Welcome Judge Dotson-Smith

Susan M. Dotson-Smith was sworn in as District Court Judge in the 28th Judicial District on Thursday, November 8th, 2012.  Judge Dotson-Smith has been assigned to Family Court and will assume the case load historically carried by the Honorable Rebecca B. Knight, and for a temporary period, by the Honorable Fritz Y. Mercer, Jr.

The swearing in was remarkably well attended.  Among the participants in the oath of office ceremony were Chief District Court Judge Calvin Hill, Resident Superior Court Judge Alan Thornburg, N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Cheri Beasly and N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.  This attendance connotes the importance of the position and the fact that Judge Dotson-Smith will touch the lives of many in Buncombe County.

We at the Siemens Family Law Group welcome Judge Dotson-Smith’s presiding in the Buncombe County Family Court and look forward to advocating in her courtroom.


Recently, my husband and I were in a counselor’s appointment with my middle son. He has been struggling and we were all looking for a little guidance. The counselor told our son he is at a crossroads and now must make a choice on what kind of person he wishes to become. He can go down a dark path, feeling as though everyone is out to get him, lashing out because he feels angry and alone, and dwelling on the perceived unfairness of life, or he can choose to focus on building his strengths, moving his life forward, maybe outside his comfort zone, and make a choice not to feel like a victim.

This made me think of the choices we all have every day. I hear people say they “don’t have a choice” or he/she “made me” do something, but the reality is we always have a choice. One of the most important choices we have is how we react when other people’s actions affect us.  This could be as simple as choosing to ignore a friend or colleague when they behave rudely, or as difficult as choosing not to play the role of victim when a spouse seeks to end a marriage. When a marriage ends, it seems to create an endless stream of choices, thrust upon us at a time when we are at our most vulnerable and scared.  What’s next? Which lawyer do I choose? Is mediation an option? Who gets what? Where to live? What about the children? The list goes on and emotions run very high, possibly clouding the choices available to us along the way. We can choose to react from a place of pain and hurt, lashing out at a spouse who no longer chooses to share a life with us. Or we can nurture ourselves, and make the difficult choice to try to resolve each of the upcoming issues with respect for those we have loved or who have loved us.

I feel certain, in time my son will make the right choice. He has already taken steps toward improving his life. I believe it can be empowering to “take the high road” and try our best to make choices from a place of knowledge and compassion, rather than choose to strike out from a place of pain and emotional reaction. What choices will you make today?

by Kathleen F. Abbott, NCCP

It’s Not Over ‘Til It’s Over

In North Carolina, parties can’t typically appeal decisions of a Trial Court until the Trial Court has addressed all the pending issues.  In the family law context, that means, until the Trial Court has resolved each claim for relief, including claims for attorney fees, it is not time to appeal.  There are exceptions to this rule, but the exceptions are few.

The Court of Appeals has dismissed 2 appeals at our request, because issues remain for the trial court to decide in the case, in the same case!  The first appeal in our case was brought after a favorable ruling by the Trial Court on the date of marriage. (See N.C. Court of Appeals Opinions, 2008 unpublished opinions, Duncan v. Duncan), http://appellate.nccourts.org/opinions/

At the time of this appeal, the Trial Court had not yet ruled on equitable distribution, alimony and attorney fees.  The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal.

The second appeal came after the equitable distribution trial, and after our client had been awarded alimony, but before her attorney fee claim had been resolved. (See N.C.Court of Appeals Opinions, 2012 Duncan v. Duncan), http://appellate.nccourts.org/opinions/

Again, the Court of Appeals has dismissed the appeal.

We expect a third trip to the Court of Appeals when the issue of attorney fees is resolved, when there will be no remaining issues for the Trial Court to decide.

Katherine Fisher Leads Seminar at 1st Annual Women and Money Conference

On October 6, 2012, Katherine (Katie) Fisher taught a seminar titled “Nuts and Bolts of Divorce and Money” at the first Women and Money Conference, sponsored by OnTrack WNC’s Women’s Financial Empowerment Center (WFEC). In her session, Katie led participants in exploring the past, present and future of finances and divorce.

Sharpening the Saw

A few months ago I posted about a Covey Leadership training the Siemens Family Law Group attended.  I have watched the group practicing the habits since, and I think we have all gained personally and professionally.  I know everybody has practiced the 7th habit, because we have all taken some time off this Summer.

This week, I have taken a couple days at the beach.  Before I return to the office, I want to post about that 7th habit of re-creation, what Covey calls “sharpening the saw”.

The metaphor goes like this: you can’t saw wood all week and expect the saw to perform the same way Friday as it did when you started Monday.  The saw needs to be maintained, it needs to be sharpened.  You might say you have too much wood to cut to take time to do the sharpening, but that will only make the saw dull and ineffective.

I have encouraged every member of SFLG to take time off this Summer, for good reason.  Time away from the job allows for re-creation.  An opportunity to rediscover talents and interests.  An opportunity for fresh perspective and insight.  I know I am coming back sharper, with more ideas and a renewed desire to care for clients.

But the real message here is for clients and prospective clients.  Separation and divorce are some of the toughest life experiences humans endure.  In the past 24 months, I have known clients, and their former partners, who have become so overwhelmed by the circumstances and events of their lives that they experienced tragic consequences. I believe they forgot to care for themselves along the way – they neglected to sharpen their saw.

You can’t afford not to take care of yourself.  Take a day off and take more if you can.  Go for a ride, a run, a hike.  Read, paint, play music.  Do whatever it is you used to do that brought you joy.  Re-create yourself.  You will be happier for it, and better able to manage whatever comes your way.

We want our clients to do their best to take care of themselves.  Clients who know how to sharpen the saw are better able to follow our advice, make better decisions, and help us to get better results.

Stay sharp and count on us to do the same.

Are you prepared for a possible “Gray Divorce?”

While browsing the Asheville Citizen-Times website on August 13, 2012, we came across a terrific article by guest columnist Haleh Moddasser about “Gray Divorce.”  Although the article targets older women,  we feel Ms. Moddasser’s article contains important information for all of us,  regardless of gender and whether you may be young, middle-aged or whatever comes after that.  Given that family and financial circumstances can change unexpectedly, be it by death, accident, or divorce, it pays to plan ahead and be informed. Follow the link to learn more:  http://www.CITIZENTIMES.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/201208140015/LIVING/308140016




Finding an Asheville Divorce Lawyer

If you are reading this entry, you are probably contemplating separation from your spouse.  Or maybe you have already done that.  You probably have questions about the law, and how the law applies to you.  You are likely under a tremendous amount of stress from the life changes you are experiencing.  You are looking for a lawyer to answer questions, to solve legal problems, and to provide wise counsel.

Finding the right divorce lawyer at this stage in your life is critical.  Take control of finding the right divorce lawyer in Asheville by following some of these tips.

  1. Interview divorce lawyers until you find someone you are confident understands you and understands your case.
  2. Ask yourself whether you like the lawyer you are meeting with.  If you don’t feel that you have established a rapport with your lawyer during the initial consult, you may want to move on.
  3. Remember, if the lawyer you are consulting doesn’t stand out to you, chances are your lawyer is not going to stand out to the opposing party, or the Court.
  4. When you interview divorce lawyers, assess whether they have time for you and your case.  Too much time is a bad sign.  Too little time can also be a problem.  Your divorce lawyer is working for you, ask if they can commit to provide you the time and attention you deserve.
  5. Pay attention to your divorce lawyer’s office.  Do you get the impression that the office is organized?  Is the atmosphere professional?  Is attention paid to confidentiality?  Do you get the sense that office staff is happy and ready to serve you?  If your answer to any of those questions is no, you may want to move on.
  6. Being a divorce lawyer is hard work.  But that doesn’t excuse your lawyer from explaining what he or she is doing for you, in as much detail as you desire.  Your lawyer should be able to articulate a strategy to achieve your goals, at every step of the process.  Your lawyer should be able to demonstrate competence under pressure.
  7. Determine how your divorce lawyer is going to communicate.  Some divorce lawyers in Asheville still don’t use email.  Some don’t have smart phones.  Being able to communicate with your lawyer is going to be important.  Determine how that will happen.  Determine how quickly the divorce lawyer you are going to hire can return your call or email.

These seven tips should empower you to choose your Divorce Lawyer in Asheville.  Make the right choice at the outset.

Separation Agreement

When we accept a case involving separation, we typically contemplate guiding our clients down one of two roads: 1. negotiation of a separation and property settlement agreement without court involvement, or 2. filing a lawsuit.  Here we address the first of these roads.


WHAT IS SEPARATION? In North Carolina, you do not need to have any specific form or paper in order to be legally separated.  Legal separation occurs when one spouse leaves the marital home and stops living together under the same roof with his or her spouse.  At separation, at least one party must have the intent of remaining separate and apart.  This “intent” does not mean either party can’t hope for reconciliation under better circumstances, but it does mean that separate households are being created for the foreseeable future. The law presumes that spouses have separated when there is an obvious change in living arrangements and one spouse’s intent to remain separate is expressed.


AGREEMENT TO SEPARATE VS. SEPARATION AND PROPERTY SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT: WHICH ONE AND WHY?   It is best for spouses to separate after having discussed and negotiated a written agreement to separate that both have signed in front of a notary.  This type of written agreement, referred to as a “Consent to Separate” or “Separation Agreement”, typically states that the parties have agreed to live separate and apart, as if unmarried, and that neither will accuse the other of “abandoning” the marriage.   This agreement to separate can be as simple as that, or it can be part of a more detailed contract that addresses property settlement, child custody and support and spousal support and alimony.  We call an agreement to separate, which includes these additional provisions a “Separation and Property Settlement Agreement”.


When spouses can successfully negotiate a complete Separation and Property Settlement Agreement, they can avoid the expense and uncertainty of involving a Court in deciding matters highly personal and complex matters.  Spouses who reach agreements ideally understand what to expect from each other so they can go more easily go about the process of reorganizing their lives.  The only thing typically left for those spouses to do is to file for divorce at the conclusion of one continuous year of separation.


HOW CAN YOU HELP ME WITH THE SEPARATION AND PROPERTY SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT?  We begin the process of preparing a separation agreement by carefully listening to you in order to clearly understand your concerns and goals.  We will understand the economics of the marriage, the needs of children and the nature and extent of the marital estate.  Once we have an understanding of these things, we can put the framework of an Agreement together.


In the process of generating the property settlement portion of an agreement, we may ask you to bring us documentation, including mortgage, credit card, retirement, brokerage and bank statements.  If you or your spouse owns a business, we may involve a CPA to understand and value the business.


If it can be done in a calm and rational manner, we encourage you to negotiate with your spouse as we prepare agreements so that the Agreement we prepare is one that is likely to be signed.  Negotiation can occur at the kitchen table, at settlement conferences in our offices, through mediated settlement conferences in mediators’ offices, or by and through attorneys.  Agreements that both spouses have participated in generating, and fully understand, are typically durable and enforceable.

Effective Habits at Siemens Family Law Group

The Siemens Family Law Group attended a FranklinCovey 7 Habits Signature Program in April, 2012.   We thought the program was important enough that all present members of Justice through proactivity and effective communicationthe group were in attendance and active participants.  The training was premised on the 7 Habits paradigm that Stephen Covey has created.

The first three habits are habits are foundational.  The first of these is proactivity.  Proactive leaders work from the circle of their own influence and are not distracted by outside influences over which they have no control.  Proactive leaders respond to stimulus proactively, rather than reactively.  Proactive leaders recognize that they have the freedom to choose their responses.

Effective leaders approach tasks with the end in mind.  They envision their end point and survey the route that will get them there.  If you don’t know where you are going, you can’t lead.  Beginning with the end in mind is the second habit.

Putting first things first is the third habit.  Leaders adopting this habit identify and sort out truly important tasks from those tasks that consume time and energy, but which are not truly important. Stephen Covey encourages identifying and eliminating distraction.  Leaders who are distracted are not effective.

With these foundational habits engrained personally, Stephen Covey suggests moving toward interaction with others from a win/win mindset.  The fourth habit of an effective leader, then, is to think win/win.  This type of thinking calls for the achievement of your goals, but also the achievement of the goals of those with whom you interact.

The fifth habit is that of empathic listening (as opposed to autobiographical listening) as you interact with others.  Empathic listening does not involve advice giving, probing, or judgment.  The goal of an empathic listener is to understand the feeling and substance being expressed by the speaker before the listener responds.  When that understanding is reached, rapport is established and one can then seek to be understood.

The habit of synergy is the sixth habit, the natural culmination of the previously described habits, and the ideal outcome of relationships with others.  Synergy is something Covey refers to as the “third alternative” which emerges when people collaborate.  When leaders synergize, they can create outcomes that are greater than the sum of the resources applied.

The seventh habit is the habit of recreation or re-creation.  He calls the habit “sharpening the saw”.  What he emphasizes is that effective leaders have a responsibility to take care of themselves mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally.  Only by doing so can leaders expect continuity of leadership.

We came away from the training committed to applying these habits in our work for clients.  We see the potential for continued professional and personal growth as the 7 habits are applied.  A mission statement for the Siemens Family Law Group was borne out of the process: Justice through proactivity and effective communication.

Pay Up or Else: Enforcement of Alimony Orders Through Contempt Proceedings

It is all-too-common for supporting spouses who are ordered to pay alimony to refuse to make these payments, leading to contempt proceedings and a contempt order requiring the supporting spouse to pay or face arrest.

Because contempt orders are immediately appealable, in past decades supporting spouses could use the appeal process to extend their willful refusal to pay.  Nearly thirty years ago, the North Carolina Supreme Court noted this injustice:

Counsel correctly argued that supporting spouses have a lengthy period of virtual immunity from support obligations while cases work their way through the appellate process… We agree …that a more satisfactory answer should be found, but that answer can come only from the Legislature.

Quick v. Quick, 305 N.C. 446, 461-462, 290 S.E.2d 653 (1982).

Three years later, the General Assembly acted on the Supreme Court’s invitation in Quick by passing North Carolina Session Law 1985-482, which provides:

Section 1. G.S. 50-16.7(j) is rewritten to read:

“(j) ….Notwithstanding the provisions of G.S. 1-294 or G.S. 1-289, an order for the periodic payment of alimony that has been appealed to the Appellate Division is enforceable in the trial court by proceedings for civil contempt during the pendency of the appeal. …the Court of the Appellate Division in which the appeal is pending may stay any order for civil contempt entered for alimony until the appeal is decided if justice requires.”

This Act created a new norm for enforcement of alimony judgments during appeal:  contempt proceedings in the trial court continue during the pendency of the appeal, and stays of such proceedings now are the exception.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently affirmed this appellate enforcement of alimony through trial court contempt proceedings in Romulus v. Romulus.  The Romulus Court reviewed the Quick opinion and noted that our legislature has found a “more satisfactory answer” by making alimony orders enforceable by contempt pending appeal.

Dependent spouses should aggressively enforce any court-ordered alimony through contempt proceedings.  Supporting spouses should pay up or face the consequences.