In a meeting yesterday with a client, he asked me why we couldn’t agree for the attorney for his soon-to-be-ex wife to draft the final divorce decree so she would have to bear the cost of the attorney’s time for this activity.  He wants to pinch the pennies and avoid paying me to do this.

I told him the story of "Joe" — not his real name, obviously — who chose not to hire an attorney and let his wife’s attorney do all the work.  The wife’s attorney drafted their agreement and drafted in creatively, even craftily, such that Joe didn’t get exactly what he thought he was getting.

An attorney can advocate for a client in just the simple drafting of the wording of a document.  Sometimes this wording can mean the difference in having an enforceable court order or a piece of paper that is virtually meaningless.

Take the example given by Sam Hasler in the Indiana Divorce and Family Law Blog

Take this scenario: parties agree that one gets Y unless x happens. Being even more specific, assume that one party agrees to give the other half a pension, unless the other married.

What happens if the other party does not marry but lives with someone? Does the other party get the share of the pension?

Answer: Yes.

You get stuck with the language you put into an agreement. No better reason exists for getting a lawyer to at least read any agreement put together during any case. A lawyer provides to the parties an objective, critical for catching the problems that might arise out of a proposed agreement.

 

Married means married. If the Decree/agreement says married, then
living together does not matter. She gets the pension.

One of the most common examples that most people remember is President Clinton’s lawyerly dispute about the meaning of the word "is" during his grand jury testimony.  Consider Timothy Noah’s commentary in Slate magazine on September 13, 1998:

Years from now, when we look back on Bill Clinton’s presidency, its defining moment may well be Clinton’s rationalization to the grand jury about why he wasn’t lying when he said to his top aides that with respect to Monica Lewinsky, "there’s nothing going on between us." How can this be? Here’s what Clinton told the grand jury (according to footnote 1,128 in Starr’s report):

"It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement….Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."

In other words, President Clinton rationalized that "is" meant in the present moment, and he distinguished it from meaning over the past spanse of time.

I stress to clients the importance of having their lawyer draft the decree so that they know their best foot is put forward and as much of the advocacy of the nuances of small words — like "is" — can be avoided or massaged to their favor.

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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, 2011-2018, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. In 2014-2018, Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America for 2016 and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

Author and Speaker

A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.