Tips From A Divorce Lawyer If You’re Leaving Or Staying With Your Partner Who Suffers From Addiction

Tips From A Divorce Lawyer If You’re Leaving Or Staying With Your Partner Who Suffers From Addiction

Today I want to introduce you to a kick-butt divorce lawyer in Manhattan. Her name is Kara Bellew, and I adore her.

Not only has she been practicing family law since 2005, she was named a rising star in family law by New York Super Lawyers in 2015 and 2016. She’s a seasoned litigator and a trained mediator. But what I love about her most is her history.

When she first started practicing law, she worked for the Sanctuary for Families which is a center for battered women. She has that perfect combination of a compassionate heart and extreme knowledge. I know you’re going to listen to this interview and be impressed not only by her wisdom, but by how much she honors women.

You can tell that she is an advocate for those of us who might not have a voice.

But yet, she is incredibly respectful and very tender. You just have to listen to the interview.

We are going to be talking about issues like how to prepare for a divorce. We are going to be talking about what to do with our children and setting expectations for what’s going to happen with our family dynamics, visitation, and custody when we love someone with addiction. And we are going to be talking about how to identify the right lawyer and what questions you need to ask.

For those of you who are regular listeners and you’re thinking, “I don’t need to listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) because I am not even thinking about divorce,” I hear you. I get it.

But I want to tell you that knowledge is power.

And even if you have no plans to walk down the path of divorce, it’s not going to harm you in any way just to listen to this interview. Just to have the knowledge. Just to know that if by chance you’re sitting at home one day thinking a divorce is something you need to consider, you will recall the information from this interview and feel a little bit more peaceful knowing what to expect.

So I’m just asking you to hang with me, listen to (or read) the interview, and then forget about it. Put it in your back pocket. You don’t need to worry about it. For those of you who are going through divorce or preparing for one, I really hope this helps you answer some of your most important questions.


Michelle: Again, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us. I am so grateful. As I know you know, we are a community of women that are in love with somebody that’s suffering from addiction. A lot of the women in my community are either in the beginning stages, middle stages, or contemplating getting a divorce from their loved one.

I think when you really want to make a marriage work but you have that third party of addiction, it presents a lot of unpredictability, a lack of stability, and women are frightened and scared of their future.

Kara: Right.

Michelle: It is not uncommon for a lot of women in our community to be in an abusive relationship as well. In fact, I just recently read 50% of all men that enter some sort of rehab have admitted to being physically abusive to their spouses.

Kara: Mm-hmm.

Michelle: So when I read that you had substantial experience with Sanctuary for Families, which is a center for battered women, I really wanted you to shed light on your experience and what attracted you to a partnership with them.

Kara: Sure. So prior to getting my law degree, I went to social work school, and I got my master’s in social work. It was really there that I learned about domestic violence, and I didn’t learn about it in a class. I learned about it by actually doing field work as a clinical social worker, and that was part of my training. People would come to me. I worked in a community health center, and people would come to me and they would write down their presenting problems and the things that they wanted to address.

Most of the time it was sort of garden variety, anxiety, depression. I just found it fascinating and outstanding that once I got underneath those issues that there were serious histories of domestic violence. With lots of abuse, physical, emotional, sexual, and it was really the first time that I was starting to really understand what this was about. It’s so kind of informed my interest that I then decided to go to law school and really focus on this.

I chose to go to Northeastern Law School in Boston because they had a really well known domestic violence institute.

So I was part of that for all three years of law school, and then I came out of the experience wanting to focus my law practice with that population. That’s how I ended up going to Sanctuary For Families, the center for battered women’s legal service services, which is the largest legal center in the country devoted exclusively to victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. There I joined the family law practice, and all of my representation was of victims of domestic violence, either in family court proceedings or divorce actions in New York City.

Michelle: Well, I’ve heard women say that you are not only confident but you are also passionate. I feel like that’s such a necessary ingredient and an overlooked virtue particularly with women who are in very vulnerable relationships.

I remember when I first started looking for legal representation, I thought I had found my lawyer of choice, and I went into her office for our first meeting not really knowing anything about what to expect, feeling incredibly vulnerable.

This was my first marriage and my first divorce. We were sitting in her big office table and she said, “Okay, Michelle. What do you do for a job?” I was successful prior to having children but didn’t want to go back into that field. I thought I could do interior design. That would be a perfect career that I could have flex hours to raise my three young kids.

I wasn’t looking to get rich. I was looking to do something I’d really enjoyed and be creative. She laughed at me, and said, “You have no idea how many women sit across this table from me and tell me they want to be an interior designer. Forget about it. You need to find something else to do, and come back to me next week.”

I remember sitting there feeling so incredibly devastated. She made me feel silly and embarrassed and ashamed.

Kara: Right.

Michelle: So I think having a compassionate heart for women who are the underdog, is so important.

So when you think about women who are looking for representation and selecting a lawyer when their spouse suffers from addiction, what do you think are the important things to look for so that women don’t end up in a situation like I was?

Kara: I think it’s important in the initial consult to point out that issue, to really point out that this is going to be an issue in your case, and get that attorney to tell you how they think it should be addressed. What experience did they have working on cases where an addiction is a big part of what’s going on in the family?

I think as an attorney it’s really, really important to be able to recognize not only what the addiction is but what role it’s playing in the family. What role is it playing with your own clients? I mean, is your client totally in denial about it? Does your client have expectations about her spouse’s recovery that are really kind of outside what may happen here? Does your client have expectations about what the court can do to address the addiction? What impact is it having on the children? Are there safety concerns that have to be immediately addressed?

I think that an attorney who has some kind of background with dealing with those kinds of cases can talk really strategically as well as compassionately.

You have to be able, I think, to be responsive to the emotional aspect of the role the addiction is playing for your client, but you also have to be strategic and you have to understand what can and cannot do relative to addressing the addiction.

Sometimes people come in and say, “I don’t want the court involved. I don’t want this to go to court. I just want us to be able to deal with these things.” Primarily, in my experience, it’s because there’s issues around the kids. Maybe it’s, “I want him to have parenting time, but I don’t want him to drive. I don’t want my kids in the car. I’m concerned about the kids being with him unsupervised.”

There’s a marriott of things that can come up, but I think really understand the ways in which court can be helpful, what kind of programs are available, how successful or unsuccessful those different programs have been in other cases.

Those will be the kinds of things I think as a client that I’d want to speak about in that initial meeting. Then I think that would largely inform whether or not you think that attorney is a good fit for you.

Michelle: That’s really helpful. So it’s completely acceptable and okay for women to go in with a list of 10 to 12 questions for that meeting, and the expectation would be that the attorney answers each one of those questions, or would the expectation be okay, we can get into that when we’re in the second meeting. Let me just get to know you a little bit better right now.

Kara: I mean, I think that depends. There’s certain things that you can’t do in a one hour consultation.

Michelle: Right.

Kara: So there are certain answers that you may say, “Look, that’s a great question. I can’t answer that right now because we’d have to see how this situation evolves.” But certainly you’re the client.

So you have every right to go into a consultation with an agenda and an expectation that a certain amount of your questions are going to be answered.

They may only be able to be partially answered. Again, based on whatever the question may be, but clients come to me often and they have an agenda and they’re pretty methodical about how we go through it. That’s absolutely fine with me. Other people come in and just say, “You ask me. I’ve never done this before. What do you need to know from me?” I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it. But I would say certainly if there are certain things that are really important to you, then you have every right to at least have those issues addressed in that initial meeting.

Michelle: I think that’s really helpful, and I love that. I know it sounds like such a simple, basic question. I remember when I was going up the elevator to my first appointment with my first lawyer, who I actually didn’t end up using, and thinking, “Okay. We’re going to go sign those papers, and the divorce is going to start.” Not really understanding that this does take time, that there’s a great need for a process, and that your first appointment with your lawyer is not going to result in a divorce.

Kara: Right.

Michelle: If the woman’s safety is in jeopardy or let’s say the children’s safety is in jeopardy, what type of practices or helpful things can you do to protect your client as soon as possible from the dangers of addiction?

Kara: So, again, I think it depends on what the issue is, but certainly if someone came to me and expressed an acute, an immediate need for safety, then I would talk them through what are our different options. You can often go to court and make an emergency application for any number of things that would directly address safety concerns.

If the client was saying, “Well, I don’t want to go to court,” then you’re kind of making safety plans in a different way, and you have to think about a lot of moving parts. What is it about the situation that is unsafe? What do you need to have in place to make you feel safer? If it’s an issue around safety of the kids.

It’s such an amorphous question because there can be so many different things going on. Are these people, are they already separated? Are they still living together? Is there parenting time in place? I think it would largely depend on what the issue was. Then really taking the temperature of the client. Are you prepared to go to court to have this resolved? What’s the likely outcome? What are the risks and the benefits doing option A versus option B?

The way I practice, I give clients options. I talk them through what those options are going to look like in terms of the time and the expense, the risk and rewards of doing them, and ultimately then it’s their decision.

I do believe that clients, not us, are in the best position to recognize what is going to make them safe and what is going to make things less safe for them.

Particularly when I worked at Sanctuary, I aways deferred to the client because that client knows better than anyone else what is going to trigger her spouse, what is going to potentially really set him off, and I would never encourage or advise someone to do something that they really think is actually going to make them less safe.

Even if perhaps from a straightforward legal perspective, I would say, “Well, this is the best thing you can do. This is going to get you the quickest form of relief. It’s going to have all these derivative benefits.” If she says to me, “But that’s actually going to make him so angry, and I’m concerned he’s going to retaliate against me.” She has reason to believe that, then that’s not going to necessarily help her.

Michelle: That’s fantastic. I can feel a collective sigh of relief from the listeners right now to know that they have options and know that a good attorney will listen to them and respect them and not strong arm them or bully them into doing something.

Kara: Right.

Michelle: Can we talk about kids for a moment?

Kara: Sure.

Michelle: Because women in our community have children.

Kara: Mm-hmm.

Michelle: I had three young kids when I was divorcing, and I have to say my greatest concern, my greatest fear was having my soon to be ex-husband drink or use drugs during visitation.

Kara: Mm-hmm.

Michelle: So how do we prove that they have an issue to get the court to recognize that there needs to be some sort of safety precautions in place?

Kara: Well, I think that certainly information gathering. That’s something I always tell people to do from the start. If someone comes to me and says, “My husband is a coke addict.” I say, “Okay. Well, how do you know?” That’s sort of an easy question for people to answer. “Well, I find it in his pockets. I see I’m doing it in the bathroom. He keeps vials of it where my kids can reach it.” I mean, I’ve had this issue in a lot of cases. Then it really becomes building the evidence.

If you take pictures of things, if you save text messages.

I had a case it was actually the wife who was addicted to cocaine and she was emailing and texting the drug dealer from the family computer. So we got all the history from the family computer of all the text messages. Those types of things. That’s sort of step number one I think.

Again, it really becomes about how are you looking to bring this … How are you looking, rather, to use this information? Are you using it to go into court to ask that there be monitoring in place? Because if that’s what you’re doing, you’re going to make what’s called a motion, and a motions just a request to the court to grant whatever relief you’re asking for.

So it’s very typical to put in exhibits to your motions. Exhibits of text messages, exhibits of emails, photographs, anything like that that can support what you’re saying. Always being mindful that you’re framing it around trying to protect your children.

You’re not trying to say this person can never, ever see your children again, but you have these concerns. They need to be addressed so that any parenting time that is granted to him by the court, there are the appropriate safeguards put in place to make sure he’s not using or not under the influence when he’s with your kids.

Michelle: Is it possible for a father to never see his kids?

Kara: It’s very rare.

Michelle: Got it.

Kara: It’s very, very, very rare.

Michelle: Okay.

Kara: To totally strip someone of their … It’s like completely terminate someone’s parental rights, that’s very extreme remedy. But it’s not uncommon for someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol and who’s not really doing anything to address it. It’s not uncommon that they could see their children, but there would be supervision in place.

There would be any number of safeguards in place so that the children’s safety wasn’t compromised.

Michelle: So they could get supervised visitation. What about finances? Because addiction is expensive and …

Kara: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michelle: I have found that when women have the courage to leave and remove themselves and their kids from this relationship, sometimes the expectation are that the ex-husbands are going to be responsible and continue to pay for child support or alimony. That doesn’t always happen because the money goes towards the drugs and the alcohol.

So how important is it to continue a relationship with an attorney even after the divorce is done, and how often do you see women in cases where they need to re-evaluate or go back to court to get additional support?

Kara: So I have a fair number of cases and always have. We call them post judgment cases. So they’re after the judgment of divorce has been granted. Then there’s new issues that have arisen that require going back to court. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon. Ideally, if you reach an agreement to resolve your divorce in the first instance you can reach an agreement that provides for … I’m trying to think how to describe it. Like sort of provide for things that you anticipate happening.

So if you said to me, “I know he’s never going to pay. He’s so irresponsible. He’s never going to make these payments.” You could put into your agreement certain things. Like maybe the money he owes to you is just garnished directly from his paycheck so that there’s never any back and forth between the two of you. Sometimes people accept different rates of child support that encapsulates everything. So maybe you end up taking a little bit less in effort to cut the back and forth. I don’t want to have to beg him to pay the daycare provider, his share of it. I don’t want to beg him to pay for summer camp, his share of it. etc., etc.

So there’s different ways you can deal with some of those issues, but those issues are hard because that is also incumbent upon him agreeing.

Michelle: I think it’s wonderful when you find a good attorney that you’ve walked through this together. Particularly for women like us who tend to have a codependent nature, we’re people pleasers, we settle for less, we pick up the extra slack, we put all of the weight on our shoulders. I think there is such a benefit to having a relationship with an attorney to hold us accountable.

I know with mine, he was very, very clear with me that I was settling for less. And I needed to continue to be brave, continue to be courageous and stick up or myself and my kids, and go back until it was done correctly. So I think having that established relationship can really be helpful in the long run.

Kara: Absolutely. It’s interesting because I was just having the same conversation with a client of mine whose husband is an addict, and we had the conversation yesterday because much like you’re describing yourself, she’s very similar.

She just wants to get this done.

She’s willing to make any number of concessions to make easier, and I said to her, I said, “Look, if he sees that your so desperate to be nice and to settle, you are going to walk away with considerably less. You have very young children. He out earns you five times. There is no reason right now to do that. I mean, ever.” But it’s difficult. It’s difficult, but we’ve been working together for over 18 months. So I know her very well. I understand the dynamics of their relationship. I think that’s important.

Michelle: Yeah. Let’s talk about the 18 months because I think that’s another great expectation is to set up front. What is the best case scenario timeline wise of a case and what is the typical and then what is anything past that where it’s just kind of exceptional but extremely complicated. It involves probably children and exceptional amount of money and two difficult parties.

So what would be the best, average, and worst case for timeline wise?

Kara: That’s a very hard question to answer. I mean, best case scenario I think for clients, the best case scenario is quickest as possible. It’s all driven by how many issues there are in dispute. So when you have issues of custody, when you have addiction issues, those problems weren’t created in a day, and they’re not going to be resolved in a day.

I think it is a mistake generally speaking to put the need to resolve everything in front of the need to address things in a thoughtful way to ultimately reach an outcome that’s going to be sustainable.

You don’t want to have to come back and be in then a post judgment process because what you agreed to actually doesn’t address any of the real issues, but you were in such a need to get it done that now you’re left with an agreement that actually isn’t totally helpful to you. I see that happen a lot.

I think there’s also a misconception that well, lawyers are going to drag it out because it’s better for them. Frankly, some do. Some do. I don’t. But I have to kind of defend against that a lot because I think people come in to the process with a real skepticism about what lawyers can and cannot do, are they self interested, and I think that kind of comes back to making sure you have the right person. It is a real matchmaking.

Be very clear with the person you’re working with about what are your goals, what are your expectations, and I think listening to the kind of feedback you get about well, what are their goals and what are their expectations.
Because you want to make sure that those two things are aligned. They should be because the lawyer is working for you to meet your goals. But I do think you can get a sense as to how people practice.

Again, I think to kind of go back to your question, the worst case scenario obviously for anybody is to be involved in litigation that is taking all of your money and eating up all of your time, is slow moving, and feels exceeding demoralizing because it feels as if nothing is happening. That’s for everybody generally across the board worst case scenario.

Michelle: A lot of women in our community are listening to this and going, “I don’t think I’m ever going to go down the path of divorce. I’m still in love with him. I still believe that my partner is going to get sober eventually.” To them I would say, “Great. I hope everyone does get sober, but let’s cover your butt and just in case,” because you look statistically at the chances of long term sobriety, they’re not great. So let’s be smart about this and let’s prepare for worse case scenario, and you know what, hopefully we’ll never have to use the pictures or the documentation.

Would you say that preparing also involves really asking yourself, like you said, what are your goals, and what would some acceptable goals for women in this type of situation? We talked about an unrealistic goal most likely would be I never want him to see his kids again. That’s probably an unrealistic goal.

What are some other great goals of clients that come in to you and you say, “Yes, we can do that. That’s fantastic.” Or, “No, not so much. We need to adjust your expectations there.”

Kara: Right. Again, I think it depends on what the issues are, but I think generally speaking goals that are reasonable and will resonate with a court, for example. So a goal of I want my children to grow up with a father. I want my children to have a good relationship with him, but I want my children to be safe. Though my children’s safety is a main goal, protecting their relationship with their father, that’s a good goal.

The unrealistic goals are I never want them to see him again. I don’t ever want him to buy drugs again. Okay, well you can’t control that.

I don’t ever want him to use again. Those kinds of goals are just, they’re not realistic because they’re not in your control. So I try to focus people on okay, what’s within our control. Certainly put safeguards in to protect safety of your children, that’s within a court’s control and it’s within our control to ask for it. It’s not within our control that he’s never going to use coke again or buy it. It’s not. So those kinds of things.

I think depending upon the financial circumstances being realistic about finances too.

The life that you are leading may be on one income, a really substantial income. It looks pretty different when that same income now has to support two households. Kind of getting people’s expectations tempered around that as well I think is important.

Michelle: I think that’s absolutely wonderful advice. So I know we need to wrap up but I want to talk about the affordability of representation. Okay. So two questions for this. One is if a woman does not have the finances to be able to go hire an attorney, what should she do? Number two, what does a payment look like to a lawyer?

If I’m preparing to get a divorce, how much money do I need to have in place? Are there payment plans? Do most lawyers want a bushel of money up front? How does that work?

Kara: So I guess to your first question, if you don’t have any money, what can you do? I guess the question first is: do you as a household not have any money or do you just individually not having access to money because your spouse is the one working, earning the money. So those are two totally different buckets to fall in. Certainly if you are indigent, your husband is indigent, then there are services available. There’s a right to counsel in New York for certain issues in a divorce, not all. I won’t kind of get into all of that.

There’s legal services organizations such as the Sanctuary for Families, or any number of other legal services in most cities where you can get free representation based up a showing of a certain level of income.

When you’re in a scenario where, for example, your married, you’re not working, or you’re working but your spouse’s income is so much higher than yours, then there’s different remedies available. I mean, certainly, if you have access to income, you can take from marital assets to pay for an attorney.

If you don’t have access to any of those funds, you can make a motion to ask for counsel fees. Counsel fees be paid on your behalf during the dependency of the proceeding. So in New York, there’s a rebuttable presumption that the moneyed spouse pays the counsel fees of the non-moneyed spouse. It’s an area where there’s a lot of discretion from a court, but that’s where the law stands at least with respect to that issue.

So how different attorneys will establish what kind of retainer they take, can you do like a sliding scale, or make a payment plan, I can’t really answer that for other attorneys. I think like everything else, it sort of depends on what the circumstances are.

I would say in matrimonial law, most attorneys will want a retainer up front.

What that retainer is going to look like, how much. At least the way I set retainers I really look at what are the issues, how long do I think this is going … How much work is going to be required, rather. But it’s really important and I think for clients it’s really important to understand that the fees aren’t just a retainer. So if I take, let’s just say a round number, $10,000 retainer. That’s just to get started. That doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be another $10,000.

I think it’s really important that clients understand that, and they really read the retainer agreement. Because oftentimes retainer agreements have language in it that obligates you to replenish the retainer once its depleted. You don’t want to be surprise by that. I think being mindful of the way you’re utilizing your attorney is really, really important because everything … You do get billed for everything.

So it’s important to see where that money is going and not just from looking at my bill every month and I’m just throwing it in the trash. Am I emailing my attorney 15 times a day? How much time is it taking him/her to then respond to me. Those kinds of things are important as a client I think to understand how that retainer is being used.

Michelle: Absolutely. I think, again, it kind of highlights our point of preparation, coming to meetings, phone calls prepared with goals. What are you trying to accomplish? Not using those opportunities to vent too much. I mean, I think … I’m sure you can very much speak to this point, but you’re not a therapist.

Kara: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michelle: I’m sure you act like one at times, and since you specifically have a background in psychology, I’m sure you’re fabulous at it. But to really go in the meeting knowing who you’re talking to and what is the end goal of the call or the email, whatever you’re communicating about.

Kara: Absolutely.

Michelle: Is there anything else that you think I should be asking you that I haven’t touched on? Anything you think women in our audience need to know that would be helpful?

Kara: I think not to be scared. Not to be scared to make the phone call to get information. So many times people come to me and in the process of just meeting for the first time, they’ll express, “Oh, I’m just so relieved I finally did this. I should’ve come a year ago. I wish I would have met you six months ago.” Whatever the case may be, and what I always tell people is knowledge is power.

Just because you’ve come and you have gotten yourself educated does not mean you have to do anything with it, but you have it and it’s yours. Should you decide down the road to act on it, then at least the road forward will be a little clearer and a little less intimidating. I think that’s just taking that initial step can be I think the hardest thing for people to do even if they are just stepping in to get information. They don’t see it that way.

Michelle: Yeah. It’s so empowering. I think it’s so empowering to take that first step. Such wise, wise advice. I’m so grateful you shared that.

So where can people find you?

Kara: So I am in Manhattan, and I work for a firm Rower, LLC. It’s just www.rowerllc.com.

Michelle: Perfect. Thank you so much.

Kara: Thank you.

Michelle: I’ll tell you when I read your … Everyone needs to go on her website and look at her bio because when you’re looking for an attorney and representative, this is the type of woman you want. She has all the necessary background and clearly is an advocate for women and has just the most compassionate heart as well as being extremely experienced. So thank you. I am so grateful, and I’m sure all the women in my community are really grateful for your time today.

Kara: Oh, thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

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