Reopening old wounds |

Reopening old wounds

Veronica Whitney

There are yet deeper issues than unpaid child support and custody battles when somebody reopens a divorce case, said Meredith Ringler-White, an Edwards psychologist, who has 30 years of experience in child custody evaluations.”Unresolved grief is behind most reopenings of family law cases,” she said. “When people are going through a divorce, there’s a lot of unresolved issues.”Many child custody problems erupt when one of the parents starts dating again, she said.”When a case is reopened you see huge amounts of anger and an inability to let go of the relationship,” said Elaine Edinburg, an Edwards domestic relations attorney who is also a mediator. “It’s as if they aren’t divorced – they’re not letting go.”Ringler-White said problems that surface later most likely start when a couple is still married and can’t communicate well.”In the worst cases, I’ve seen people get stabbed in the waiting room,” she said. “Once in Denver, I worked in a case where the children were kidnapped eight times while they were traveling between Colorado and New England.”The pain and anger in some cases has even hit Ringler-White. Once, an unhappy parent slashed her car tires and sent her black roses after a custody decision, she said.”People continue fighting because they’re holding on the anger as a defense against feeling the grief,” Ringler-White said. “It’s much easier to live angry than sad.”Tina Cook only gets to bathe him, nap with him and take him to the fair on weekends.By a judge’s order, the weekends are the only time when Cook, 30, of Minturn, has her 4-year-old son, Sage. The time is short. Come Sunday night, Sage will go to his father’s house in Avon, where he will spend the rest of the week.”I’m saving money because I’m planning to reopen the case to regain custody of Sage,” said Cook, who lost custody of her son two years ago in what she calls an unfair judge’s decision. “The court had no business to grant (Sage’s father) custody.”Cases such as Cook’s are keeping judges in Eagle County very busy these days.At 9 a.m. on a Monday in June, the desk of Eagle County District Judge Richard Hart is covered with yellow and orange files -the colors for civil and family law cases. Of about 16 folders, seven are yellow and eight are orange. There’s only one criminal file on his desk.”There’s a misconception with people thinking district court is all criminal,” Hart said. “Domestic relation cases are a huge burden on us. Half of my work load is family cases.”

On average, one case on family law -which includes divorce, child custody, child support and paternity issues- is filed or reopened every day the Eagle County courthouse is open. Some cases take up just one half-inch folder, while other cases spread through court shelves in more than half a dozen files.Last year, Mark Mogul, 44, a former real estate agent from Edwards -who is facing a theft trial later this year – compiled more files to revisit his 1990 divorce to adjust child support than for his criminal case. By the time the case was settled, it had added up to six one-inch thick files. In comparison, his sole criminal file is just an inch thick.”Family law is becoming a more and more burdensome part of the docket,” said Hart, who has been a judge in Eagle County for 23 years. “Before, the courts had a magistrate who handled the domestic stuff. But because of budget cuts, the judges are now dealing with them.”As cases fight for Hart’s time, he takes care of them according to their priority: Juvenile cases come first; criminal cases, second; domestic relations third; and civil cases come last, he said.”In family law, it isn’t the case number, but the amount of work they involve,” Hart said. “They’re getting to be difficult.”The problem is that after a divorce is finalized, the cases keep coming back,” he added. “The cases that come back are usually about money or kids. When you get kids involved, it’s worse. The court is interfering, not because we want to, but because people want it.”To reopen a divorce judgment, there has to be a change in circumstances, said Eagle County Judge Fred Gannett, who deals with family law emergency orders.”Divorce cases are some of the most difficult cases. People just keep fighting,” Gannett said.Dave Lugert, an attorney from Eagle and former prosecutor, said there’s no question the numbers are going up when it comes to reopening divorce cases.”About 50 percent of my practice has to do with family law,” Lugert said.Divorce cases are most frequently reopened when one of the partners hid assets or bank accounts during the initial divorce; or when one wants to significantly change custody arrangements, Lugert said.”Usually they have to do with material changes in income,” he said. “Or maybe one parent has criminal or drug problems and the other one wants custody.”

Elaine Edinburg, an Edwards attorney and a mediator for the Western Slope Arbitration and Mediation Center, said she’s seen more divorce cases reopened in Eagle County than when she was working in Denver.”People here do their divorce themselves to try to save money,” said Edinburg, who has a 28-year history as a domestic relations attorney in Colorado. “When people make agreements without litigation, once the case is over they realize they settled for things that aren’t the best for their children,” added Edinburg, who in 1987 opened the Domestic Arbitration Center, the first in the country to use the arbitration process to resolve domestic relation cases. An arbitrator is like a private judge – his or her decision is generally final, binding and enforceable. “Those who settled and didn’t fight in the first round, probably will need to fight later,” Edinburg said. The amount of parenting time and the amount of child support are the most frequent reasons why divorce cases reopened, she added.”Do what you need to do to have it done right the first time,” Edinburg said. “Get a competent lawyer to get the right orders in place, so when the divorce is over you don’t need to go back to court and fight. When I draft a separation agreement for people, it’s a road map for the future.”Lugert agrees with Edinburg.”Each side should have an attorney because there are so many issues that will come up in the future,” he said. “Only an attorney in a dispassionate way can figure out what’s best for his client.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454 or at colorado

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