Can the Court Cure What Ails Your Family?

Courts serve essential functions in our society, but “curing” family problems is not one of them. While a judge can make decisions about custody and visitation, they cannot make parents and children able to truly communicate nor can they eliminate the underlying tension and mistrust that exists. The dysfunctional family will remain dysfunctional despite the existence of a court order (or multiple court orders).

Correcting the problems requires hard work, not spending a lifetime in litigation. People who “hate” each other have to find a way to work toward a common goal. While courts can order people to go to therapists or to co-parenting counseling, attendance does not lead to progress without personal effort and commitment.

The first step is to recognize that “everything” is not the other person’s fault. Increased self-awareness is key. Often, your actions or remarks serve as a trigger which generates a problematic response. An argument over who started it will lead nowhere, so do not waste time and effort. Instead, put the effort into avoiding the actions and reactions that historically have caused discord.

The second step is to call a truce. No one can erase the memory of past wrongs completely, but you can agree to live in the present. Present actions will help create the trust that was damaged in the past. Someone has to make the first positive move, let it be you.

The third step is to be committed personally to work toward creating a functioning family, even if the family is not under the same roof. Mothers, fathers, and children remain a family. Separation, divorce, or remarriage do not change this basic fact. They do change how the family functions and that requires the work.

The fourth step is to recognize the importance of the parent-child relationship. You are not the only parent. Children benefit from having a relationship with both parents. The other parent is not replaced by your new spouse or significant other. The other parent may not be perfect, but no one is.

Families may require the assistance of therapists, co-parenting counselors, or other outside experts. These may not always be essential, as there are many resources available to the public that are easily accessed.

This may sound more like Dr. Phil than a blog post from a lawyer. The reality is that Family Law is more about personalities, parenting styles, mental health, communication skills, and ability to work together than it is about the law.

Please put in the necessary work! Go to court if you must, but do not expect a judge to cure what ails your family.


The Divorce Experience 2

Divorce is a:







When the stressful life events are rated, studies find that the following provide the greatest negative personal impact:

  1. Death of a spouse or child.
  2. Divorce (a close second).
  3. Marital separation.
  4. Detention in jail or prison.
  5. Death of a close family member.
  6. A major injury or illness.
  7. Marriage.

Divorce and separation create immense psychological trauma. Some who experience this trauma become angry and vindictive. Their goal is to punish the one who “caused” the breakup and to ignore any part that they might have played in the breakdown of the marriage. There can be a strong sense of personal betrayal, accompanied by a feeling of helplessness and difficulty functioning within the legal process, in particular.

It is important to acknowledge your trauma and to seek the help that you need to survive it. This often includes the assistance of a mental health professional, as well as experienced legal counsel. Trauma can lead you to make poor decisions and to act in uncharacteristic ways. You need guidance, but you may not be ready to accept it. Surviving the trauma is a process and may take a great deal of time. You need to give yourself that time.

Trauma and its effects can hinder your ability to trust. This includes trust of the professionals who are trying to help you. On many occasions, you may be your own worst enemy in this respect. You need to recognize this and work to overcome it.

To overcome this traumatic experience, it is important to:

  1. Take care of yourself. If you have children, their needs come first.
  2. Obtain and follow proper professional advice.
  3. Stay organized.
  4. Do not become overwhelmed by the situation or its demands.
  5. Develop a support system.
  6. Keep a journal.
  7. Stay focused and set deadlines.
  8. Protect yourself emotionally and maintain a healthy distance.
  9. Take a break from social media. Be kind to yourself.
  10. Go dancing! Or anything you used to enjoy doing and don’t do enough.

Google It


In the Age of the Internet, the first thing to do when you have a question usually is to “Google it.” Google will provide you with pages of information. Some of it may be true. Some of it may be false. Some of it may be true in California, but is not true in Virginia. This is especially the case in divorce matters.


Divorce law is created by the specific laws of each individual state. This causes procedures and outcomes to vary from state to state. For example, while some states are “community property” states, Virginia is an “equitable distribution” state. Some states have income percentages to calculate child support. Virginia has child support guidelines.


Case law, which interprets the statutes, also forms a legal basis for future court decisions. Cases from other states usually are of very little influence with Virginia judges.


Even if what you find is 100% absolutely true and complies with Virginia law, you still must know how to apply this information to your case. More importantly, even if you have the ability to do something, that does not mean that it is in your best interests to actually do it. These reasons are why you need a lawyer to help you make the correct decision.


Also, remember the old rule that we were taught in law school. “There is the majority rule. There is the minority rule. And there is the Virginia rule.” Virginia is just different and proud of it!

The Family Courts of Virginia

Family Court

Virginia has a unique court system. There are Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts and Circuit Courts in each jurisdiction. Both courts have the authority to make orders relating to child custody, child visitation, child support, and spousal support (alimony). The Circuit Court has the additional power to award divorces and in conjunction with that, to divide property and debt. Appeals from the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court also are heard in the Circuit Court. These appeals are trials de novo, meaning that there is a completely new trial.

The Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court also has the power to enter Protective Orders, again with an appeal to the Circuit Court. Criminal charges between spouses and those involving children also will begin in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.

What this means is that any case has the potential to have two full trials in two different courts.

Virginia does not have a separate Family Court system, as many states do.

In addition to the above, Virginia also has the General District Court which does not handle Family Law cases.

Benefits of Using an Attorney Mediator


While a mediator does not have to be a lawyer, there are benefits to using one who is.

Attorney/mediators do not represent either party. They cannot provide legal advice. It is entirely appropriate, however, for them to provide legal information. Legal information could include how child support is calculated using the Virginia Guidelines or what custody factors the judge must consider per statute or an explanation of the legal terms routinely used in courts. The goal is to be certain that the parties understand what they are discussing and what they may be agreeing to.

Attorney/mediators who practice law actively will be aware of any recent changes in the law. This is important because such changes could have significant financial impacts.

In the Family Law realm, a properly drafted mediated Agreement can be used in your divorce case. For this reason, you want to have it prepared by a lawyer who practices in the local courts. This will avoid the need to have the document redrafted or corrected prior to presenting it to the court.

Lawyers also communicate daily with a varied group of people. They, in fact, are trained in communication. They specifically are trained to bring out the important facts in a case. For this reason, lawyers are great facilitators in mediation. Lawyers who are mediators encourage mediation. In order to make mediation available to more people, most lawyers charge a lower rate than their usual hourly fee. It may cost you no more to have a practicing lawyer conduct your mediation.

If you are considering mediation, consider using a lawyer.



Who, What, When, Where & How of Uncontested Divorces

Uncontested divorces are those cases in which no issues are in dispute. Usually, the couple will have signed a Property Settlement Agreement (which will be discussed in another post).

The parties must have lived “separate and apart, without interruption and without cohabitation” for at least twelve months if there is no written Property Settlement Agreement or if they have children under the age of eighteen. If there are no children under the age of eighteen, and there is a written Agreement, the separation period is six months.

An uncontested divorce can be filed in any Circuit Court in Virginia.

The divorce process is begun by one party (Plaintiff) filing a Complaint in the Circuit Court. After filing, the Clerk’s Office issues a Summons. The other party (Defendant) can sign a waiver form in which they agree that they do not need any further notice about the finalization of the divorce.

Following receipt of the waiver, Plaintiff and a corroborating witness sign notarized affidavits in a format acceptable to the Court. These affidavits are sent to the Court with a proposed Final Decree of Divorce and the other required documents. The Court reviews what is submitted, and the judge signs the Final Decree. The date that it is signed by the judge is the date that you are divorced. The Clerk will send a certified copy of the Final Decree by mail.

The certified copy should be retained with your important papers.

Since divorces have consequences, it is recommended that you employ an attorney to handle the process.

How to Prepare for Court

vbjdrAt Commander Law, we try our best to do everything possible to settle our cases outside of a courtroom. Of course, this isn’t always possible and many clients will find themselves unsure of what to expect or how to adequately prepare for their time in front of a judge. Each situation is different and your attorney can help you prepare for the particular facts of your case, but there are some things that any party in a court case should keep in mind.

Be on Time

Or better yet, be early. We have had countless cases that were able to reach an agreement in the hallway of the courthouse instead of having to subject the parties to a trial in front of a judge. This isn’t possible without you being there with plenty of time. If you are late and your case is called, then your first impression with the court is a bad one, and you also risk the judge putting the case on without you! This would mean that the opposing party can say whatever they want and ask for whatever they want without giving you the opportunity to defend yourself.

Be Respectful

The way you say things is just as important as what you say. Remain calm and take your time thinking about what you are going to say rather than reacting emotionally and letting the opposing counsel’s questions rattle you. Judges are watching each party carefully and observing body language and facial expressions as well as listening to tone. Do not roll your eyes, or raise your voice or use anything other than extremely professional language. Your demeanor should be respectful to everyone involved in the case. This also carries over into what you wear. Your appearance should be clean and professional to show respect to the court.

Answer Only What is Asked

Lawyers are trained to pull out the facts that help their particular case and often parties will waste the court’s time by going on unrelated tangents or over explanations on things that weren’t the direct subject of a question. If there is more information that needs to come out, there will be follow-up questions, so do not feel as though you need to lay everything on the table at the first opportunity you get to speak. Judges have to listen to countless cases every week, and do not have patience for people who do listen and provide considered responses and instead are dragging a trial out unnecessarily. Make sure you stick to the facts rather than the emotions or what you think should have occurred. Do not go into back stories unless prompted. And never speak unless you are certain it is your turn.

Listen to your Attorney

Commander Law is here to help you. We have years of experience and we are dedicated to getting you through this difficult period in your life. We will work tirelessly to fight for you, but the best case results happen when the client is committed to working with the attorney and trusting our judgment.

What about the dog?

commander law dog

This is an issue that comes up on occasion when negotiating the terms of a Separation Agreement. It may seem silly to people who don’t own a dog, but dog owners often are extremely emotionally attached to their pups and often feel similarly to them as they do about their children.

Virginia treats pets as personal property, no different than your favorite armchair. This means that pets are subject to the same rules regarding property and the court will consider whether the dog is marital property to be divided, or separate property that belongs only to one party. Obviously most dog parents will not want to simply sell the dog and split the proceeds to resolve the matter, which is why it is not unusual to have people ask if it is possible to enter into a visitation schedule for the dog!

The answer to that is Yes! As long as the parties agree, it is possible to specify a visitation schedule for a dog in a Separation Agreement. Other solutions treat the matter the same as they would determine where the children should live, and consider the best interest of the dog. Who is the dog most attached to? Who has more space for the dog to play and run around? Which party is the dog’s primary caregiver?

As with most divorce matters, the best solution is for the parties to negotiate and then agree to in a separation agreement rather than taking the issue in front of a judge.