Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Going to Court, Part III

Curly decided that she wanted to take the day off and come with me. She didn't want to actually come into court with me, but she wanted to be around before and after. We went down the night before so that I didn't have to get up at 4am to get to court on time.

"Going to court" really doesn't describe the experience. When you go for something like this, you start out in the courtroom, but just to check in. You then head over to the Family Relations Counselors, who try to negotiate a settlement to whatever the differences happen to be. I knew this from our previous visit, so the first thing I did was put us on the list for Family Relations. That was one of the smartest things I could have done. I was number eleven. Most people sign up after the court finishes checking people in. I went over to the list when that happened and found that 47 people had signed up after me, and more were in line.

Even so, it took a long time to see a counselor. Coincidentally, it was the same one we had the last time. We sat down and he asked the Ex to tell him her side of everything. She proceeded to paint me as an irresponsible father who didn't care about paying his son's medical bills. She said she could barely afford to get by as it was, but that my refusal to pay the medical bills was making her life extremely difficult. She went on and on, and I let her. I didn't say a thing. I didn't sigh, or get angry, I just politely waited. The counselor glanced over at me several times, but let her finish. She brought out her spreadsheets and showed him how much money I'd refused to pay. Finally, with a smile for him, she finished.

Now, before I go any further, I have to say that I was very pleased with all of this. She had explained, in very thorough detail, her side of things. She hadn't made up any new stories, and she couldn't easily change her story now.

The counselor turned to me and I began. The first thing I told him was that we had to divide things up into pre- and post- divorce because of the Dissolution Agreement. I explained that it showed that all the bills pre-divorce were specifically assigned to the Ex. He asked to see the Agreement and I pointed out where the correct paragraphs were. He read through it and came to the part where it mentioned the financial affidavits. He asked if I had those and I gave them to him. I explained the difference between the two that I had for the Ex. He read through all of this and told the Ex that it looked like the agreement stated that the bills pre-divorce were her responsibility. He also told us that he was not an attorney and that the judge might decide differently. The Ex was very upset by this. She told him that it was impossible for the agreement to specify that because she had specifically told her attorney that she didn't want to pay the bills. She said that her attorney had told her that I was responsible for the bills. She finished up with the statement that if she had to pay those bills it would be "not fair, not fair, not fair!".

The counselor said that we needed to go over the post-divorce bills, so on we went. I started at the beginning. I told him that it all started with that little sticky-note. I talked about how I'd tried to talk to her about it and she refused. About how I emailed her time and again, trying to discuss it, and got no response. About how I sent the long, pleading email. I told him that I had not received a single notification of a medical bill until six days after she filed the motion. I showed that the spreadsheets had been made just three days before she filed the paperwork, and that I felt she never had any intention of doing anything but going to court. I then explained that when I was finally informed of the bills it wasn't in any verifiable way, so I went out and got the bills myself. I think that was the turning point. I closed with my calculation of the amount that was owed. I explained that the Ex had missed several bills and that the figure I had come up with was actually more than what she was asking for, and that I was willing to pay that immediately.

I don't think he often gets this kind of attitude. He was clearly a little confused. He had a problem, however. I was willing to pay everything I owed post-divorce, but not what was specified as the Ex's responsibility in the agreement. The Ex was willing to accept nothing less than everything. His job was to try to help us find a middle ground. He told us this and explained that we were going to break for lunch. He wanted us to discuss things and try to come up with a number that was acceptable for both of us. He also told us that if we didn't settle it the judge would either make an immediate judgment or tell us that we needed to come back another day.

When we went out into the hallway the Ex asked me where I wanted to sit and talk about it. It wasn't just the way she said it, it was the look that she had on her face. Her attitude was not very nice. I told her I didn't see the need to discuss it. I was not going to compromise on the pre-divorce bills because I'd already given up a lot of money that more than covered them. I told her I felt I had a very strong case that I tried to discuss everything with her and she ignored it all. She immediately said that she had emailed me about the bills, so I laid it out for her. I told her that if she had emailed me she'd better go and get the copies of the emails. She had ample time before we had to be back - I told her that they'd be in her Sent Items folder. She was a little surprised at my confidence. She was angry and called me a few names as she got on the elevator. I went and had a little lunch.

When we got back we met in the hallway. She told me that she had come up with a new number. She said that she'd going through everything and could show that I was wrong about the bills we were talking about being the ones covered in the Dissolution Agreement. The number she came up with was about $100 less than her original number. That brought her pre-divorce number down to just under $900. It was a move of desperation and I knew it. I had gone over everything very carefully - if I hadn't I might have fallen for it, but I knew I was correct. I told her that we'd have to see the judge.

It was hours before we got to see the judge. In an effort to try and give as much incentive to people to resolve their differences the court has a policy that anybody who can't come to an agreement goes dead last. That meant that we had to sit through several hours of other people coming before the judge. It was very educational. The judge was very fair, which made me very happy. He didn't allow emotion to outweigh facts, and if somebody made an honest effort to do something they were supposed to he took that into account. Watching all the other cases made me much more confident.

When it finally came to our turn he asked her to explain her side of things. She did, but did change a little bit. She explained that her attorney had obviously made a mistake and that it needed to be corrected. She made it sound like her attorney had expressly gone against her wishes and colluded with me to cheat her. The judge let her go on for a little bit, then stopped her. He brought out the Dissolution Agreement and read it and the financial affidavits. He then told her that the Agreement was clear - the pre-divorce bills were her responsibility. She tried another half-hearted explanation, but he stopped her and told her that there was nothing he could do. He then told her she needed to come up with an amount (post-divorce) that she felt she was owed. Up until this point he had said nothing at all to me.

She sat down and started calculating. He turned to me and asked me if I'd received any notification of medical expenses. I told him I hadn't until she had sent me the spreadsheets, which was six days after she filed the motion. She's studiously kept her head buried in her calculations at this point, which is a good thing. The judge was very unhappy to hear this, and was glaring at her. He said that we were going to fix the problem with notifications. He explained that I needed to come up with my estimate of what I owed. I told him I had it already, and explained that I had gone out and gotten the information myself. He was clearly surprised to hear that I had done that.

The Ex finished her calculations. The judge asked her if the number that she came up with was 49% of the total, and she realized she'd made a mistake. She'd calculated it at 50%. Not much of a difference, I know, but he had told her to calculate it at 49%. He was not happy at another delay, and I spoke up and told him that I had no problem going with the 50% calculation, and scored more points. He asked me if I was able to pay her in a reasonable amount of time and I told him I had my checkbook with me and could pay her whatever we calculated immediately. That was a 3-pointer. He was elated.

We went out into the hallway so she could explain her calculations to me. She surprised me then - she burst into tears and apologized. She told me that she really thought the pre-divorce bills were my responsibility. I know this is not true because of some of the things she said before, but I'm not a gloater. I told her I'd rather have her talk to me than have to apologize. I took a quick look at her calculations and found that they were pretty close to what they should be. I didn't want to go through them with a fine-tooth comb so I just wrote her a check. It came out to just over $400 - a far cry from what she was originally trying to get out of me.

We went back in and the judge was once again surprised - he wasn't expecting me to have already written a check and given it to her. He was all set to send us home, but I stopped him. I told him that we still needed to fix the notification issue. He had forgotten, and put in an order that proof of expense had to be given within two weeks. That's even better than the 30 days I was hoping for.

All in all I was very happy with the way it went. The story doesn't quite finish there, however. There's what happened as we were leaving the court, which I'll write about next time. It's good news, and really surprised me.