on the team because they are the experts when it comes to finances. We want to make sure that every aspect is considered. What are the tax consequences? What is this going to look like moving forward? How is it going to impact things? We want to get the whole picture.
I know your preference is to work with clients to either mediate their divorce or work in the collaborative model without going to court. What if you do have to go to court? Can you give us a sense of what that’s like in Florida and when you might need to do that?
For a collaborative divorce, both the parties have to agree to go that route. If one or both sides don’t want to do it, then filing in court is an option. When we’re talking about divorce – equitable distribution, in particular – and how the assets and debts are divided, the presumption is equal. Whatever was acquired during the marriage would be equally split between the two spouses. However, that’s just the presumption. There are a lot of factors that determine how that plays out. We can file a motion if we want to be heard on a particular issue where the parties aren’t seeing eye-to-eye, and the judge will make a decision.
Eventually, the parties would have to go to mediation. Mediation is a good faith effort that both parties often attend to resolve any outstanding issues there are. Ninety percent of the time, things are resolved in mediation as opposed to going to trial. If there are issues that need to be addressed and aren’t resolved at mediation, we would go to trial. The other attorney and I would both present arguments, testimony, and witnesses, then the judge will make a final decision on those issues.
I suspect that whether you end up in court or not has a lot to do with the attorneys that you choose. It’s less likely that a client will end up in court with somebody like you. Do you think that holds true?
To some extent. The attorneys provide the clients with options, and it’s up to the client what route they take. If you’re dealing with an attorney like me who is focused on the family and what’s best for the family, especially when children are involved, then more often than not it’s going to be a situation where we resolve issues outside of court.
More and more people are getting prenuptial agreements. I thought that it was more for people of wealth. Do you do prenups, and can you tell us why they’re becoming more popular?
I would recommend that you reach out to a lawyer and see if it’s something that is beneficial in your situation. People who are getting married at older ages may have a family business that they own or have acquired. They want to make sure that that business remains in their family. For example, if it’s a family-owned business, by law, if the owner spouse dies, there’s a presumption that 50% would go to the widowed spouse. If there are minor children involved, the other 50% would go to the minor children. If you don’t want the 50% to go to your ex-spouse or there are no minor children, then we recommend a prenup.
Why would someone get a postnuptial agreement?
I can offer my personal scenario. I got married at 23 while I was still in law school. I had nothing. Someone asked me, “Did you get a prenup?” I asked them why. We didn’t get one because we didn’t have anything at the time.
But fast forward 14 years; I have my business and he has his business. We’re both thriving. But things change as you mature and grow older. That would be a reason why someone would have a postnup after getting married – because of their situation changing.
If somebody has a postnup or a prenup, if one day they do get a divorce, does it make things easier? Does it help sort things out quicker and with less pain, stress, and money?
Yes, for a number of reasons. In the unfortunate event that someone passes away, things are taken care of. You don’t have to go through probate or guardianship. If you get a divorce, then a prenup or postnup would stipulate how things will go – as it’s done properly. I would recommend going to an attorney that focuses on that area.
Do you have any final words of advice or dos or don’ts for people who are thinking about contemplating going through a divorce in Florida?
Florida is a no-fault state, so it doesn’t matter what your spouse did or didn’t do. It’s about what’s equitable and what’s fair. There is no presumption. I want to put that out there in terms of equal timesharing. That is a misconception
You would be wise to work with a lawyer who specializes in family law. I’ve been working with family lawyers for 26 years and I hear so many bad stories about somebody who started out with a lawyer who does 20 different things – they may work criminal or real estate and dabble in family law. You can learn more about Kristen at her website, www.kwglaw.net.
I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today, Kristen!
Dan, I thank you for the opportunity.