Asking For A Friend: Paul Simon and the Importance of Family Law

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Transcript

Jeb Butler:

It’s often the job of a lawyer to prepare us for things that we don’t even want to think about, and nowhere is that more true than in the area of family law, the area of law that deals with divorces, child custody, and fights among family members over money. Today, in Asking for a Friend, we’ll talk with a fellow named Paul Simon, who practiced at Hedgepeth Heredia, a well-respected family law law firm here in Atlanta.

Paul has worked his whole career in the area of family law. He’s gotten to the point where he started to win awards, like on the Super Lawyer list. He’s made partner at the firm and has focused on these issues that many of us hope we never have to deal with, for the entirety of his career, and he is really good at it. So today, I’ll ask Paul a whole bunch of questions about his practice area, and I know that I’ll learned a lot. I hope you’ll also find it informative.

Well, Paul, thanks for joining me today for the podcast. Give us a thumbnail sketch of what you do.

Paul Simon:

Certainly. Well first, thank you for wrapping me on beautiful Office. Hello to the millions watching at home. I’m a family law attorney. You may know it more as a domestic relations attorney. You may know it very simply as a divorce attorney. That means I handle divorces, custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, post-nuptial agreements, enforcement actions when it comes to those topics. That’s my general bailiwick, there.

Jeb Butler:

All right, good. So, you used a lot of words and most of them had multiple syllables, which means that I’m going to go back through and ask you what some of them mean. Divorce, pretty much got that. One of the ones you said that I didn’t follow, you said in enforcement action?

Paul Simon:

Right. So, an enforcement action, the shorthand for it is a contempt, it’s a contempt application. Basically, it boils down to a few ways. You’ve got an order, the person’s obligated to do something in an order. The person had the ability to do something.

Jeb Butler:

An order would be something the judge said?

Paul Simon:

Correct, yeah. Something that’s in writing and filed. And the judge said, “You got to do this.” So the person was ordered to do something, had the ability to do it, and they just chose not to do it.

Jeb Butler:

Child support.

Paul Simon:

Child support, that’s right, yeah.

Jeb Butler:

All right.

Paul Simon:

So, if someone is late a month or two, three months, whatever the case may be, you can bring what’s called a contempt application, an application for citation of contempt, file it with the court, serve the other party, and then you can get a hearing pretty quickly.

Jeb Butler:

So, in my world of civil personal injury cases, contempt usually means somebody didn’t do what the judge told him to do, so it’s contempt of court. Is that the same?

Paul Simon:

Same principle, same principle.

Jeb Butler:

All right. You talked about, I think you said prenups and maybe post-nup.

Paul Simon:

Right, right, right.

Jeb Butler:

Tell us what those are.

Paul Simon:

So, prenuptial agreements are basically a way where people can figure out how to divide up in the state, potentially how to determine alimony in the event of a divorce. So, a prenuptial agreement happens prior to marriage. A post-nuptial agreement happens after marriage, hence the pre and the post.

These can be as simple as we’re dividing everything up 50/50, we’ve got that in stone. It can be as complicated as husband’s keeping these, wife is keeping these, if we open a joint account and we both put money into it, we’re going to divide it 50/50. If we do this, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this. So, they’re very useful tools, especially for people who have means, or who may be on their second or third marriage as it were.

Jeb Butler:

[inaudible 00:03:53] that context. 

Paul Simon:

There you go. So, they’re very useful, and it really just depends on … No one gets married intending to get divorced, or at least we hope not, right?

Jeb Butler:

Right.

Paul Simon:

But there are some people who are like, “Listen … ” they’re very pragmatic about it, and they’re like, “There’s a 50% something rate of divorce in this country, and if this happens, we don’t want a long hard fight. And so, let’s just put this document together. We’ll put it in a drawer and we’ll never need it again.”

Jeb Butler:

Yeah. So, I guess I hear this, that maybe I wouldn’t have thought of right about most family lawyers, is that it’s not just after stuff has gone wrong, that you can get involved. They can be ahead of the game with the prenuptial agreement.

Paul Simon:

Correct.

Jeb Butler:

People get married and then they want to do a postnuptial.

Paul Simon:

100%, 100%. Happens pretty often. If there’s a life change or something, there’s a change in the relationship. If for whatever reason, the parties are living separately due to travel, due to work, due to just not wanting to live together anymore. But they want to stay married for certain reasons, access to health insurance for the kids, these sorts of things. And so, there are a variety of scenarios where people may say, “Listen, this isn’t working out. Let’s get this figured out. And then when it comes time, we have this document and we’ll do this.”

Jeb Butler:

I had not ever considered that. Older couples that are this kind of …

Paul Simon:

Yeah, I mean that’s certainly one of them. Older couples, people who are on their second, or third, or more marriage, who have been through it. Because divorce litigation can be hard. It can be really, really hard and you never want to go through it. But when you go through it once, and if it’s nasty, contentious case, you think to yourself, “My goodness, I don’t want to do that again.”

Jeb Butler:

Never again.

Paul Simon:

Never again, never again,

Jeb Butler:

Never again. I haven’t … fortunately have not had to go through this, but if I’m thinking about it from a perspective of someone who might be like, “Damn it, have I got to call Paul?” The nightmare scenario for me is children. Tell me about that.

Paul Simon:

So, it used to be in the state of Georgia that there was a presumption that the mother would have custody.

Jeb Butler:

I thought there still was?

Paul Simon:

There is not. That was removed decades ago. And now we have the statute, it’s 1993 if you want to look it up, if you want to look it up at home. And it lists out several factors which the court could consider. Ultimately, the court has to make a determination in a divorce, an the initial determination of custody about what custody and parenting time arrangement is in the best interest of the child. So, we look at the child’s connection to the community, we look at their academic performance, their medical needs, parents’ work schedule. I mean, it runs the gamut.

And then of course, as typically occurs at the end of that statute, at the end of that list of factors, is anything else the court wants to consider. So, pretty much everything can be relevant to the determination of custody.

Jeb Butler:

I heard you say this phrase that, now that you mentioned it, I’ve heard before. It comes to light in probate court, or you’re going to have to educate me on that, but best interest of the child. That’s like the main thing or the [inaudible 00:07:16].

Paul Simon:

That’s the only thing.

Jeb Butler:

That’s the only thing.

Paul Simon:

That’s the only thing. So superior court judges have complete and total discretion in determining what is in the best interest of the child. Even if it goes to a jury, 12 of our peers, the jury can’t determine custody. It lies exclusively with the judge.

Jeb Butler:

I did not know that.

Paul Simon:

And that’s one of those things that I’m sure, I’m sure Matt knows, I’m sure everybody, every attorney worth their assault knows. You got to know your judge, so you can be able to give someone an expectation of, “Oh, this judge likes to do this. This judge likes to do that. Oh, I was in front of this judge and we had similar facts,” is how it works. But generally speaking, and I say this to clients sometimes, and when it’s very contentious and people are … they’ve got their agita up a little bit, their spouse, it’s a custody battle, things like that, the judge cares about your child, cares so much about your child.

You go to court sometimes, or you watch any of these YouTube streams, you’ll hear a judge lecture people, “Y’all need to get along. Y’all brought a child into this world. That child didn’t choose to be here, so y’all got to get along and you figure it out because I care about this child.” So, judges have a ton of discretion and there’s no common definition in best interest. So, it really depends on who’s your judge.

Jeb Butler:

Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. No, your judge is key.

Paul Simon:

That’s right.

Jeb Butler:

Any part of our profession that deals with litigation.

Paul Simon:

That’s right.

Jeb Butler:

Before we started this interview, someone else in my office brought up a good point, something that we need to ask you about. Do you consult about maybe? Does that question make sense? Not yet, I can see.

Paul Simon:

Maybe will. You like that?

Jeb Butler:

Yeah, I think the way in which this question was intended is what if somebody … they don’t know? They don’t know, do they want a divorce? They don’t know, do they not. They don’t know what’s going to happen if they ask for it, can they call you and be like, “Paul, if I were to do this and I don’t want to, but if I did, what would happen?”

Paul Simon:

Absolutely. I mean, you know this, this litigation is maybe you can’t predict an outcome.

Jeb Butler:

Is what?

Paul Simon:

Litigation is maybe. You can’t predict an outcome. You can give them a good idea. So, if someone calls up and says, “I’m thinking about divorce, I don’t really understand it. I’ve been on the internet and I’m reading these things.” Absolutely, you talk through it. I mean, attorneys we’re here to advise and counsel, there are infinite scenarios, but I can give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.

For example, if you have a spouse that works all the time, travels all the time, the other spouse is at home taking care of the kids, making sure they get to school, making sure they get to doctor’s appointments, things like that. And the other spouse comes home, they spend time with the kids, kiss, kiss, dinner, go to bed. There’s a pretty realistic chance that the spouse that’s doing most of the heavy lifting there is going to be the primary physical custodian.

Jeb Butler:

And that’s just a matter of … meaning they have custody of the kids.

Paul Simon:

Correct. They have that. They would have the children most of the time, and the other parent would have parenting time. Not because the spouse is a bad parent, but because-

Jeb Butler:

Best interest of the child, like with talked about.

Paul Simon:

Best interest. That’s right. That’s the relationship. That’s been the relationship. That’s the way it works. And the thing about it is parents are allowed to come up with their own agreement. I tell clients all the time that you are always going to know your family better than the judge will. You’re always going to be able to know the specifics and figure out those little nuances that make your life work. Because we can throw together a boilerplate parenting plan. But is it going to address every nuance?

Jeb Butler:

Yeah, obviously not.

Paul Simon:

It’s not. It never is. For example, we can put … A boilerplate parenting plan is not going to have specific provisions about, “Oh well, sometimes this parent has to travel.” So they need to provide X days notice to make sure that they notify the other parent that, “Hey, I’m not going to be able to care for the children during this time.” And other little things like that. And there are some things that the court can’t order, that parties can agree to post-majority support. When a child is emancipated, when they’re no longer eligible for child support, the court’s not going to order college expenses, payment of college expenses. So, the parties can agree to it. And typically what courts will do when people reach an agreement on it, the court has an obligation to review that parenting plan, make sure that they find that it’s in a child’s best interest, and then they can make an order of the court.

Jeb Butler:

Yeah, yeah, all right. Let me ask you some other things. I have a friend whose wife works with DFCS in Florida. And sometimes parents get their kids taken by DFCS and they’ll like … I mean, it’s scary to talk about, but maybe they had a problem, they get past it, we want to get their kids back. Is this something that you do?

Paul Simon:

That is not something that we handle? Well, first off, those are extraordinarily tough cases. But I mean, they’re extraordinarily tough cases. Well, I’ve had occasion where DFCS has been involved in cases of mine. And it’s a whole thing with DFCS. You have to work with the agent and all that sort of stuff. But what you’re talking about is a deprivation proceeding, where a child is found to be deprived for whatever reason. And they’re taken into, for lack of a better word, state custody. And all of those actions take place in the juvenile court. And the juvenile court has its own set of rules different from the superior court.

Jeb Butler:

Your superior court.

Paul Simon:

Correct. All domestic relations actions exist from the Superior Court for each county and for each circuit. So we do not handle deprivation actions. We do not handle termination of parental rights actions. Parental rights can only be terminated in the juvenile court, so that is … but we’re very fortunate to have excellent, excellent attorneys here who practice the juvenile court and who handle those sorts of things. But we unfortunately see it all the time, in relation to cases, in some unfortunate circumstances.

Jeb Butler:

Let’s talk about something happy. Tell us about adoptions. Can you do that.

Paul Simon:

Adoptions are so fun. Adoptions are so fun. I mean, it’s just so great. We do stepparent adoptions. We do stepparent adoptions, basically when a parent, biological parent, remarries and that the new spouse, the step spouse, however you want to put it, stepmother and stepfather or stephusband, and stepfather, stepmother, they got a great relationship with the kids. And then they start talking about, “Well, do you want to adopt?” Maybe the biological dad is in the picture, maybe they’re not in the picture. These sorts of things. And basically you have to do a ton of paperwork as you can expect.

You have to do background checks, you have to do a little bit of a home inspection. If the biological father’s in the picture, you got to have a voluntary waiver of rights. But so, all the paperwork is one thing, but the actual adoption hearing itself is the most fun that I think any family law attorney can have.

Jeb Butler:

So, I heard that. I’ve not ever been to one. Tell us about it.

Paul Simon:

They’re great.

Jeb Butler:

Tell us about it.

Paul Simon:

So, you go into the courtroom and typically, what the judge will do is they’ll have their own special calendar. So, if the regular calendar is called at 9:00, they’ll say, “Get here at 8:30.” So, you get there and you can bring all your family and you can bring your friends and it will just be you and your family, and the child and the judge and your attorney, and the judge will be up there and say, “Welcome to our adoption calendar. We have the matter of Smith here. I see that everyone’s present. Mr. Simon, looks like the paperwork is in order.” And then depending on your judge, they’ll have some fun with it. They’ll go to the adopting parent and they’ll say, “I’m looking at this child. Are you sure? Are you sure you want to do this?” “Of course, judge, absolutely sure. I love this child and I really want to be their father.”

And then they’ll look down at the child, depending on the age. I’m like, “Are you sure this guy? Are you good with this? Are you good with this?: And the child gets all bashful. They’re like, “Yes, he’s good.” And the judge would be like, “What do y’all do for fun?” “We go play baseball. We go to football games,” all this sort of stuff. And the judge is like, “Well, if you say so, I am going to grant the adoption. Congratulations everyone.”

And then the best part about it, the best part about it, is that the judge will come down from the bench and take pictures. Judge Kell, who just retired from the bench in Cobb County, he always had these little tchotchkes he’d give away. He had a little pencil with a gavel at the end of it as the eraser. They are the best. I could do those all day. They’re fantastic.

Jeb Butler:

That’s super thorough. Super cool. All right, Paul, there’s a couple more things I want to cover with you. Well, three more. One is business-like and for you, it’s the guts of what you do. Another is a story that I’ve heard about but not heard you tell. And then in the middle of those, we’ll squeeze what most people want to know, which is how much money are you going to charge me?

So, before we get to that, tell me this. If you’re rolling into a divorce, how the heck do you know who’s going win? If nobody agrees, you got to fight it out. There’s this superior court judge sitting up there looking grumpy, maybe more. What’s the judge going to do? I mean, is it just like who cheated on who? Are we talking about something else? Educate us.

Paul Simon:

A win is relative. I mean, you’re dealing with a situation for these folks that’s probably the, if not the, then one of, the most awful experiences of their lives.

It’s tough, so conduct during the marriage is completely and totally relevant in terms of dividing up assets, what we call equitable division. It can be relevant for alimony, it can be relevant for purposes of attorney’s fees. Especially if we’ve had some bad, bad acts during the litigation and maybe we’ve got a spouse that’s got all the money and the other parent really doesn’t, or the other spouse really doesn’t.

So, it’s very much on a case by case basis. And that’s part of knowing your judge and that’s part of … and another thing it’s part of, is just being able to spot it. You see something and you’re like, “Oh, there’s an issue, there’s a problem.”

Jeb Butler:

So, everybody knows that you’re not supposed to be running around cheating. What are the other things you see where you’re like, “Oh, you’re getting hammered for that?” Or, “That was great. You’re going to probably get a benefit for that.”

Paul Simon:

One of the things we see most commonly is a lack of financial transparency, where one person is controlling all the accounts. Sure, they’re jointly titled, but the other spouse, even though they’re asking for it, isn’t being granted access to it. “Why do you care? What are you worried about? We’re set. Don’t worry about it.” They don’t know what things cost. They don’t know whose name is on the mortgage. They don’t know how much debt the family has. They don’t know how many credit cards they have in their own name, these sorts of things. That’s one thing we see all the time. And then generally lying. Just lying.

Lying about your whereabouts, lying about who you were with, lying about where you were. These sorts of things. Once that honesty starts breaking down, once that communication and honesty really start breaking down, that’s when the trouble starts.

Jeb Butler:

You know what, man? And that is going to be the fourth question, Paul Simon’s keys to a happy marriage. Or at least not totally fucking it up. I don’t know if I’m allowed to cuss. Wait, it’s my podcast. I can.

Paul Simon:

It’s your podcast. I think you can do what you want.

Jeb Butler:

I guess so, anyway, hit it.

Paul Simon:

To not messing up a marriage?

Jeb Butler:

Yeah.

Paul Simon:

Gosh.

Jeb Butler:

[inaudible 00:19:19]Paul Simon:

[inaudible 00:19:19]. 

Jeb Butler:

I feel like you nailed it with the first one. When the lying starts, you got a problem.

Paul Simon:

Yeah. I mean, it does. It does. It’s just everyone’s texting, everyone’s sending emails, everyone’s got social media, everyone’s got Facebook. You can have all these conversations in the house as much as you want. And it’s he said, she said, hopefully no one’s recording anything. But we can get all your text messages, we can get all your emails. So if you tell your spouse, “Yeah, I’m in the hotel tonight. I’m in traveling for work. I’m in Cincinnati and I’m just going to take it easy.” And then all of a sudden, one of your work colleagues who happens to be friends with your spouse on social media, and who comes over to your house for barbecues, shares a picture of them, your spouse at the club. You have problems.

Jeb Butler:

It’s not great.

Paul Simon:

Not great.

Jeb Butler:

It’s not great at all, yeah.

Paul Simon:

It’s not even being at the club. It is not even being at the club. It’s not being transparent about it. That’s what it is. Because it’s the deceit and the manipulation of it. That’s where it starts. That’s where it starts. So, advice for happy marriage, don’t lie.

Jeb Butler:

All right, so that’s that. And now we have money. If I got to hire you, how bad is it going to hurt? I don’t think your cheap, you got a fancy jacket on you there, you talk pretty.

Paul Simon:

I talk pretty. I literally got this from a thrift store in Mountain Brook, Alabama. So, say what you will about Mountain Brook.

Jeb Butler:

It looks good, maybe I’ll go.

Paul Simon:

So, that’s always a question. That’s a question you always get. How much is this going to cost? And the answer is, I don’t know. I can’t tell you. What I can tell you is my hourly rate, 375 per hour, retainer agreements. It really depends on the case. I mean, if it’s a simple, uncontested case, uncontested meaning we’ve got everything figured out, we just need an attorney to put together the documents, here you go. It can be 2,500 and if it gets really complicated, it can go up from there. But it’s one of those things where it’s expensive.

One of the ways that I look at this as lawyers, is we’re there to advise and counsel. I’m never going to tell a client something just to get money out of their pocket. I think that’s a bad business practice. I think it’s bad for your reputation and word gets around. It’s Atlanta. This is a small legal community here.

Jeb Butler:

Amen to that.

Paul Simon:

So, I’m always going to give somebody options. Like, “Look, here are your options. Here’s what I think the best option is. And here’s an estimate of what it’s going to take time-wise.” So, what a divorce costs, it depends, but it’s directly related to how contentious you want it to be.

Jeb Butler:

I had one friend tell me, “You know why divorce costs so much?” You’ve heard this.

Paul Simon:

It’s worth it.

Jeb Butler:

Because it’s worth it.

Paul Simon:

Yeah, because it’s worth it.

Jeb Butler:

I guess, here’s the thing. 375 an hour, Paul sounded like a lot of money to me. Am I going to get what I paid for?

Paul Simon:

And more. And more, I mean, look, I may be too Type A about my cases because it’s a business. [inaudible 00:22:36], you’re a professional. You’re advising, you’re counseling. You don’t mix feelings. But at the same time, these people are trusting you. These people are trusting you to give them objective, good counsel. And they’re paying you a handsome penny for it. And so, it starts from the top down. So, we have fantastic paralegals at the firm who handle a lot of that paperwork. And I’m always there and I’m always available-

Jeb Butler:

And their hour rate … it’s good for your client because their hourly rate is 200 an hour.

Paul Simon:

Their hourly rate is $200 per hour. They’ll handle all the paperwork, gathering documents, drafting discovery, these sorts of things. I always have my eye on two things financially when it comes down to it. First, the bottom line. How much does a client want to spend in terms of getting a divorce? And then how can we best position ourself in the unfortunate event when we go to trial, to get an award of attorney’s fees? Always keep an eye on.

Jeb Butler:

You mean, so the other person has to pay them and not your client?

Paul Simon:

Correct. That’s right. That’s right.

Jeb Butler:

All right. I’ve heard about a story that told you you’re on the right legal track. I know that you have the story. I hadn’t heard it, but I look forward to it. So, proceed sir.

Paul Simon:

I’ve been doing this for 10 years now and people are just like, “How did you get into this field that’s so-”

Jeb Butler:

[inaudible 00:24:00] it seems hard, it seems hard. 

Paul Simon:

Right, yeah, there you go. I mean, it’s hard. I mean, that’s part of what attracted me to it. And you’re like, “How did you get into this field that’s so contentious, and so personal, and so emotional, and how do you compartmentalize it?” And at first, I wasn’t sure. I started doing it because it was difficult. I liked a challenge and I got into it because you’re dealing with real people, dealing with something. You’re dealing with these people’s kids. You’re dealing with something so important. The most important thing, and I’ve never backed down from a challenge and I enjoyed it, but it was about, gosh, four years in my career so, gosh, several years ago, had a case up in North Georgia and it involved custody of an 18-month-old child whose biological mother was a drug addict, a habitual drug addict.

And the incident that sparked it was that the biological mother was found overdosed. And the child goes into state’s custody. We get a call from a family member, who get emergency sole custody of the child. A year later, we get to trial, we go the whole day, we’re ready. We’re prepared for it. We’ve been waiting to make this permanent. And we did a good job of it and the judge gave us everything we were asking for.

And so, we walk out of the courthouse and big hugs. It was myself and Hannibal Heredia, who’s our managing partner. We walk out of the courthouse and big hugs with the clients, all these sort of things. Here are next steps, putting an order together, all this sort of stuff. And so, I was just an associate because I’m partner now. And I remember they walked off and I’m standing there with Hannibal and we’re just talking about what do we need to do next? All this sorts of stuff, some nuances, things like that. And I remember just stopping and we’re dog tired. It’s been a dog fight all day.

And I remember just feeling a rush and I looked at Hannibal, “I’m like, you know what? That was cool.” I get the butterflies just thinking about it because that was really the first moment where I was like, “Wow. Wow.”

Jeb Butler:

A right thing happened. It would not have happened but for your involvement.

Paul Simon:

Really made a difference. And what’s great about it, Jed? What’s great about it is that the clients still send us pictures of the kid, I mean-

Jeb Butler:

So, you’re watching the kid grow up.

Paul Simon:

It is just ongoing proof. That was the right up outcome. That was the right thing that happened. And it gives me chills to this day because it meant … That case meant and means so much to me. Because my goodness, that was unequivocally, unequivocally a good thing.

Jeb Butler:

Thanks for talking to us.

Paul Simon:

How’s that for a story? Thanks Jed, appreciate it.

Jeb Butler:

It was good, I liked it.

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