Tuesday, June 17, 2008 • Hal Gartner, family law

Publisher’s note: This story originally appeared in the Tuesday, June 17, 2008, edition of the Lassen County Times.

A local attorney, Hal Gartner, points out some rather surprising effects of the slowing economy on family law. “Financial pressures, in general, certainly lead to strife in the marriage,” he said, “But it also, at the same time, when the economy is really poor, hampers people’s ability to go ahead and dissolve the marriage.”

The current economic downturn is having a significant impact on the number of divorces filed locally, according to family law attorney, Hal Gartner.

With more than 30 years of experience in family law — the last 2 1/2 in Susanville—Gartner is in a good position to assess the situation.

“I have certainly noticed over the course of the last few months,” he said, “that the number of matters appearing on the family law calendar has significantly decreased.”

This seems counterintuitive. With marital strife on the increase due to financial strain on the family budget, one might think that the number of divorces should be on the upswing. But contrary to casual perception, it’s going the other way.

“We seem to be seeing fewer,” said Gartner, emphasizing his point.

“Financial pressures, in general, certainly lead to strife in the marriage,” he said, acknowledging that these stresses can typically lead to divorce. Yet, those same money woes seem to be responsible for preventing many couples from seeking legal counsel.

“The economy causes an increase in dissolutions (divorce),” Gartner said, “but it also, at the same time, when the economy is really poor, hampers people’s ability to go ahead and dissolve the marriage.”

This directly affects attorney’s workload.

“Prior to the current economic conditions, … in family law I probably saw two to three consultations, minimum, a week … Now, it’s more like one, maybe two a week,” Gartner said, who is one of four attorneys in the law offices of Eugene Chittock. “So, that’s fallen off as well.”

Before the economic woes of skyrocketing gas and grocery prices beset us, there were typically 10 to 15 family law matters on the superior court docket each week, according to Gartner’s informal survey. Now there are only about three weekly —a  dramatic decline.

So, there seem to be more unhappy couples, but fewer formal divorces.

According to Gartner, many couples are simply hunkering down, living in an unhappy marriage because they consider the cost of divorce to be too high.

“There certainly are people who are, more and more, living under the same roof, even though they have separated, until they can try to work things out and separate finances.”

Others are trying the do-it-yourself route.

“A lot of people, in my experience, are separating, coming to some agreements of their own — sometimes acceptable and appropriate agreements, sometimes, in retrospect at least, not very appropriate,” Gartner said, bemoaning the fact good legal advice is readily available for very little cost to avoid mistakes. “The problems that can come up as a result are many. Understanding how the system works — what the basic rules are, at least — goes a long way toward avoiding mistakes.”

Saying that a little advice goes a long way, Gartner encouraged couples to see an attorney to keep their plans on a firm legal footing.

“You know, we are called ‘counselors at law,’ and there’s a reason for that. And that’s where the art comes in, thinking about the possibilities and what can be done.”

Garner is emphatic: Good legal advice is a must to avoid problems.

“I think it’s really important — whether it’s with this firm or any other lawyer in town that knows their stuff — to be sure to spend a minimal amount of money on a consultation at least, to get some direction and some understanding,” he said. “Very often, people enter into agreements, with the best of intentions, but they don’t have an understanding of the consequences.”

Most attorneys offer a discounted, one-hour consultation to answer questions and assess the situation.

“When people come in … and they have an agreement in mind between the two of them, we can properly go through the dissolution process for them, relatively inexpensively,” said Gartner. “We make sure the ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed, that things are done appropriately … That’s the least expensive thing that somebody can do to try and get a handle on what’s going on, what they should and should not do.”

Gartner said he often spends additional time with a new client, without charging.

“In all honesty, even though it’s supposed to be an hour, I typically end up doing anywhere from an hour to two hours for the same price.”

Not getting good advice can lead to devastating results. Said Gartner, “On the other hand, if they don’t come in earlier in the process, it’s very easy, then, to be dealt a hand that you don’t really like when you finally do come to the lawyer. I can’t urge people strongly enough to see an attorney.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes. I really can’t stress that enough.”

Any good attorney, according to Gartner, loses sleep at night over his clients’ predicaments.

“You bet. You care about your clients. You’re always thinking about what’s best for them, what can I do to really help them out in this situation. I can’t tell you how many times I wake up at night thinking about a given case and what I might be able to do. Would this work? Would that work?” he said. “If you care — and I think most of us do — those are the things that keep you awake at night.”