Opportunity to talk with attorneys 'up close and personal' offered

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

On Tuesday, the Grand Rapids Bar Association and the Grand Rapids Library invited the public in for a one-hour session where family law attorneys made themselves available to answer any and all questions.

About two dozen people availed themselves of the opportunity.

Presenter Stephanie Newton of Newton Law Offices said afterwards, “I wish there had been more, but even if we can help two people solve their problems, it’s worth it.”

The program was part of the “Ask the Lawyer” series, sponsored by the Community Services Committee of GRBA as an outreach activity to offer guidance to those who may not be sure whether they need a lawyer or not.

Dedicated GRBA volunteer Thomas Behm, attorney at Gruel Mills Nims and Pylman, said that the local bar association has a long history of offering ask-a-lawyer events. There even used to be a television show, he noted in his introduction Tuesday evening.

Behm also directed attendees’ attention to informational brochures about the services offered by Legal Aid of Western Michigan, the Legal Assistance Center and GRBA’s Lawyer Referral Service.

Two other members of the GRBA Community Service Committee presented on the heart of the matter: divorce, custody, and child support issues.

Michelle McLean of Bulhouse, Baar and Lefere gave a general overview of what family law includes, focusing on custody. She gave an overview of some of the issues and terminology, emphasizing that once a “custodial environment” is established, there must be clear and convincing evidence to convince a judge to change it — going on to explain what a high standard “clear and convincing” is.

McLean’s unusual career path included working for over 15 years in various capacities for a mortgage lender before receiving her J.D. cum laude from Michigan State University in 2007, and joining Bulhouse, Baar and Lefere in 2011. Family Law is not her only specialty; she also works in real estate, consumer, and criminal law.

She made the distinction between joint legal and joint physical custody for the audience members, emphasizing that the courts are always going to do what they deem best for the child.

Stephanie Newton spoke about the Friend of the Court and child support. She cautioned that it is always in the best interests of a person who pays child support to report any changes in income, even if that will result in higher payments, and added that payments made through the Friend of the Court rather than directly to the parent are the best hedge against a disputed payment history.

Solo practitioner Newton focuses all her attention on family law. She is  active in several GRBA sections, including serving as vice-chair of the Young Lawyers Section.

When it came time for the audience to ask their questions, a few people had very specific inquiries and were encouraged to speak to the attorneys after the program ended.

Most of the other questions were fairly specific as well, but the attorneys were able to speak to them in a general enough way that they provided information for all.

They included:

—“What rights do I have as a grandparent?” followed by “What if the child is already living with me?” (The questioner was advised to file a petition for guardianship.)

—“Does the person who receives support have to show that it goes to the child?” (No, but if the non-custodial parent suspects it is not, they should file a complaint.)

—“How will it affect my child support payments if my ex-wife remarries and decides she does not want to work and bring in income?” (The attorneys said this would depend on a lot of factors, but urged him to talk to the Friend of the Court as soon as possible.)

McLean and Newton generously stayed about a half hour after the session ended giving in-depth answers to those who had more complex concerns.

There are three more Ask-the-Lawyer sessions scheduled for 2012, all at the Grand Rapids Public Library downtown: on Jan. 17, the topic will be bankruptcy; on Mar. 20,  tenants’ rights and landlord tenant disputes); and on May 15, Social Security and Disability payments.

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